Say Media is proving not every publisher needs to become the next Buzzfeed

Ben Cohen, founder of The Daily Banter

Ben Cohen, founder of The Daily Banter

Ben Cohen just couldn’t seem to catch a break.

It was 2015 and The Daily Banter, the political commentary site Cohen runs, kept crashing. “Bill Maher was sharing quite a bit of our stuff on Facebook,” he told me as we sat together on the rooftop of a Washington, DC office building. “And we’d get huge amounts of traffic when he’d share stuff, because it would then go viral.” The Daily Banter ran on WordPress, an open source content management system that relies on various plugins created by its developer community, and huge traffic spikes would cause the plugins to break if they weren’t maintained properly. “We were freaking out because we’re getting millions of readers on one article, and the site’s gone down, and that’s potentially thousands of dollars of ad revenue that’s disappeared. That happened several times, so we probably lost, I would say, tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue because the site would keep breaking.”

Cohen launched The Daily Banter on Google Blogspot in 2007. He was a boxing trainer and occasional sports writer at the time, and this new site provided a venue to publish his ideas on politics and culture. By 2009 he decided to transform it into an actual business. Eventually, he moved the blog onto WordPress and set about finding ways to support himself with advertising. Almost immediately, however, he encountered the challenges faced by nearly every one-man publishing operation. “I paid someone to build the website,” he said. “It was on an hourly basis, and it can be incredibly expensive if you have someone good who knows what they’re doing. I’ve had bad developers and good developers. Bad developers who were cheap did a really bad job of building the infrastructure of the site. And then a good developer who did a really good job would be very expensive.”

Cohen’s pursuit of advertisers was fraught with ups and downs. He would bounce around from advertising network to advertising network looking for the best rates. At one point he tried hiring someone to sell ads directly, but The Daily Banter didn’t really have the right niche or scale to make this work. There were plenty of ad networks willing to do business with the site, but he’d find out, after installing a particular network’s code, that its ads weren’t exactly user friendly. “Often times, the more lucrative ads would break the site or disrupt the user experience,” he said. “We would have some auto-playing video ad popping up, and it just wrecks the reader experience, which leads to traffic going down.”

What’s worse, every moment Cohen spent addressing technical problems or chasing advertising was a moment he couldn’t spend writing for the site. “I can do business stuff quite well,” he said. “I can do editorial content stuff quite well. But not at the same time, because when I’m trying to do them at the same time, then both suffer.” Every month, The Daily Banter hit record traffic levels, but with the site constantly crashing and the unreliability of its ad networks, profitability continued to elude him.

By October 2015, Cohen had reached a breaking point. He went to several of his writers, a few of whom were writing for the site on a full-time basis, and delivered some bad news. “I couldn’t pay people anymore because our business model wasn’t working,” he said. “The site kept breaking, the ads weren’t paying enough, and traffic was too volatile. One month we’d be fine, and then Facebook would change its algorithm and we’d be in serious trouble. I realized that I needed to get creative here, do something new. I needed to find a way of revamping the site and having a new model. Because this wasn’t working.”

It was around this time that Cohen reconnected with the representative of a company called Say Media. Founded in 2010, Say Media emerged when the video advertising company VideoEgg acquired Six Apart, the company behind the pioneering CMS platforms Typepad and Moveable Type. Cohen had implemented VideoEgg’s ad units in the past and had always admired the engineering and design of the underlying technology. The company had previously approached him in 2014 to discuss a partnership, but at the time he wasn’t interested. But in the Fall of 2015, as his website struggled to survive, he decided to reach out and rekindle the relationship.

To understand the partnership Say Media offered Cohen, you first need to know a little about the company’s history. With the acquisition of Six Apart, VideoEgg was marrying an innovative advertising company with a powerful publishing platform. For over a decade, news media companies have struggled to keep up with emerging technology trends. With design paradigms shifting every two years, these news organizations have had to constantly invest in expensive site redesigns, lest they get left behind. The goal of Say Media and other companies like it is to heavily invest on the technology side and offer up an iterative, best-of-breed publishing platform. Instead of launching redesigns every few years, Say Media would issue constant updates, sometimes on a daily basis, which it would then roll out to its entire network of sites.

