Asked whether, back in 2006, he could have possibly envisioned that the tech review blog he co-founded, using rented office space above an Oregon furniture store, would one day grow into a profitable digital media enterprise spanning three offices on two coasts and attracting talent from the likes of Facebook and The New York Times Co., CEO Ian Bell responds first by laughing out loud. “Never.”
Fourteen years later, Digital Trends has done exactly that, drawing more than 30 million unique visitors to its site each month—an audience that balloons to more than 100 million when accounting for distributed content, video and social media—all without taking on outside funding or compromising on its core mantra, “Tech for the way you live,” laid out from the beginning by Bell and his co-founder, CTO Dan Gaul, and permeating every aspect of the company’s strategy from business to editorial.
“We’ve always had a passion for the aesthetics of products and what they could actually help you achieve: connect you to other people, save time in your day, enhance your experiences in general,” says Bell. “Everyone else was focused on specifications, stats, benchmarks, but they never really applied those to a better life experience. Hardware and specifications mean nothing if you aren’t able to enjoy a better experience.”
If the driving force behind the Digital Trends‘ evolution from blog to website to cross-platform operation is, as all of the staffers we spoke to asserted, strong, mission-driven editorial content, then key to executing Bell’s vision is his editor-in-chief, Jeremy Kaplan, a digital media veteran who first arrived at the site in 2014.
At the time, Digital Trends‘ audience was roughly one-third of its current size, and Kaplan says there was initially some concern from staffers that a new editor-in-chief was going to come in and effect change immediately, but he didn’t feel the need to implement a new vision; the site already had a good concept and a defined niche. Rather, his focus was on amplifying and building on the work the team was already doing.
Dividing and conquering
Digital Trends was essentially a blog, Kaplan says—while cautioning that he would never denigrate the term—a blog that needed an added degree of structure and specialization if it were to evolve into a publishing company.
“I’ve spent a lot of time, especially over the last year and a half, looking at what it means to be a publisher,” Kaplan says. “Blogging is very straightforward and simple. Something comes out, you write about it. First in, first out. Just a stream of consciousness. I don’t think that’s the best way to approach content anymore. I look back to the way things used to be, when you had different teams and different structures and different focuses. And while that’s kind of an old-school model, I think there’s a way that we can merge old-school and new-school into something completely different, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
The answer meant dividing a previously all-purpose editorial staff into separate groups: dedicated teams writing product reviews, features, news and evergreen content. Each of these types of content serves its own distinct function, caters to its own subset of readers and has its own KPI’s and goals.
Across the company, Bell has implemented the concept known as SMART goals (an acronym for specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and timely). But quantitative objectives meant for a sales team or news editors aren’t easily applied to something like feature articles, for which metrics are less important than quality. The goal of a feature story, says Kaplan, isn’t to drive massive amounts of traffic, but to pique someone’s interest or spark their curiosity.
“How do you measure something like that? What we landed on is winning awards,” he says. “That’s a mark of quality. Set the bar really high and shoot for it. I’ve got a features team, and I told them to get nominated for three or four awards this year. The other big metric is referral traffic from other sites, relative to a particular piece of content.”
Another set of editors focuses only on improving and updating evergreen content, such as product comparisons and the site’s proprietary map of 5G network availability, which Kaplan says has been a big win in line with the sort of unique offerings that Digital Trends can produce. The team issues dozens of updates to evergreen articles every day, he says, ensuring they’re kept fresh and current.
“As a publisher, you look at the content and you try to find areas where there are commonalities,” he says. “What’s a type of article and type of feature that people are using, and what can we build that’s going to make that better?”
In general, there’s been a focus on quality over quantity, Kaplan says. When he began in 2014, Digital Trends was publishing around 40 articles every day, a number that jumped to more than 100 at one point as the operation scaled up, but has since receded to around 70. If an article goes up and only gets 600 views, he says, it wasn’t worth that person’s time to write it, it wasn’t worth Digital Trends‘ resources to publish it, and it drags down aggregate engagement metrics across the site.
“I’ve been actively telling people we’re going to do more with less,” he says. “Rather than quotas, we’re trying to say, spend the time to put out quality content.”
