Lifestyle publisher Thrillist offers two key elements to growing your media brand

by Dena Levitz
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability

Thrillist was once a lifestyle brand purely for men. Just over a decade ago the founding team had an idea for a product that could help males just out of college -- but not yet starting families -- have more enjoyable days and nights. Co-founder and current Editor-in-Chief Adam Rich says the mentality was to speak on their level as almost a big brother figure.

The first Thrillist site was based in California, featuring early posts about the hot spots to eat or drink. Thrillist Media added one city after another from then on, beginning on the West Coast and radiating inward. Now the publisher is in 40-plus U.S. cities and covers far more than just where to scarf down food and imbibe cocktails, even taking on some of the turf usually covered by local newspapers.

Because Thrillist has an empire of city-focused sites, the staff have a pulse on what’s happening across the country as a whole. That’s why Rich says Thrillist has added verticals like health and entertainment and brought on editors to take charge of these subject areas from a national perspective. The audience and the staff also are now a mix of male and female, though still skewing young. “We’re rounding out our understanding of what a person’s life is like,” he says. “As the landscape for lifestyle content has expanded, so have we.”

How Thrillist has achieved this rare sort of steady growth and how it’s broadened its content focus were some of the items Rich recently addressed during a live video chat entitled “The Future of Content,” hosted by General Assembly.

Thriving in a world where content is incredibly fragmented and it’s become a major challenge to inspire reader loyalty, Rich kept coming back to two main tactics:

Email lists have been and continue to be critical

Thrillist’s beginnings are actually rooted in email, sending email to around 600 people upon launch. In the early days the website was secondary, merely a place to archive content and collect more email addresses. “Day by day we were covering something great,” he says. The daily email was the platform to both feature content about the coolest things happening and to drive interest. Ten years ago social “didn’t exist and email was the clear channel to get to people,” he adds.

Over time, Thrillist has become more than an email newsletter and more of a full-fledged digital publisher with a robust web presence. Still, though, the daily email remains an important way to connect with users. There’s no way to grow the list quickly; it’s a matter of making each email indispensable so that it earns its keep in the inbox. “We’re creating so much content that stories are duking it out to get into that email,” Rich says.

As such, the email newsletter is also a way to highlight the best content that’s just gone live and to personalize the experience for readers. “What you get is different than what I get,” he says. That’s because the smart email system targets subscribers based on favorite topics and where someone is located. A New Yorker’s email will include New York-specific links along with themes that interest the individual, based off of what they read most. The more someone reads on Thrillist, the more tailored the experience will be in their inbox.

From a marketing standpoint, one-third of the traffic to Thrillist’s site now comes from social, one-third from search traffic and the remaining one-third from email and partnerships with other brands. “It shows a balanced story that reflects the layers of content,” Rich says of the mix.

Data and analytics, combined with editorial instincts, drive all decisions

In the early days, Rich says deciding everything from Thrillist’s tone -- light, humorous and conversational -- to story selection was done by asking “Is this cool?” To make its mark as a lifestyle destination gut was deemed to be the one true litmus test.

That, too, has changed, Rich says. Thrillist now makes all strategic choices based, yes, on editorial instincts, but more and more based on data. That goes for which new markets to launch full editorial sites, for one. As an example, he says deciding to make Houston a dedicated site happened, in part, because staff looked at analytics and realized that there was a good-sized contingent of users from Houston who were already reading Thrillist. Having the numbers backed up devoting funds to a Houston presence -- and adding local talent there.

Staff also look to data to figure out which local posts can become national trend stories and to assess story performance overall. Rich describes the approach of being data-driven and exerting editorial instincts as a “give and take.”

“You get the ball rolling and then you try to see if (your instinct) was right,” he says.

You can view the webinar below:

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via kwintin