By James Dillon published December 9, 2014

Build it? Buying Niche Media May be Better


Why spend years building an audience for your brand if you can buy a turnkey niche media property?

When we need a new kitchen table, few of us head to the local hardware store to pick up timber. We know the experts do it better.

So, why are brands building their own content marketing foundations without seriously considering a ready-made option? The pros of buying a successful media entity targeted to the brand’s audience are significant because it:

  • Knows how to create engaging content and get it in front of the right people
  • Has the editorial talent to build your content site
  • Offers a new revenue stream because you can earn advertising dollars
  • Minimizes the significant time and resources required to build your own content site, which can be redirected elsewhere – at significantly lower risk

And there is one standout advantage of buying an existing audience that goes largely unnoticed: Data.

Publishers sit on a veritable gold mine of user-behavior data.

Want proof? Consider the global powerhouse Kraft Foods Group. Through print and online, Kraft’s publishing efforts generate the equivalent of 1.1 billion ad impressions a year. But even more interesting, Kraft tracks 22,000 attributes of more than 100 million annual visitors to its websites, according to AdAge. With all that data, Kraft can run sophisticated sentiment analysis on its audience’s online behavior. The deep dive helps Kraft understand not only what recipes will work well in which channels, but what a particular individual is likely to want to cook on a particular day.

While most brands don’t have enough data to mimic what Kraft does, many publishers’ content-engagement analytics can provide juicy information for product development, channel strategy, promotions (e.g., coupons), and even content development.

In 2001, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) acquired online parenting resource BabyCenter for a cool $10 million from near-bankrupt publisher, The BabyCenter website provides educational resources for a community of engaged women on the topics of birth, pregnancy, and parenting.

Christina Hoff, Manager of Global Strategic Insights for J&J, cites BabyCenter’s data as among J&J’s most powerful data-mining resources. The company uses sentiment analysis on the site’s 35-plus million readers, developing relevant messaging for target consumers. “We can tell what a mom is going to do before she does [it] based on what she is searching for,” Hoff explained recently to an audience in Spain.

What’s holding you back?

With all the advantages of the buy and the difficulties of the build, what’s stopping brands from purchasing a publisher for their established audience?

Skeptics contend the profit-seeking behavior of a corporate Big Brother may compromise the ability of a media company to tell stories without an agenda, undermining the quality of the very asset the brand hopes to leverage. If a cosmetics company purchased Vogue, would readers leave in outrage? If the airliner Emirates bought National Geographic, would everyone stop watching, reading, and subscribing? Such deals may scream shameless selling to the uninitiated, but if the content is valuable and has integrity, provenance simply doesn’t matter.

Zac Zavos, Conversant Media co-founder and managing director, agrees. With three online publications reaching a combined 2.8 million visitors per month, Zavos has a good handle on the publishing industry. As he says, “If the content is good enough, and the audience is happy, why not?”

And as it turns out, brands aren’t the only companies sniffing around for deals. Media companies are also ready for change. Many are looking outside of advertising and subscription revenue, and some publishers are even actively seeking corporate support.

Men’s digital powerhouse Thrillist Media Group reverse engineered the buying decision. After passing 1 million email subscribers, the publisher noticed one advertising partner increasing its spend exponentially. JackThreads, a members-only e-commerce site, was selling more and more men’s fashion apparel through Thrillist’s subscription list of twenty-something urban guys.

Ultimately, JackThreads acquired Thrillist for $10 million. “This is a win-win for Thrillist and JackThreads … we see e-commerce as an exciting ancillary revenue stream with lots of potential,” CEO Ben Lerer said at the time of acquisition.

Four years later, JackThreads has over 5 million members and the Thrillist Media Group has annual product sales over $100 million. Thrillist knew how to tell stories and build a trusting audience. JackThreads knew how to monetize this same audience. A happy marriage was born.

Who else is doing it?

