How The Art of Manliness built its loyal audience

The publisher intentionally stayed small, choosing to focus mostly on his website and podcast.

Most major media companies are focused on scale. They want to reach ever larger audiences and then leverage that reach to drive more revenue. To accomplish this, they invest time and resources to create content across all major social platforms, from YouTube to TikTok to Snapchat.

The Art of Manliness isn’t that kind of media company. Let me give you an example of what I mean: it managed to build its YouTube channel to 1.2 million subscribers, an impressive feat, only to mostly abandon the channel several years ago. In a 2017 video, founder Brett McKay explained that there were other projects he’d rather devote his time to — projects like writing a book, lifting weights, and producing his podcast.

According to Jeremy Anderberg, the Art of Manliness’s managing editor and one of only three full time employees, this kind of narrow focus is part of the company’s ethos. It purposefully didn’t try to scale like the BuzzFeeds and Vox Medias of the world. Instead, its team devotes nearly all of its energy into writing articles and producing a podcast, the latter of which has an incredibly loyal audience. That audience is so loyal that thousands have signed up for a 12-week bootcamp the company runs for “those who wish to revolt against our age of ease, comfort, and existential weightlessness.”

Anderberg spoke to me about how The Art of Manliness built its audience, why it launched its bootcamp, and what it’s like to work for a media company that purposefully stays small.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How the company was founded

Brett McKay launched The Art of Manliness as a blog all the way back in 2008. “He was at a bookstore browsing the men's magazines section and was disappointed with the content he was seeing,” said Jeremy. “It was stuff about the latest six figure car and how to get six pack abs.” Brett wanted to create content that appealed more to the average male. “The very first article he published was on how to shave like your grandpa, which was about straight razor shaving, and it's still a popular article.”  

Most of the articles published to The Art of Manliness are longform and perform well in Google search results. “The minimum length is about a thousand words, which is on the shorter end, but we often go up to 2000, 3000 words. I've done a 10,000-word article in the last year. And so there's a ton of research that goes into it. A lot of times we'll scan a number of books, we'll talk to experts in the field. We will also do just a Google search and see what the first page of Google has to offer on the topic and see how we can differentiate ourselves within that subject matter. A lot of times, an article is in the making for a number of weeks, even months before we're hitting publish.”

For the first few years, The Art of Manliness was run entirely by Brett and his wife, but they hired Jeremy in 2012. “I was a reader of Art of Manliness in college, and when I graduated I got my first job with a social media agency that then ultimately floundered. And so I was looking for work and started up a side hustle where I was editing and proofreading other people's blog posts, resumes, papers. I was a journalism student in college, and so writing and editing has always been a strength of mine. Brett and Kate published a piece on how to start a side hustle and ideas for doing so, and I left what was, I'm pretty sure, my first internet comment ever on that piece, and I said, ‘Hey, here's my website. Here's what I'm doing, and here's what's working for me with my freelance editing.’ The next morning I opened my inbox and Brett and Kate had actually emailed me and said, ‘Hey, we've been looking for a new person to just proofread our pieces. Would you be interested?’ Of course I was. So I did that solely on a freelance basis for about six months, and then they brought me on full time. At first I was just proofreading and doing executive assistant stuff, but over the years it's evolved. I'm now managing our ad partnerships, illustrators, writers, and vendors.” 

Expanding into YouTube and podcasts

Brett launched a YouTube channel for The Art of Manliness about 13 years ago. He appeared in most of the videos and used them to answer common questions like “How to whistle with your fingers” (5.2 million views) and “How to iron a dress shirt” (3.1 million views). Eventually, he amassed over a million followers.

But then a few years ago Brett published a video announcing that he no longer planned to post regularly to the channel. “We get asked about why we stopped producing video all the time,” said Jeremy. “As a three-person team, we have to make some hard decisions about what we're going to focus on and put our energy into. Among the three of us, none of us really like video. We don't like making it, and when we did do it, we ran into a lot of problems just with writing the scripts, getting the voiceover actors, getting the editors to all work cohesively on a timeframe that worked for us.”

Winding down the YouTube channel freed up time that could be plowed into producing the company’s podcast, which is now its most well-known product. “There are a lot of people who listen to the podcast that don't even know that we have a website. They’ll write to us and say, ‘oh, I just discovered you had a website with all this text content.” The podcast is published twice a week and has amassed over 700 episodes. “It hovers in and out of the Apple top 100 shows for the lifestyle category.”

The podcast focuses entirely on Q&A interviews. “We speak almost exclusively with non-fiction authors, partially because when you're talking about a book, it gives you a really good framework for an outline of a conversation. We like to focus on practical topics, something that a man or a woman could apply to their life right away.” Recent episodes have focused on things like “A Futurist's Guide to Building the Life You Want” and “How to Fight Internet-Induced Numbness.” Though Brett hosts the podcast, Jeremy is in charge of vetting the guests. “So the guest vetting is probably the biggest  time chunk for me personally. I get from publishers five to 10 books a week in the mail. They're trying to push their new authors to be on the podcast. And so I will read anything that seems to fit with the brand. I'll read a quarter to a third of those books and try to get a feel for if it'd be good for the show. If the book is good, then I'll go further by listening to interviews with the author to make sure they're charismatic, that they can hold a conversation. And then, as a team, we'll sort of all decide who to book when, because we also like to have a big variety in categories. We like to hit fitness, how to, outdoor stuff, history, philosophy. We like to hit all of those in any given month.” 

Monetization

Most of the company’s revenue is generated through advertising. “So on the website, the banner ads are just run through Google. That's pretty turnkey for us; we'll upload the banners and let it do its thing. The podcast is certainly the primary revenue stream, and for the advertising, we work with Midroll, which is part of Stitcher. They do all the ad sales, and what they'll do is they'll sell to one company, like Better Help” — a subscription platform that allows users to access trained therapists — “and then Better Help will just sort of target their ads across the entire network, and we will record our ads. Bret prefers to read his own ads versus doing a third-party read, just because there's more click through, which is better for us in the long run. So he reads all the ads and then we upload them and that's about it. So we don't have to do any of those podcasts ad sales, which is great because when we were doing that six years ago, it just took up a lot of time and energy. So it's nice to be able to offload that.”

The Art of Manliness has produced a number of books with titles like “The Pocket Guide to Action: 116 Meditations on the Art of Doing.” It also has a membership program called The Strenuous Life. “That's sort of a Boy Scout program for men. It's an online platform, but you do stuff in real life. You have these tasks to complete, and in exchange you can get a real badge in the mail. The way that works is it's a one-time payment of $225 and you get lifetime access. We have been told many times that that price is too low and that we should be doing a monthly subscription, but we were intentional in our pricing because we’re aware of our audience’s frugality, and we know that when you have a monthly cost, that you'll often just forget about it, even when you're not using it. We have 9,000 folks around the world that are signed up now, and we do enrollments four times per year. It's still going strong and it's been a really fun program to run. It’s the product that, in some ways, we're most proud of because you see people using the content and then actually accomplishing these goals in real life, which is what we love to see.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.