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How media startups can launch minimal viable products
Sometimes it's best to test the waters before you introduce your publication to the wider public.
Hello there! This is the latest edition of my Q&A series where readers ask me questions and I do my best to answer them.
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How media startups can launch minimal viable products
The first question comes from Ben DeJarnette:
What are the best examples you've seen of news startups launching with small-scale MVPs or open/closed betas for their product, collecting feedback from early adopters, and then using the insights from that pilot period to refine their product ahead of a public launch? I know of several "accidental" news startups that began as a small passion project and then grew organically over time, but I'm curious to learn more about news entrepreneurs who intentionally launch with a pilot/beta, why they choose that path, what they learn from it, etc.
This is a great question and reminds me of a piece of advice I heard somewhere about launching a new podcast: you should record several “pilot” episodes that are never intended to see the light of day. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever release them to the public eventually, but it’s important to go in with the mindset that these are “practice” episodes that will allow you to collect feedback from colleagues and also get a feel for what works. That mindset gives you the permission to acknowledge to yourself that the podcast isn’t market ready yet and needs more refinement. I thought that was great advice and I often give it to people who ask me about starting a podcast.
A few years ago I read a biography of Time Inc founder Henry Luce, and he was famous for producing lots of “sample” issues of a magazine prior to its official launch. Publications like Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Life, and People went through dozens of iterations before the first issue was released to the public. Imagine being a freelance writer who’s commissioned to write a piece that’s never meant to see the light of day!
Anyway, you’re probably looking for some actual modern day examples. I can think of three off the top of my head:
The Ankler is an industry newsletter that covers Hollywood and is considered to be one of the most successful publications on Substack. What many people might not realize is that Richard Rushfield founded the newsletter in a pre-Substack era, and that he didn’t make it public at first. Here’s how he explained it to me:
I didn't exactly know what it was going to be. Today, the newsletter consists of essays and takes about the entertainment industry, but when I started off, I was just writing reviews of whatever I watched on TV last night, or doing lists of 10 great submarine movies, or whatever it was. It was kind of all over the place. I took a while to find my voice, and I knew I wasn't ready to launch this as a product yet. So the first week, I sent it to five friends, and I asked them to read it and tell me what they thought of it. And then I added on five more the next week, and then five more of the week after that.
And I began to find the voice in the space and figuring out how much time it really took me to put one of these out. At first, I thought I would produce two of these newsletters a day, but I quickly discovered that was impossible for me, because I'm a painfully slow writer. And so it grew to about 50 people, 50 friends who were reading it, and I'd asked them to all keep it a secret. And then I said, ‘okay, if you like this, go ahead and pass it along, you can tell other people to subscribe.’ And then by word of mouth, it took off, and about nine months later, I finally introduced the paywall.
Check out my full interview with Rushfield over here.
Payload is a newsletter that covers the space industry. In the summer of 2021, it raised some seed money and hired beat writers to create original content, but for the first several months of its existence Payload focused entirely on news aggregation. That’s because its two co-founders, Mo Islam and Ari Lewis, wanted to establish an MVP and get some influential early adopters on board.
I actually interviewed Islam a few months ago for my podcast, but I haven’t published the episode yet. Here’s an excerpt of the interview where he talked about the early strategy of developing a product-market fit for the newsletter:
I am not a journalist and it's a miracle that we were able to even get some subscribers at the time, because, quite honestly, I think my writing is pretty horrible … In the very beginning, it was a bit of a struggle as I tried to write in a voice that's really interesting and exciting and sort of tells the story of what we're trying to do here.
This initial version of Payload was just a stopgap. Early on, the co-founders knew they eventually wanted to hire Ryan Duffy, a Morning Brew writer, to helm the newsletter. But first, they needed to get a foundational readership of at least 1,000 influential subscribers.
Here’s Islam again:
It was in September  when we sent the first prototype to like 50 people …
…In the beginning, we were actually just focused on aggregation. We were like, ‘we don't need to write anything original right now because we know that what's missing in the industry is just a really great summary of all the important news for that week.’ … And that's what we did in the very beginning. And we started to gain a lot of traction. I think two months into it, we got a number of public company CEOs to sign up, and that's when we were like, ‘wait a minute, are we on to something? This is clearly something that the industry needs, let's figure out how to build this thing out.’
Because they weren’t producing original content at the time, the co-founders had to get creative in how they found subscribers; Lewis would search out space company executives on LinkedIn and then send them a connection request that included a personal message encouraging them to sign up for the newsletter. And because the pitch was so targeted, many of them did, indeed, subscribe.
Here’s Islam one final time:
We weren't expecting to get this massive, Morning Brew-type growth. The way we judged traction was how many C-suite people were reading us. If we got 100 new subscribers, then probably like 30, 40 people were executives in very clear leadership roles. These were the decision makers we wanted to reach.
My full interview with Islam will go live sometime in the next few weeks, so watch this space!
The New York Times audio app
The New York Times has a pretty big footprint in audio. The Daily may be the world’s most popular podcast, and it recently acquired both Serial Production and Audm, a subscription app that converts longform magazine articles into narrated audio recordings.
