While monolithic corporations like AT&T may be looking to grow by snapping up other giants like Time Warner, some longstanding Internet brands are winning by taking the exact opposite approach.
When Neil Vogel arrived at About.com as CEO over 3 years ago now, he knew had his work cut out for him. Most of the site’s key metrics were going south; while the rest of the Internet changed around it, About.com never changed. And that was the problem. About.com had been designed to be your go-to source for information, “whether it was colitis or Southern cooking,” says Vogel. Essentially, it was too diverse in its offering.
Vogel arrived with a simple but aggressive mandate: do what you think is right to get the ship righted. Action was taken swiftly, as the About.com team rewrote most of the site’s code and redesigned and reorganized the entire site.
Building the Future
Fast-forward two years. Traffic was going up again, and brands wanted to support About.com on the advertising side. However, the site’s execs still realized it needed a major pivot if it was going to ensure its long-term success. A year ago, management wasn’t particularly excited about the future, and felt they had taken About.com about as far as they could. “We had gotten really good at doing the wrong thing,” explains Vogel. After all, the biggest premium publishing brands are now vertical publishers, and it means that they didn’t mean much to the algorithms that send them traffic, and advertisers didn’t consider About.com a strong enough brand to compete vertically.
“It was unfocused,” admits Vogel in an impressive display of candor. “We were the biggest brand on the Internet that didn’t mean anything to anybody.” It was a hard conversation to have internally, to say “this thing we’ve been building the last few years, we were wrong.”
The solution: About.com would be better served by blowing itself up into unique offerings for specific verticals. But blowing up implies starting over, and this isn’t quite that, as About.com has the unique opportunity to launch each property strongly as a result of the parent brand’s immense reach.
With health and wellness-focused Verywell, the first such vertical launch under this new strategy, Vogel and his team thought it would take six months to get to where they had been from a search perspective, but adjusting for seasonality, they got back to where they wanted to be in just two and a half months. In fact, they’re now 30% better than where they previously were. Advertisers have been intrigued; the resulting sales pipeline is 200% from where it would usually be.
The pivot’s second vertical property is The Balance, a very personally-focused finance site compared to some other finance sites money hacks, careers, small business advice. The Balance is launching with over 34,000 pieces of content written by 70 experts, and has also added Jean Chatzky, the noted financial editor for NBC’s, “The Today Show” and author and host of the podcast, “HerMoney” as its first senior editor.
“Specialization is what people want to talk to,” says Vogel, referring to both consumers and advertisers. Management is trying to keep their focus on launching other vertical brands that lean into About.com’s historical core competency: very actionable, important information, where people really need to learn – as opposed to the fluff that dominates some properties.
Moving from one clearinghouse for various types of content to a collection of focused verticals meant a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Before they built out the new sites, management had to restructure all their internal teams. For example, 35 people exclusively work on health. Same thing with The Balance (20-25 people). It’s still one organization, but all of the decisions have been decentralized to the GMs of each vertical.
Continuing the Pivot
It would be one thing to build one site that embraces the future of media fragmentation. Building a second property that adapts to this new paradigm would show even more commitment. But in October 2016, About.com unveiled a third.
Its new brand is Lifewire, a technology site focused on helping everyday consumers manage their devices. The site’s tagline is “Tech Untangled,” which it does using a very clean, matter-of-fact interface. It is organized into four categories: How To, Fix, Buy, and Do More.
Lifewire’s content is put together by roughly 40 experts, who have put together 16,000 articles focused around the unifying theme of simplifying technology. Rather than just being a how-to site, Lifewire is designed to focus on actionable content: for example, The 7 Best Drones to Buy in 2016, or 13 Ways You’re Screwing Up Your Computer. Of course, there’s still plenty of how to content as well, from How to Rearrange Icons on Your iPhone to How to Take Screenshots on Android – the kind of content About.com has been providing for years.
The site is designed to teach users how to use their devices for productivity, sure, but also to have fun with them. It’s going for that perfect balance between helping everyday consumers make the best purchasing decisions, and then how to troubleshoot their devices during their entire life cycles.
Lifewire is focused on users who are tech savvy, educated, and typically use their tech to save time as well as money. Unlike some text sites which cater primarily to men, it’s important to note that a majority of the site’s users are women, and use technology for just about everything, but don’t really have the time to be obsessive with respect to the underlying Technology. “We know that women are just as interested in tech as men,” says Vogel. “We’ve built a site focused on the mindset of these users.”
In comparison to other leading technology properties, Lifewire boasts a 50% larger proportion of female users. Overall, its uses are far more likely than average to be working in fields related to tech. Assisting in connecting with those users is IDEA Studio, About.com’s in-house content studio. The internal agency – IDEA stands for “Intent. Data. Expertise. About.” – was founded mid-2015, and leverages data sciences to better predict the future of what consumers want to know. The goal is use IDEA Studio’s range of capabilities to create native and branded content that will be incredibly valuable to brands looking to connect with the Lifewire consumer.
Lifewire is the next phase in About.com’s massive pivot to become a leader in content verticals. “Brands matter and we’ve learned that you can’t be everything to everyone,” says Vogel. At the same time, Vogel adds, there’s a commonality that unites all these new About.com properties: “there is a similar thread in all of our brands and that’s demystifying complicated subjects in a way that is simple, approachable and friendly,” says Vogel.
Modernizing to Survive – and Thrive
Looking at the About.com pivot, one can’t help but compare and contrast with Yahoo, which is in the process of (probably) finalizing a sale to Verizon after years of floundering. After all, Yahoo has largely been a legacy Internet business with a slew of diverse content.
About.com made different decisions from Yahoo. For one, it decided they wanted to be a content company. Management made a commitment to making the very best content that makes people’s lives better. “We’re going to embrace what we are,” says Vogel.
The pivot was made possible by taking a hard look at where they were in the brand. Leadership decided there are no sacred cows, and everything should be open to discussion.
Like it or not, brands matter. Upon a real world test, About decided that their brands needed to be different. They thought it was confusing to do everything under one brand – for consumers, algorithms, and advertisers.
Smart media brands are embracing fragmentation to get more focused, not less. Whether you’re a pre-revenue startup or a well-established firm, there’s certainly a lesson in that. About.com understood what its weaknesses were, and is now working to turning those into strengths.”Let’s see what we can do if we build beautiful brands,” suggests Vogel. If Lifewire, Verywell and The Balance are any indication, they’re off to a good start.