In its initial incarnation, Say Media attempted to control every aspect of the publishing process — from the technology to the content creation to the advertising sales. It acquired already-existing media properties and launched new ones; its stable of owned and operated news sites included technology blog ReadWriteWeb, the feminist xoJane, and home design site Remodelista. But, according to Say Media’s CEO Matt Sanchez, the company soon realized it was trying to do too many things at once. “When we launched Say, it was really about, how do you provide technology and services for independent media,” he told Digiday in 2014. “It was this vision of building the modern media company by building, partnering with and buying independent media companies, build the tech beneath it and think holistically about the entire media stack. We just came to the conclusion that it’s very difficult to do both.”

And so, in 2014, the company began selling off its sites and doubled down on its technology and advertising offerings. Under this new structure, it would partner with media companies that had already-existing audiences. These brands would be responsible for producing content and growing their readership while Say Media would operate the CMS, handle the hosting, and, most crucially, handle advertising. “The value proposition for a publisher is that if you come on with us, you’re going to do at least as well with us [at advertising yield management] as you would by optimizing and managing [the advertising] yourself,” Michelle Panzer, Say Media’s VP of global development and marketing, told me. “And then you’ve completely eliminated all technology, hosting, and design costs.”

I asked Panzer to elaborate on Say Media’s advertising offerings and how they differ from the hundreds of other ad networks out there. She explained that not only are many of the ads sold in house, but the company has a dedicated creative studio in Portland responsible for producing ads specifically designed for its platform. And as for the inventory the company doesn’t sell itself, it uses various agency trading desks. “Let’s use The Daily Banter as an example,” she said. “Some of the ads running on his site we went out and sold, and some of the ads are running as a trade through just standard yield management.”

Cohen noticed a difference almost immediately upon switching to Say Media’s network. “The reaction was joyous,” he recalled. “It was absolutely fantastic. Everyone on the team logged in and said, ‘This is great, this is exactly what we need.’” Say Media’s CMS, which it has branded under the name Tempest, felt intuitive from the get-go. “You don’t have to worry about anything breaking or making sure a plugin works.” And whenever he had tech-related questions or problems with the site, someone on the Say Media team would often respond to him within hours.

More important, with someone else shouldering most of the tech and advertising burden, Cohen could focus on writing and editing The Daily Banter.  “I lost probably half my team due to what was happening in 2015,” he said, but even with this smaller team, “we were doing the same amount of traffic [after the switch to Say Media] than we did when fully staffed. I believe that has almost everything to do with the Tempest platform and the fact I can spend more time writing, which is what makes all the difference.”

Cohen also saw a relatively quick impact on his advertising revenue as well. Not only did he benefit from the increase in traffic that came as a result of the switch, but his readership-to-revenue ratio also improved. “Let’s say we got a million pageviews a month on Tempest as opposed to a million pageviews on WordPress. We’d expect to see double the revenue for the same amount of traffic.”

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As new advertising products like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP came onto the market, Cohen would be contacted by Say Media with an offer to integrate The Daily Banter with these platforms. At first, he didn’t realize that the Facebook Instant ad revenue had been separated out from the regular revenue reports he received from Say Media. “Every week we’d get a revenue report, and I was like, ‘I don’t know, [Facebook Instant] hasn’t had that much of an impact. Stupidly, I didn’t realize I wasn’t looking at the Facebook Instant Article revenue.” He was shocked when he finally saw the additional revenue sources and how they impacted the site’s bottom line.

I asked Panzer to outline for me Say Media’s various revenue generators. While most of the revenue is driven by display advertising, she explained, the company is consistently diversifying its offerings. Its Portland studio is fully capable of creating native ads in the form of sponsored articles, videos, and images. “If you want to hire our studio to do an entire logo exploration for your site, you can,” she said. “If you want to have them create a rich media article like a ‘Snowfall,’” — here she was referring to the gorgeous New York Times article that combined text, moving images, video, and other interactive graphics — “we can do that.”

Say Media is also building out a paid membership platform, called Tempest Premium, that will allow readers to subscribe for access to special features. “You can have an ad free experience for a monthly or yearly subscription fee,” said Panzer. “That’s different than a paywall. We‘re saying, ‘A lot of you don’t like ads. Some of you mind more than others, and if you mind a lot, feel free to pay this monthly or yearly fee to not see an ad.’” It’s then up to the individual publisher if it wants to add “extra” features to entice readers into opening up their wallets.