But its audio ambitions are much bigger, and it’s preparing to launch some sort of standalone app. In a recent episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass directed listeners to visit a special landing page that would allow them to beta test the NYT app and provide feedback. Here’s the sign-up page.
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How do you introduce companies to paid spend?
Speaking of Payload, the next question comes from co-founder Ari Lewis:
How do you introduce companies to paid spend? We have a vertical B2B publication (business and policy of space). We have secured a variety of sponsorship deals with notable companies, but many companies that read us don't want to advertise. They don't believe in paid spend.
Any suggestions on how to change the mindset?
So if I understand your question correctly, there are lots of companies in your industry that are happy to accept free earned media but are reluctant to take out their wallets to spend on advertising.
So a couple of things come to mind. The first is a strategy that was leveraged by a publication called The Penny Hoarder. For the uninitiated, The Penny Hoarder specializes in personal finance content that caters to people who want to find innovative ways to save and make money. It’s primarily monetized through performance marketing, and one of its best sales strategies was to approach companies that it had written about and show them data on how the Penny Hoarder’s audience had engaged with an article. Here’s how its then-head of business development, Vishal Mahtani, explained it to me:
Basically, because The Penny Hoarder is a personal finance site that often recommends products and services for either making or saving money, it’s able to insert special tags in its links to those products that will ensure it gets a cut of any sales. Many major online retailers already have these affiliate programs set up so all you have to do as a publisher is copy and paste the link. But part of Mahtani’s job is to approach companies that don’t have affiliate programs and convince them to form such a partnership with The Penny Hoarder. “For instance, we might write a piece about the ‘7 brilliant ways to make more money driving for Uber,” he explained. “This is an article that people will find useful and helpful if they want to become a driver. It aligns with our editorial voice, our values, where we’re trying to put more money in people’s pockets. And we’ll go out and break a deal with Uber. Our pitch is that we’re going to send you new drivers — or we might have already been sending you drivers — so how can we improve this relationship? How can we deliver more traffic to you? And of course they’ll look at traffic and say, ‘Yes we like it, how do we get more?’ And we’ll just have a business development phone call and figure out how to drive more business to them.”
So let’s say Payload publishes a newsletter edition about Space Company Y. You would then allow your salesperson to go into the analytics dashboard and grab several data points, including:
How many impressions/opens the newsletter got
How many link clicks the newsletter received
The job titles/industries/companies of the people who opened and saw that edition of the newsletter
The salesperson can then use that article and data as a jumping off point to argue that paid spend will drive real measurable results. Companies love earned media and will probably be more responsive than if your salesperson were just sending them a cold email.
My other thought was that you need to design ad products that cater to the KPIs of your client base. My guess is that aerospace companies have a long sales cycle, meaning that it probably takes months for them to close a single deal. Because of that dynamic, they’re probably less interested in direct marketing and brand advertising. Their main focus is lead generation.
So here’s an idea: propose a “partnership” wherein your editorial team works with the client to create a sponsored white paper. The PDF of the white paper would be published behind an email gate on the client’s website, and you would promote the white paper within the Payload newsletter. That way, not only are you driving visitors to the client’s website, but that audience is then handing over email addresses and other contact information so that the client’s sales team could follow up with them.
You could also employ a similar strategy with webinars: co-host a panel with your clients and then collect email addresses at the point of entry. At the end of the webinar, hand over the email addresses to the client. Then they feel like they’re getting a mix of both paid AND earned media.
Did I not answer your question yet?
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The promise of programmatic ad tech — that it would allow publishers to squeeze more revenue from their audience than they would otherwise from traditional ad sales — was largely based on a lie. [Adweek]
Many podcast networks are rushing to develop kids shows because parents are eager to have child-friendly programming to listen to in the car. [Hollywood Reporter]
There are lots of profiles of homegrown TikTok and YouTube stars, but not many of video creators who built their audience on Facebook. This guy is earning upwards of $130k a month from Facebook's ad sharing. [Insider]
Substack launches a dedicated iOS reading app. [Substack] Here are my initial observations/thoughts: 1. While readers can consume paid content on the app, they still need to register for a paid subscription on the open web. This means Substack writers won’t be subjected to Apple’s 30% fee. 2. When you log onto the app, Substack automatically stops sending you email versions of the newsletters you subscribe to. If the app user stops using the app regularly, then your newsletter resumes email distribution. I can’t say I’m super psyched about this feature. What happens if someone opens the latest edition of my newsletter, decides it’s too long to read on mobile, and then closes it? I want that edition sitting in the user’s inbox the next time they open up their laptop. 3. Substack claims it’s not going to introduce any sort of reader algorithm that can choke off a writer’s distribution. Newsletter editions will appear in reverse chronological order. 4. Ultimately, I think this is Substack's play for bypassing spam filters and things like Gmail's Promotions tab, which will always pose a threat to its distribution.
There are now lots of narrative podcast shops whose entire business models revolve around pitching their shows to the major tech platforms and Hollywood studios. [NYT]
If you're attractive and post a "thirst trap" photo to Instagram, you could suddenly find yourself featured on its Discover page, which then incentivizes you to post more thirst traps. [Insider]
Top executives from Google, Condé Nast, Vox Media, and Quartz discuss their audience development strategies. [Medium]
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