Expanding into news
Increasingly, the editorial team is focusing on news, something Kaplan concedes has never been an area of particular expertise for Digital Trends, or tech sites in general.
“There’s a handful of sites,” he says. “The Information, Jessica Lessin, they do great things. The Verge does really good news content, CNET has a great news team. We’re building a team to rival those guys, and we’re going to do exactly the same thing: deep analysis, building sources. We’re actively building out and hiring the editorial team with this new vision in place.”
A major step in that expansion came just this week, when Kaplan hired Paul Squire, news editor at the New York Post, to take on a similar role at Digital Trends.
“News is not particularly great from a revenue perspective, but we have a lot of parts of our business that are very strong,” he says. “That’s not a challenge. I think there’s a way that we can do it in a way that is brand safe for advertisers, dynamic and interesting for readers, and in a way that just overall grows our audience. There’s a lot of opportunity there.”
Kaplan says the management team spends a lot of time looking at Google, Facebook and Apple, noting that the role these platforms play in the broader publishing ecosystem is “concerning on a lot of levels.” Focusing on news, features and direct traffic is a way of reducing dependence on these platforms from an audience perspective, and Digital Trends‘ success in diversifying its revenue streams has afforded it the luxury of expanding into areas, like news content, that might not be highly profitable in and of themselves.
Monetizing an engaged audience
Out of several additions to Bell’s executive team in 2018, one that generated particular waves was the hiring of Bob Gruters as CRO, a return to media for the former Univision and MTV exec after four years as group head of sales for the emerging entertainment and technology sector at Facebook.
Gruters says he was attracted to Digital Trends primarily for its clearly defined mission of making tech accessible—demonstrating to its audience that the future is friendly, not scary.
From an advertising standpoint, Digital Trends operates its own programmatic PMP, but it has particularly punched above its weight in direct sales, breaking new categories like film, alcohol and cars on the strength of its rich first-party data and an engaged, receptive audience.
Key to success in direct sales, Gruters says, has been a focus on service, trust, flawless execution and slow but steady growth.
“You have to prove your worth,” he says. “No one is going to walk in and say, ‘Here’s $20 million, we just want to test.’ But you do a small test and you build a little trust and you prove a little value, and stone-by-stone you build the cathedral. You can’t do all of that overnight, and I will not let anyone whose name is attached to Digital Trends have to walk in and say they over-promised and under-delivered. My goal every time we have a new customer come in is to be the best partner they’ve ever had.”
Other areas of revenue growth include branded content, e-commerce and affiliate links, with careful consideration for editorial integrity and guardrails against conflicts of interest. Gruters says Digital Trends is also seeing a lot of interest in its proprietary data.
“I’m in the process of thinking through what our go-to-market looks like for that,” he says. “In a cookie-less world, our data is incredibly valuable. Do I reward my top-tier partners? Do I have an offering where you can just buy the data? We’re thinking about all of that, but we want to get it right.”
When it comes to management, Bell’s recruitment strategy, he says, generally boils down to identifying people who have built amazing things elsewhere, and inviting them to come do it for Digital Trends. Other notable hires in 2018 included finance veteran Chris Carlson as COO, the former director of search and analytics at Complex Media, Ray Philip, as director of SEO, and Lynda Mann, the former business development director at The New York Times‘ product review site, Wirecutter, as VP of commerce.
Bell says his success in recruiting (and maintaining) talent can be attributed to a few broad tenets: transparency in what the company can or cannot offer prospective employees, leadership that is excited about the space as employees—shared experience from senior and junior employees is valued equally, he says—and an overall culture of purpose, teamwork and respect.
One unintended consequence of the company’s recently implemented sabbatical program has been a loss of manpower for Kaplan, who says a good portion of his editorial team has been with the company for more than five years.
“But that’s probably a good challenge to have,” he adds.
Betting big on video
Across the operation, however, the next broad frontier for Digital Trends is clearly video. True to Bell’s strategy, late last year, the company hired a head of video, Lara Naaman, a former executive producer at the live streaming video vanguard Cheddar.
“I was shocked at how much they were doing with so few people,” Naaman says, “Cheddar was a giant news operation. This is much more of a niche brand, and we’re not sharing as much of the pie with major news organizations. Audiences coming here want something specific.”
