How A Focus On Quality And Discipline Revived Healthline Media

Healthline Media embarked on the road to recovery by taking a content-focused approach to health information. The profitable company racked up more than $100 million in revenue last year.

With audience growth rates topping 60% year over year, Healthline is on the cusp of eclipsing slow-growing WebMD as the web’s top health property.

The ascension has been eight years in the making.

Back in 2011, the VC-backed dot-com startup was in decline. It was losing money, and the media business had lost its way. Instead of creating its own content, it licensed content, creating quality issues.

Healthline Media decided to invest $1 million in its own content in 2011. Two years later, it saw a return on that content investment, setting off a period of steady growth. In 2016, private equity firm Summit Partners invested in the company, buying out the VC backers.

Today, Healthline employs 150 clinicians to review articles and cites academic research in stories. When Google revamped its search algorithm in fall 2018, with the “Medic” update, which changed the rankings for health sites based on the quality of their content, Healthline saw even more organic traffic sent its way.

“We believe in quality and discipline,” said Healthline Media CEO David Kopp, who joined as SVP in 2010. “If you insist on consistent improvement and measuring the things you want to improve, you will continue to succeed.”

Kopp talked to AdExchanger about how Healthline uses data for its disciplined approach to content and advertising.

AdExchanger: How does Healthline’s approach extend to its advertising?

DAVID KOPP: When we sell an ad campaign with an advertiser, most people would say that represents somewhere between the midpoint and end of the process. For us, it’s the beginning.

We’re disciplined about understanding success. We insist on clear KPIs so we know if we succeed. For the 150 [direct] advertisers, we track several hundred data points internally and monitor and optimize against those in addition to what they require of us. Ninety-four percent of the campaigns we track meet or exceed advertiser benchmarks.

What kind of metrics are in those data points?

For about 32% of our advertisers, their first or second metric is audience quality, or cost per qualified user: Are you reaching my target customer? For pharma, it might be someone diagnosed with a disease, and for a hospital, it might be someone looking for an ER in a geographic area.

Does your background as a marketer inform how Healthline works with advertisers?

I ran marketing for a high-growth area of Disney and was trained by a bunch of ex-Clorox brand managers. They had a very quantitative discipline of “measure, improve” in how they approached marketing.

At Healthline, [we] measure and optimize everything. We’ve grown because of the care we take in managing our advertisers’ budgets and campaigns. We want to take good care of them because we want to get more of their budgets than last year. 

If you work with 150 direct advertisers, do you sell programmatic, too?

The majority of our business is direct. In the health channel, because of the complexity, the regulation, the specificity of targeting, the majority of spend is direct. In our non-direct area, we have thousands of advertisers.

What has the rise of programmatic meant for Healthline, if most of its business is still direct?

You can have a direct relationship via a programmatic channel. Private marketplaces are one of the fastest growing areas of programmatic spend – last month was the largest PMP spend in our history. Our experience compared to other publishers has been very similar there.

The question is how to deliver enough value to an advertiser that they want to work with you directly vs. buying you in the open market. There is no magic. If you spend enough time understanding their needs, you can deliver better performance and they’ll buy more from you.

How does Healthline run targeted advertising that’s respectful to users?

The anchor offering is condition-targeted, not audience segments. We think that marketers should be advertising their product on content that is relevant to the product, and we give them a way to focus their spend on content that is relevant for the product. We assume nothing about the users. That is the best way to do it, a privacy and regulation-friendly way.

Contextual targeting is on the rise overall, because it offers a privacy-safe way to target. How do you do it?

We spend engineering time and editorial time understanding what a piece of content is about. Having both is important. We brought in one of the world’s foremost experts in linguistic machine learning to understand at a technical level how to categorize content. Then an editor will validate that categorization, which makes their job more efficient. It’s important to have both an engineering solution and a human solution. 

Many health publishers see the bulk of their traffic from search, where people are asking Dr. Google about symptoms. Is that true for Healthline?

The primary use case is they go to Google, and Google sends them somewhere. Increasingly, Google sends them to Healthline.

We’d like to get a more personalized, direct relationship with users. Our newsletter growth is massive. We added over 1 million subscribers last year to our newsletter. That’s a different type of relationship. The consumer is inviting you in because they want you on their journey. We’re doing similar things in the app world. We have thousands of users on condition-specific apps, where they are connecting with users who have the same medical condition they do.

Publishers are often at the mercy of platforms. How well do search platforms reward quality content right now?

We are constantly trying to improve even our highest quality articles. Google is the same way with their algorithm. It’s better today than it was 10 years ago. You find a lot less snake oil, poorly referenced articles and wrong article. Are they perfect? No. I’m sure they have a long lists of things they want to improve. We feel confident in their ability and our ability to improve. 

Besides having medical experts vet content, how do you use data to make the content better?

Building systems that give you feedback to make your product better is how you build a true quality product. Every article has a feedback widget. Last year we got 48,000 pieces of feedback and read and categorized each one of them. Forty thousand were positive, which is fabulous. Many thousands were neutral. Then there were a few hundred that said, “This article could be better if you did X.”

Those comments are gold. We ended up updating several hundred articles based on that process, and we have a few people whose whole job is to make that relentless improvement.

Many VC-backed publishers have struggled recently. Is private equity a better model than VC funding for media?

There are certainly aspects of the VC approach that can create complications for media businesses. A blind focus on growth without quality, or growth over quality, means you end up with an unstable or undisciplined business. There’s not a strong foundation underneath. That’s not true of every VC firm. We built a business with a broad, solid foundation that attracted a PE investor.

What’s changed after being acquired by a private equity firm?

Our ability to answer with numbers why something is the way it is [is] certainly better than three years ago, and it’s resulted in a higher quality overall. PE films in general are quantitatively disciplined, and what attracted them to our business was our discipline. 

Publishers are diversifying revenue. Is Healthline participating in that trend?

We have diversified revenue. Even within advertising, we do performance advertising, social advertising, content marketing and your typical brand or awareness advertising. We also have a burgeoning, high-growth affiliate business. We have an article on our site about weighted blankets, which are good for anxiety. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make that article useful for people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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