Here are a few more interesting brand acquisitions and publisher investments that show the model works:

  • Bellroy, an Australian wallet e-retailer, invested in Carryology, a leather-goods lifestyle blog. The goal: To further their shared belief in “quality ways to carry.” At last count, Bellroy has connected with over 160,000 carry-savvy potential customers as the blog continues to grow.
  • L’Oréal’s 2011 acquisition of the 10-year-old property is an often-mentioned success story. “L’Oréal used what they would have normally spent in media dollars to actually create value,” explains Robert Rose, CMI’s Chief Strategy Officer.
  • In 2009, the owner of photography periodical JPG Magazine was on the verge of collapse. In one of the first deals of its kind, camera retailer Adorama stepped in to invest. Explains social media expert Chris Brogan on his blog: “This is another move into the land of content marketing. It’s easy: Adorama wants to sell cameras, and JPG is a magazine dedicated to pointing out awesome camera work. It’s a perfect little marriage. Instead of buying ads in good content projects, buy the content project.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Image courtesy of CCO magazine

Author: James Dillon

James is part of the tribe at Australian online marketing agency Gorilla 360. As Content Manager, James is busy helping businesses use content marketing goodness to dominate their patch of the internet jungle. Catch him on Twitter, or reach out on Linkedin - he's much more approachable than your average primate (and a whole bunch less hairy).

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  • Faith Dalton

    Great article!! Thank you! It is true, publishers, are in the business of (repeat) audience and credible content. While publishers don’t make the products, they do write about them. And more importantly, they write in a way readers keep coming back (to them) as a trusted source to read about other products, services, news, hot topics, etc.

    And even before the technology we have today, publishers have been capturing readers’ behaviors. Publishers offer decades worth of intell and experience. A good publishing partner is one of the best tools a marketing manager will have in their tool belt.

    • James Dillon

      Thanks Faith – you’re so right. Publishers have the skill set and the audiences that all of us content marketers spend so much time, dollars and boss-pleading trying to develop. Maybe 2015 will see the ‘buy an audience’ trickle turn into a flood.

  • aboer

    A rebuttal to your argument: Why buy the cow when independent authors can bring the milk to you? See:

    PS. Bellroy/Carryology doesn’t count. That is a home-grown e-commerce/content model. Content marketing is embedded in their DNA. But love that they are getting noticed. We just did a big case study on them.

    • James Dillon

      Hi Andrew, thanks for your feedback. With regards to Bellroy, our research led us to believe that Bellroy invested in Carryology’s existing audience. Sorry for any ambiguity.

      There’s clearly huge benefits in building your own own audiences from scratch and working with influencers to share great content to speed up the process. However, for many enterprise level companies, the changes required to build a new media property often require many years and exponentially more dollars than the buy option.

      As a business decision, it often makes sense to take the quicker, cheaper route. Then benefits of purchasing a readymade storytelling factory and rich, targeted data will sometimes outweigh the downsides. Replacing key people will certainly be a challenge though.

  • Jaqui Lane

    James, an interesting perspective, and one that might be even more interesting and relevant for small businesses wanting to ramp up quicker, provided the $ are manageable. I’m working with a couple of small businesses and this could be a real to do the research and see what comes up.

    • James Dillon

      Thanks a bunch Jaqui.

      For sure, this needs to be a huge consideration for small businesses looking to grow an audience they can monetise. It’s so difficult to develop the skills and structures required to run an effective media property, so buying a small existing publisher with an audience that shares the beliefs and lifestyle of the brand can save mountains of dollars, time and heartache.

      Please let me know how you go, I’d love to know how your clients react to the proposition. Sharing your story would make for a great blog post!

  • Jay Acunzo

    Great POV here, James. I’d add 1 more — HubSpot bought the site Agency Post, which is a site for the longtail/smaller marketing agencies out there (less so targeting the big holding companies and Madison Ave types). They’ve since folded that into their current blog as the Agency section, and the editor of Agency Post is a part of their content team. I thought it was a terrific move. (Disclosure: I was head of content when the purchase happened but it was run by a different team.)

    • Joe Pulizzi

      I didn’t know that. Great insight Jay…thanks for sharing.

      • Jay Acunzo

        My pleasure Joe. Agree this trend is fascinating to watch and should probably happen more (and not just at large companies either).

    • James Dillon

      Thanks Jay – super example, I’ll have to check it out. Like Joe stated in the CMI weekly email, it’s disappointing these examples are so few and far between. Maybe 2015 is the year.