July Memo - Chapter 1

July Memo - Chapter 1

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Maxwell Ryan
Jul 1, 2014

MAY 2014

Apartment Therapy

8,422,918 (record for 2014)

up 9% from April

up 13% from May 2013

Comscore rank: 10th of all Home Sites

The Kitchn

11,446,884 (record for 2014)

up 3% from April

up 67% from May 2013

Comscore rank: 18 of all Food Sites

Dear Team,

I’ve been away on vacation and had some time to think for the first time in months. It’s been wonderful, and good proof that vacations are necessary and useful, besides being fun. What I have been thinking about is that we’ve just passed the half year mark and things are going well, but some issues have popped up that I want to address.

This is a long memo, so I’m going to break it into pieces. This is chapter one.

After a surprising autumn in which we saw our audience numbers drop precipitously on AT and rocket up on KT due to shifts on the web, both editorial teams have sharpened their efforts by restructuring editorial calendars, discarding weak posts, studying traffic analytics on a daily basis and engaging with our readers much more closely through our growing social media channels. And our tech team has sped up their pace and pushed out two flawless redesigns giving us a strong mobile presence and front page that allows us to promote our strongest content more easily as well as projecting a much more consistent image of what we’re about in both food and design. All of these things were big goals for the first half year.

The result is not only that our audience is growing again on both sites, but it’s growing at a healthier, steady rate with increases across direct, search and social channels.

All of this is super satisfying, but not earth shatteringly exciting. We battened down the hatches and plugged all the major holes and can feel the wind at our back again, but where are we going? What are our big goals? Can anyone remember what we talked about last December?

In the early years I had countless big ideas and we were able to put lots of them into practice quickly, launching multiple sites, building a marketplace, etc, but over the past few years we’ve gotten even bigger and the focus has been going a bit more slowly so that we could clean up and optimize our foundation and be much smarter about building new features in unison with editorial, ad sales and tech teams. It’s been a little less about “what cool things can we do?” and more about “What should we be responsible about and fix up next?”

I personally have been working on better communication with all four teams and tracking against shared goals so that we could work smarter, measure our own success and have a better idea of where we would all be in twelve months.

But with all of this something has been missing.

While I’ve been focusing on our step by step through this year and we’ve all been good about putting into practice our ENGAGE theme for this year, I haven’t spent much time this year talking about the bigger picture, and a few of you have brought this up.

Fair enough. The web publishing world continues to evolve at a rapid rate, embracing survivors who understand the ecosystem and discarding the weak, so let’s talk about it right here and let me give you the big picture again.

THE FIELD

We see consolidation of sites at Vox, the shuttering of Daily Candy, the fame of VICE (particularly their videos), the orphaning of all of TIME Inc’s magazines and sites, the continuing rise of the Buzzfeed and Houzz machines (two zz’s no longer mean sleepy), and the eternal authority of the Gawker sites where great writing drives traffic as much as technology does.

Many conclusions could be drawn from looking around at all of this, but to me the lesson here is simple: make great content that is truly thoughtful, useful or entertaining AND make sure to distribute it really, really well. Great content with poor distribution? You’re dead. Poor content with great distribution? You may get a little further, but you’ll be dead sooner or later too.

But writing good stuff and making sure it gets to the right people is not that easy anymore. Let’s take a look at it.

DISTRIBUTION

At first distribution was email, then it was via blog post, and in the last few years we’ve added a whole suite of social media outlets. It used to be 100% desktop and now it’s only 50% desktop and still shifting to mobile. It used to be weekdays only and now weekends are big online times.

To be in the running you need to be keeping up with all of this and constantly be figuring out the right cocktail, ie where your readers are. Readers are moving around and trying new things all the time. They are in transition. To be relevant you need to move with them and stay top of mind. They LOVE finding their favorite sites in new places and forget them if they aren’t there. And because this is such a transitional time you really can’t judge something until you try it, so you try them all and see how it works.

Is there more we could be doing here? Yes, but I think we’re doing very well and moving as quickly as we can to achieve goals in this area given our resources. A lot of the distribution problem is solved technically, and we’ll need to keep adding to our present tech team in order to speed up the rate at which we can redesign and refeature.

Having more money (ie investors) can grow your development team as well as your audience development team quickly, and can really boost your distribution. A number of sites have done this with largely positive results. The only catch here is that if you take on a lot of money you HAVE to spend it towards rapid growth and you generally have to plan to sell your company soon after. People don’t give you money without expecting it back in larger amounts in a relatively short timeframe.

This is not a path I have chosen to follow and I’ve been really proud of the way in which we’ve made enough money every year to invest back into the company and grow at a slower, but healthy rate. When you look around at other sites, a lot of them are on this path so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

If we don’t grow our distribution faster or invest a lot more money in our teams will we sputter and fail? I don’t think so. We need to keep growing relative to our competitors and the broader field, but so far we’re continuing to do this under our own steam, while retaining our independence and flexibility.

Next let’s look at content.

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