Jack Archer has invested heavily in building out a paid membership for Airows, the luxury lifestyle website he runs. After several years dabbling in tech blogging, Archer launched Airows in 2013 when he realized many modern men’s magazines didn’t really provide the kind of content he wanted to read. “I wanted to start a lifestyle publication that kind of reflected the different stuff I’m interested in, like cars and travel and gear and tech,” he told me. “I wasn’t really that fulfilled with the Esquires and GQs of the world, and there really wasn’t a lot of independent media that was covering those things.”

Archer quickly scaled up his audience, but, like Cohen at The Daily Banter, he struggled on the tech and advertising side. In March 2015, he made the switch to Say Media and began to benefit from all the offerings I already described above. But because his site was so consumer focused, he had already built out relationships with several product brands, and his agreement with Say Media didn’t preclude him from publishing sponsored posts he sold and created on his own. “We’ve always been doing affiliate advertising,” he said. “We’d write about a brand, send a lot of traffic their way, they’d get a lot of sales, and then they’d want to double down on that. So we’d work out a deal.” It’s not uncommon to encounter sponsored posts on Airows for major brands ranging from Mint to Old Spice.

In recent months, however, Archer has placed significant focus on growing a paying membership that utilizes Say Media’s platform. He said he’s trying to “build a club within a club of our most devoted readers,” and for $3.99 they receive an exclusive monthly email offering special deals for products and brands with which he’s built relationships. “Eventually I want to build up that list and do really small product releases that are only available to subscribers,” he said. “I’m also thinking about building a private chat or message board.” In November 2016, he published a personal appeal to his readership that listed the benefits readers would receive if the subscribed. “We had a pretty solid response to it,” he said. “I’m interested in the no-advertising landscape. I think that’s appetizing to younger people who use ad blockers but still want to support sites.”

Pazner told me that there are over 60 sites in the Say Media network (most are small-to-midsized publishers, though larger brands like Maxim and Rachel Ray’s magazine count themselves as partners) that cumulatively generate more than 100 million pageviews per month. By the end of Q2 of this year, she expects there to be nearly 120 publishers. I asked her if the company ever worries about maintaining quality control as the network expands. “Our threshold for publishers is about 200,000 pageviews monthly or more to qualify,” she replied. “And there’s a whole other set of quality qualifiers. We actually request access to the Google Analytics for any site we’re talking to. We look at things like time spent on page, bounce rate, and of course we look at other data like devices used. We make sure there is original quality content that’s being generated very regularly.” It’s not uncommon, she said, for Say Media to access a potential partner’s analytics dashboard and find that the site is gaming traffic and engaging in other blackhat practices. Those publishers are automatically rejected.

For 2017, said Panzer, Say Media will focus on opening up lines of dialogue among its publishers. Though each partner operates autonomously, many are small business owners who encounter the same pain points and would benefit from the sharing of institutional knowledge. The company has already dabbled in hosting “best practice” webinars and may soon launch in-person get togethers so publishers can network with each other. “They’re all hungry to learn and talk to each other,” she said.

In 2015, Fortune reported that Say Media expected to hit $90 million in revenue. Though Panzer wouldn’t disclose recent revenue figures, the publishers I spoke to said they saw revenue increase after joining the network. For the last few years, venture funded media companies like Vox, Vice, and BuzzFeed, with their pursuit of massive scale, have been regarded as the standard bearers for digital-first publishers. But Say Media, with its embrace of small-to-medium-sized sites, is trying to prove that a publisher doesn’t need millions in venture capital funding or hundreds of millions of monthly pageviews to survive.

“I’ve been approached by investors and people who really want to help me step on the gas,” said Acher. “But I’m scared to death of that. I’d rather just grow slower and stay in my lane, not try to be this giant company that gets Digiday articles written about them. I think there’s a lot of room for medium-sized publishers… and I think [Say Media] is answering a lot of the problems they have running a business. It’s pretty cool to work with a company focused on that and not trying to be another Vox.”

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com