With so much negative coverage of publishing, we at Bibblio are shining a spotlight on the many vertical publishers that are thriving. Welcome to the “Vertical Heroes” series of interviews.
The global political landscape is as volatile as ever, with populism, discontent, and sabre-rattling, fueled by economic and environmental instabilities, set to hog the center stage for years to come. Publications such as World Politics Review are ideally positioned to report on these ever-changing developments. Founded in 2006, WPR’s Brooklyn-based operation strives to be non-partisan, but they say their coverage of global affairs broadly reflects a “liberal internationalist” view of the world. They’re a for-profit, privately owned company, who are “committed to integrity, quality, and the principles of an intellectually honest press whose exclusive purpose is to inform readers”.
Bibblio’s CEO Mads Holmen caught up with WPR’s founder Hampton Stephens to talk growth strategies, driving engagement and email newsletters as a gateway to subscription.
MADS: HI HAMPTON. LET’S START BY FINDING OUT WHO IS WPR FOR?
Hampton: At WPR we exclusively cover global affairs, so our core audience is made up of those who have some professional need to keep informed about these issues and events. This includes researchers, academics, policymakers, journalists and the like.
Having said that, our editorial approach is to make our content as accessible as possible for a wide audience, without dumbing it down. We intentionally avoid jargon-heavy and dense language. So our subscribers also include many who have a personal interest in global affairs and like to keep informed about what’s happening around the world, whether or not they use the information we provide in their jobs.
M: WHAT DIFFERENT TYPES OF CONTENT ARE YOU OFFERING?
H: Other than our twice-weekly podcast, WPR consists mostly of text products. But we publish text in a variety of formats because we believe that different issues and stories are better served by different formats. We publish short Q&As, email newsletters, 1,000-word op-ed style analyses, long-form in-depth reported pieces, and more.
We publish new content every weekday, about 80 or so new articles every month. So we produce enough volume to cover the entire world really well, but we don’t do quantity for the sake of quantity. If you were an especially committed reader, it would be possible to read everything we publish. If you did so, you would be extraordinarily informed about the breadth of issues and events in global affairs, including what’s currently in the headlines of the mainstream press, as well as quieter stories that have not yet broken through to the front pages but are indicators of important global trends.
In addition to our original content, we provide a service to our readers that is called the News Wire, which allows our readers to essentially outsource their daily news scan to our editors. We don’t publish up-to-the-minute breaking news, but we know some of our readers need to follow the news very closely, so every weekday we compile for them a list of the 20 or so must-read news and opinion items from the world’s English-language press.
M: HOW BIG IS THIS TEAM AND WHAT SIZE OF AUDIENCE?
H: We are a small operation. We have six full-time staff, including myself. About 90% of the content we publish, however, is written by expert outside contributors. We have a network of hundreds of these outside contributors who write for us on a regular basis.
We don’t publicize exact numbers right now, but we have hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to our website, and tens of thousands of users access World Politics Review each year through some sort of paid subscription, whether it’s an individual subscriber or someone who accesses our site through an institutional subscription that is paid for by their school or employer.
Hundreds of institutions subscribe, including academic libraries, government agencies, corporations, non-profit organizations, think tanks, and the like. Most institutional subscriptions provide access to all students or employees at a given location.
M: YOU’VE GROWN IMPRESSIVELY – WHAT HAS BEEN THE SECRET SAUCE?
H: We have grown well lately, but we’ve been around for more than 12 years, so I think it would do your readers a disservice to pretend that we have always grown quickly, or that our journey has always been an easy one. The truth is that there is no secret sauce. The business we are in is a tough one. It is very competitive, and you have to do a lot of small things right to survive and have success. Having said that, I would identify the following values or characteristics as having been key to getting us to where we are now:
Commitment to quality: WPR’s mission is to provide in-depth news and expert analysis on global affairs to our readers. There have been opportunities along the way to compromise on the quality of our content, and there have been times when such compromises could have benefited our business in the short term. But we have always felt that we would rather not exist than compromise on the quality of what we publish.
