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How to plan for expansion and growth of a new content vertical

What you’re ultimately doing with a single-subject news site — to go back to the very beginning — is creating obsessives and superfans.

“Cultivating many small audiences of superfans in different subject areas isn’t exactly a new business model,” writes Ann Friedman in the Columbia Journalism Review. So in expanding your niche site, consider the superfans of your brand.

“Brands are elastic,” said the Atlantic’s Bob Cohn.

In growing TheAtlantic.com, “we spent a lot of thinking whether The Atlantic can do this? Can we really do an entertainment or tech channel or food channel?” Cohn said. “And the truth is that — the brand is about how ideas are changing everything in our lives and the search for big ideas and where ideas matter and you can go anywhere with that. It’s very elastic and readers will go with you.”

While events might be something that isn’t in the immediate future, having the content and reputation can set you up to build a successful events business. The Atlantic’s urban issues-focused CityLab extended its brand to create a conference series with 40 mayors from around the globe and 300 people who are experts in city and urban issues. The conference is also mostly underwritten by sponsors and free for attendees and they’re planning the next one overseas in 2015.

Cultivating many small audiences of superfans in different subject areas isn’t exactly a new business model.

Similarly to The Atlantic’s brand, The Verge, Vox Media’s technology site, has expanded its mission to encapsulate more than just tech and gadgets. “The purview of The Verge isn’t so much ‘technology’ as it is ‘the future,'” writes Lockhart Steele, editorial director at Vox Media. And that purview “helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it … But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.”

A niche site can not only change the reader relationship but also the advertiser relationship.

Starting XtremeIdaho opened the Idaho State Journal to new advertisers and relationships with business that were related to the outdoors — companies who did not advertise with the Journal before were advertising with them now to reach this new audience.

When you have a successful niche news site, your expertise becomes your brand and that in turn will determine your growth potential. Expansion can mean expanding your brand to other revenue generating opportunities.

Expanding your successful single-subject news site can go one of a few ways:

  • Expand your core audience
  • Pivot one step at a time
  • Go from a topic vertical to an audience “horizontal”

In each of these examples, knowing your core audience is essential. Advertisers are now buying audiences, not publications, so it’s worth paying attention to and knowing your audience to create superfans.

Identify ‘concentric circles’ to expand your core audience

Before launching Atlantic Cities, now CityLab, there was a lot of internal discussion about whether Cities should be a channel on The Atlantic’s website or its own website.

“We thought about the time to really focus on it as a single topic and to attract an audience that was die-hard for this subject and to attract advertisers, we needed an identity that wasn’t overshadowed by The Atlantic,” said The Atlantic’s Cohn.

While it could have easily been a section on the main Atlantic site, having its own site helped it build an identity, brand, and most importantly, a core audience.

Now, the site gets about 2.2 million uniques with aims to double that to 4 million in 2015. And it plans on doing that by expanding its core audience.

“We know who the audience is — people building the city of the future like infrastructure experts, politicians, city managers, people who make their day to day living thinking about urban issues,” said Cohn.

“Then there’s the rest of us who live in cities and are interested in consuming news, trends, and stats about that,” said Cohn. “What we’ve done this year is expand that audience’s ‘outer ring’ meaning more coverage for consumers to supplement core coverage for the person who makes his/her living thinking about urban issues.”

They’ve created a new section called “Navigator,” the modern urbanist’s guide to life, says the tagline. The section is aimed at the next concentric circle of audience, said Cohn, and it has a service journalism focus with pieces like “predict your own Thanksgiving-snowstorm travel misery” and “a guide to legal loitering.”

“It’s a relatively small site, but a site that really knows who it is and who it’s appealing to and what it’s for,” said Cohn.

Expand like a king, not a queen

In chess, a king can move in any direction — horizontally, vertically, or diagonally — but only one square. Expanding a successful news product works the same way — you have many options for where to move next, but you can’t move too far away from where you started.

If your news product could move one step, or pivot, what would that be? There are a couple ways to apply this idea:

  • Identify your unique tone or approach, and apply it to other topics, or
  • Stick to the same topic, but apply a different tone

In other words, define all the filters through which you choose context or audience, and move one square.

Applying the same unique tone or approach to other topics is what News Deeply is doing. News Deeply is the publisher of Syria Deeply, a single-subject site focusing on stories and commentary about the war in Syria that combines journalism and technology to better cover a complex, ongoing story. News Deeply has applied that signature deep-dive approach to other topics such as Ebola Deeply, with others topics such as the Arctic or Myanmar planned.

Following Mint Asia, which has a readership of around 5,000 now, Mint is considering launches in Malaysia and a few others, Sukumar Ranganathan, editor of Mint, said.

Sticking to the same topic but applying a different tone may look like what Al Jazeera is doing with AJ+, its digital news venture that adapts Al Jazeera’s “factual, fair and even-handed coverage” to a different audience — Millennials and others who get their information from the internet.

To offer a counter example, say you founded OpenCanada, a single-subject news site which covers foreign policy and Canada. A pivot means you can apply your foreign policy lens to another country or place, maybe OpenVietnam. Or you can apply your Canada expertise to another topic, like TechCanada. You wouldn’t expand to USA Agriculture. Move like the king, not the queen and expand to an adjacent space.

Start with a topic vertical, then pivot to an audience “horizontal’

When ESPN and ABC News lured Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight away from the New York Times, it wasn’t just because they wanted the statistician’s ability to predict national elections. In an interview with Erik Wemple, Nate Silver explained that FiveThirtyEight draws a great deal of men between the ages of 18 and 45.

“It’s a sports demographic more than it’s a politics demographic,” said Silver, noting that the mindset is not so much that FiveThirtyEight will attack a topical “vertical” but rather an audience “horizontal.”

A product’s brand can then become a proxy for its target audience’s worldview. An autonomous brand colors the worldview of an audience, from the unique voice and types of stories to metabolism of how many stories to read.

Another way to think about an “audience horizontal” is that you’re building a community.

“You must build a community,” Ranganathan said. “[It wasn’t] something we started out doing, but now [Mint Asia] does its own social media, events, partnerships.”

When I contacted Jamie Mottram of USA Today’s For The Win, he said he thought of FTW as a horizontal.

“This is not really a vertical — it could not be more horizontal and broadly appealing,” said Mottram. “Aside from the audience skewing young, we haven’t seen a typical user. It’s more female and younger than a typical sports site. It’s very broad. It’s not really targeted at one demo or another.”

In other words, the brand is not necessarily about sports, but the way in which you approach and the tone in which you’re covering the sport. In the long term, FTW may go more vertical with Football FTW or Washington DC FTW for example, Mottram said. The idea is similar to the adjacent pivot we discussed earlier.

“The subject matter and approach is not all that different from the Washington Post’s DC sports blog. The only difference really is that we’re not focused on it so we’re not covering it at a similar volume — but that’s one way in which it can grow,” Mottram said, identifying a possible competitive advantage for FTW. “Extension from a very horizontal broad brand into every sport, every team — anything that makes sense for audiences or advertisers.”

“The scale of a niche business is “niching’ the niche,” said Justin Smith, former president of Atlantic Media, in an interview for the Riptide project. “It’s not getting bigger. We’re burrowing deeper into different micro segments of influentials to get more data and more information and more content for them.”

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