Naaman says the company is placing its bets just about everywhere video is available, wherever audiences want to find Digital Trends, from YouTube and Twitch to OTT and long-form video, including a two-hour live broadcast every weekday, with plans to scale up to six hours per day in the near future, with two hours each from studios in New York, Portland, Ore. and Los Angeles.
“Our videos need to do one of four things, if not all four: they obviously need to be informative and entertaining, but they also need to provide a service and ideally have some sort of ‘wow’ factor,” she says. “If you can do all four, great, but they need to do at least one of those.”
The service component—videos about how to do things or what to buy—performs particularly well on YouTube, she says, while celebrity content does well on social media. For live video, the biggest opportunities are in behind-the-scenes coverage, like the major packages her team rolled out at the Consumer Electronics Show, which she says generated 24 hours of video and 17 million views, as well as Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
“YouTube is such a tricky beast,” she says. “It’s already such a saturated market, and a lot of what we’re doing in the coming years is looking for playgrounds that aren’t so crowded. But at the same time, you can’t ignore YouTube.”
Similarly, OTT platforms are attractive for increasing brand visibility, but provide less data than owned and operated platforms.
“This is a very data-oriented organization,” she says of Digital Trends. “I’ve been in the business for coming up on 20 years and I’ve worked places before where you just never got to see the numbers. Here, numbers are coming at me like a firehose. So I can look at the numbers and know what didn’t work and what did.”
Naaman points out that live video is a way the brand can service both its audience—it’s less produced and people can trust what they see—but also advertisers looking for sponsorship opportunities, noting that the live show accounts for a “significant portion” of Digital Trends‘ video revenues.
“There are many different ways to sell into live video,” she says. “There’s also a lot of interest around events, because it attracts a specific audience who are looking for certain things.”
Far from the desperation-driven pivots to video of 2016 and 2017, both Bell and Gruters say Digital Trends‘ expansion into video is deliberate and borne out of analysis of the consumption habits of its core readers. Both Kaplan and Naaman say they are increasingly looking for hires that have the ability to write both scripts and editorial content, and that success in video means not only being flexible or adaptable, but preparing for multiple possibilities of what the next major shift could be.
“Cisco was very clear: in December of 2021, 80% of all IP web-based traffic will be video,” says Gruters. “They’ve been saying it for years and I believe it. We still believe there’s a mix, that our audience wants a little bit of both. But I could not be happier about the way we are upping our commitment to all things video.”
Bell admits that navigating the ups and downs of digital media absent the benefit of venture funding hasn’t always been easy, but it allows the company to go slow and steady without being beholden to shareholders demanding that specific audience or revenue benchmarks are reached in a particular timeframe.
“We do what big companies do, but we do it without the feeling that we’re sitting on the sun,” says Gruters. “I don’t think we take the responsibility lightly, but we’re able to move with care.”
For example, Gruters says he’s turned down offers from advertisers like vaping companies, CBD suppliers or online gambling platforms.
“It’s not good for our audience,” he says. “If it’s not good for our audience, it’s not good for our brand and it’s not good for us long-term.”
That flexibility also allows Kaplan’s team to launch major initiatives that support the brand’s mission first, such as a partnership with the United Nations’ World Food Programme demonstrating how technology is impacting humanitarian efforts on the ground, or “Tech for Change,” an entire content vertical devoted to highlighting positive developments from the tech industry.
“Tech gets a really bad rap,” Kaplan explains, pausing to tell the smart speaker in his office to play ‘The Sidewinder’ by Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. “Facebook is exploiting my data. Google is marketing shit to me that I don’t care about. My privacy is being invaded by Amazon. But at the same time, so many people in this industry are doing such good things, and there are a lot of people that really want to make the world a better place.”
It’s an initiative that also caters well to Digital Trends‘ young, affluent and relatively gender-balanced audience, which Kaplan says is receptive to brands and companies with a purpose.
“You’re seeing a big gravitational pull of companies wanting to attach themselves to a Northstar and have a mission,” adds Gruters. “Mission-driven companies just perform better, the data proves that out.”