Persistence: Our belief in our mission, in the importance of what we’re doing, has given us the will to persevere in the face of difficulty. Probably at times we have persevered when it would have been more pragmatic and reasonable not to. I would not offer any categorical advice here. I can’t say persistence always wins out, but for us staying the course has worked out. Probably because it’s been accompanied by…
Constant learning: When it comes to the business of online publishing, we have always sought to learn, and have institutionalized the process of learning by approaching everything we do in a spirit of discovery and experimentation. We try new things, we measure the results, and we grow what works. We have been students of the subscription business, and over the years have slowly and steadily learned more and more about what works for our audience, and about how to grow our subscriber base.
M: HOW DO YOU PRIORITIZE ATTRACTING NEW AUDIENCES VS. ENGAGING EXISTING USERS DEEPER?
H: Both are very important. To grow subscribers, you have to attract new ones and retain a high percentage of existing ones. You can’t retain users unless they are engaged. So both are high priorities. At the moment, however, I spend more of my time on attracting new subscribers. Because we have always had limited resources, and therefore a small staff on the business and marketing side, we tackled these priorities in stages.
We focused first on getting the product right and engaging and retaining those users who sort of found us on their own. Now we have retention and engagement measures in place that are working, so we spend more time growing our audience and exposing our product to more people around the world. We have a set of key performance indicators that we update monthly. These KPIs include a number of measures of retention, engagement and new growth, and we monitor them all closely.
M: HOW ARE YOU RETAINING YOUR AUDIENCES?
H: There are a lot of ways we do this, but I would say the most important tool we have for engaging both subscribers and potential subscribers alike are our email newsletters. When someone is a subscriber, they have access to several daily and weekly subscriber-only email newsletters that push our content to their inbox and then lead them back to the site.
For those who are not yet subscribers, our top priority when they visit our website is capturing their email address and getting them on our free newsletter list. Our suite of free newsletters are designed to give them a taste of what we offer, and lead them down the path to becoming a subscriber so they have full access.
Before we capture their email address, engaging them on the site when they arrive is important. Bibblio is a big part of this, as it automatically serves up content related to the article they are reading, which gets them to click through to more.
M: AND WE’RE PLEASED TO HELP! WHAT ARE THE KEY AUDIENCE METRICS THAT YOU’RE DEFINING SUCCESS BY?
H: There are so many, but at the moment, we are most focused on the top of our sales funnel, and the key metrics there are the growth of organic search traffic, and the growth of our free email list. We focus on the growth of organic search traffic because that’s our top source of exposure to new audiences, and one that we can influence at a reasonable cost.
Our free email list growth is determined by what percentage of our traffic is captured as email addresses, and then how well they engage and remain interested once they subscribe to the free email newsletter list. Every month, we purge everyone from our free list who hasn’t opened an email in the last 90 days, so growth of that list depends on adding more than we purge each month.
If we grow the top of that funnel, we know we can grow subscribers if we keep other key metrics further down the funnel in a good range, such as how many of our free email subscribers sign up to take a trial each month, how many of those convert to annual subscriptions, how often our subscribers login, the churn rate of annual subscribers, etc.
M: DEFINE WHAT SEO MEANS TO YOU THESE DAYS. ARE WE TALKING KEYWORDS, PAGE SPEED, ENGAGEMENT?
H: Our basic SEO strategy is to identify articles that are already ranking well on Google, determine the keywords that are driving that engagement, and optimize those articles to further boost their organic search traffic. When we optimize, we are very careful not to impact the editorial quality of those articles, so things like changing the text that the author originally wrote are off limits. But we have a good set of protocols for optimization that can give these articles a bit of extra SEO mojo while maintaining their editorial integrity.
I would say that less than 2 percent of our total archives have received this optimization treatment, but that’s enough to significantly impact our traffic. We use a very small stable of very popular articles to bring in a plurality of our traffic, and then we count on readers clicking around to discover more about what we do.
Bibblio is a big part of driving engagement once a new user lands on our site as the result of a search. On any article page, readers are able to see related articles which may pique their interest. As most of those who arrive from Google are at that moment interested in exploring specific subjects, the fact that Bibblio is able to automatically surface other articles on that subject is a help, obviously.
At the moment we are seeing about a 6% click-through rate from article pages to Bibblio recommendations. The next step after initially engaging a new user is, as mentioned above, to capture their email address for our free list so we can give them a further introduction to what we offer.
Page speed is something that we definitely monitor but have only begun to address aggressively lately. We are in the process of a number of technological upgrades to our infrastructure to increase page speed.
M: ONCE AGAIN, WE’RE SO PLEASED YOU’RE ENJOYING SUCH HEALTHY ENGAGEMENT BY US! BESIDES BIBBLIO, HOW ELSE ARE YOU DRIVING ENGAGEMENT WHEN READERS LAND ON YOUR SITE?
H: Well, I don’t want to say too much about this, but we have ways of making our paywall somewhat porous for certain users arriving from certain locations, so that they can see the first article they happen upon without hitting our paywall. This gives them a taste of what we do, then they hit the paywall upon clicking around further. For users who do hit our paywall, we offer to send them an article they are interested in if they provide their email address.
Unlike many subscription-supported publishers, we don’t have a metered paywall that allows a user to read X articles per month for free before they are asked to subscribe. The reasons we don’t do this have to do with some particularities of our market and business model, as well as the volume of content we publish. But the function to provide an email in exchange for an article view mimics to some extent the function of a metered paywall, and also drives a lot of growth in our free newsletter list, which as I’ve mentioned is a key tool in converting users from merely interested to willing to subscribe.
M: WHAT’S YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGY, AND HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOU TO BE PRESENT ON THOSE PLATFORMS?
H: Social media is important to us, but not nearly as important as organic search traffic. At the moment, social media accounts for only about 6% of the traffic to our site. Twitter is first among those drivers. More than driving traffic, being on social media for us is about being part of the conversation. Many of our expert contributors are on Twitter, there is a significant community of global affairs experts and influencers on Twitter, and we want to be present there. At the moment, however, we are not hugely focused on scaling the traffic we get from social media. There may come a time in which we focus more on it.
M: DO YOU WORK TOGETHER WITH OTHER PUBLICATIONS IN YOUR VERTICAL?
H: We have experimented with various cross-marketing partnerships and the like in the past, but at the moment we don’t have any significant partnerships in place. We are certainly open to it, however. I would love to hear from other publishers who have ideas about how we can cooperate to grow our businesses.
M: WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BUSINESS AS DATA-DRIVEN?
H: We are very data driven from the perspective of optimizing our subscription sales funnel and how we manage the process of moving users through that funnel from the moment they discover WPR to the moment in which they are a loyal subscriber who is willing to renew over and over again. The KPIs that we are consistently tracking, and which I’ve mentioned, are the heart of that.
I would say we are not data-driven, however, when it comes to editorial choices. We are big believers that we have an editorial mission and editorial criteria that are defined by humans. We pursue our editorial mission largely separate and apart from the brutally efficient attention optimization machine that is the Internet, and have resisted the temptation in the past to shift our editorial priorities to pursue scale for the sake of scale. We know that if we did that, what makes us unique would cease to exist, and we would be just another publication pursuing clicks. We do not use information about what keywords are trending at the moment to make editorial decisions, for example. We publish what we think is important and then we gather data after that to optimize what we have already published in response to criteria that have more to do with objective measures of truth and relevance and importance than to measures of potential popularity. The value maximization, in other words, is downstream from the editorial process.
This is not to say that we don’t respond to reader signals and feedback when those signals are consistent with our mission. It’s just that we are consciously less data-driven from an editorial standpoint than I think many publishers are today. Being subscription-supported as opposed to advertising supported is a big part of what enables this approach. It has been said that if you’re not paying for what you read, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. That’s a funny and provocative way of saying that content which customers are willing to give their hard-earned money to read tends to be very different than content which is designed merely to capture a reader’s attention. Attention can be given for all sorts of casually considered reasons, but money is another matter. There is no question that we better fulfill our missions as a subscription-supported business.
M: COULD YOU SHED A BIT OF LIGHT ON YOUR REVENUE MODEL?
H: Our two main sources of revenue are our institutional subscription business and our individual subscription business.
Our institutional subscribers include hundreds of academic institutions, government agencies, research organizations, think tanks and corporations who pay to provide access to their employees and students. These subscriptions range in price from multiple hundreds to many thousands of dollars annually, for organizations that range in size from tens to tens of thousands of employees or students.
The individual business is the sale of single-user subscriptions to individuals. Our standard rate for an individual subscription is $97 per year. Our individual subscribers include people who need the information we provide to do their jobs as well as people who are just really personally intereHHY sted in global affairs.
M: WHAT’S YOUR FASTEST GROWING AREA?
H: For us, the institutional business grew first, and supported our expansion early on. Lately, we have been really focused on growing the individual side, and it’s what I’m currently most excited about. We have a great growth strategy, and we’re executing well, so the coming years should be fun. Having said that, we still see a lot of growth opportunity in the institutional business as well. We have other ideas for new products and areas of growth that we may pursue in the future, but for now we’re laser focused on these two main businesses.
M: WHY DO YOU THINK YOUR MODEL HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL?
H: I think we’re meeting a need for smart, thoughtful analysis on global affairs that is more international than U.S.-centric in its point of view. In addition, we are a bit of a hybrid between a scholarly publication and a mainstream journalistic one, which hits a sweet spot for many readers. It also links back to our commitment to quality, persistence and constant learning.
M: FROM YOUR OWN JOURNEY, WHAT DO YOU THINK OTHER VERTICAL PUBLISHERS COULD LEARN?
H: I don’t know that I’m in a position to say what other publishers could learn from WPR, because I don’t know the particulars of their businesses, but hopefully there’s some small takeaway for other publishers in what I’ve said today. I read about the digital publishing business constantly and I’m always learning from others. I’m certainly a big believer in sharing information, and we would not have been able to build WPR without the lessons we learned from other businesses.
There are definitely certain best practices that can be widely applied. At the same time, every publisher is different in its combination of audience characteristics, content characteristics and business model, so one thing I’ve learned over the years is you have to take tactics and strategies that have been successful elsewhere and adapt them to your particular business. You can’t copy and paste. Not everything that works for another business will work for my business, but certainly there is great value in being a student of the industry.
M: CAN YOU SHARE ANY MILESTONES WITH US?
H: In the six months ending today (31st Jan) vs. the same period one year ago, our traffic (Google Analytics users) is up 88% overall, led by an increase in organic search traffic of 188%.
Our monthly recurring revenue for individual subscriptions is up 28% vs. 12 months ago, and that growth is accelerating.
Our email capture rate, which is the ratio of monthly free email newsletter signups to monthly user traffic, has doubled in the last 60 days due to a rigorous program of testing various ways to entice visitors to provide their email addresses.
M: WHICH OTHER PUBLISHERS DO YOU LOOK TO FOR INSPIRATION?
H: There are certainly a number of current publishers which I am inspired by and seek to emulate. But the publishers that I worked for and learned from when I was in my 20s have probably had the biggest impact in terms of shaping my thinking. I got my start in this industry more than 20 years ago as a marketing associate for National Journal Group, which then published a well-respected non-partisan weekly politics and policy magazine called National Journal, as well as a suite of other politics- and policy-related publications. (They are now owned by Atlantic Media and their model has evolved over the years.)
The NJG publications derived most of their revenue from (quite expensive) subscriptions in an era when that was much less common. When I was at National Journal we were still doing very traditional direct-mail marketing to boost circulation, but email marketing and digital publishing over the Internet were new and exciting and interesting, so that was a formidable experience, and my first exposure to great people who had made long careers in an industry I found really exciting.
The other formidable experience was working as a reporter and editor for a subscription-based publisher called Inside Washington Publishers, which was also subscription supported, and very niche, and like National Journal published high-quality content that was very valuable to its readers. I often think that those two experiences helped define the kind of publication and business that WPR became.
I should also say that I get inspiration daily from those I work with closely at WPR, including our editor-in-chief, Judah Grunstein, who has been my main partner in crime in building WPR for more than 10 years, as well as our other editors and contributors.