This journalist launched a news outlet for French expats in the U.S.
Emmanuel Saint-Martin’s French Morning caters to French citizens who live in the United States.
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One of the best ways to scale a bootstrapped media company is to cover an underserved niche, and Emmanuel Saint-Martin found one in the French expat community. There are about 300,000 such expats in the U.S. alone, and many have specific information needs that aren’t well served by either mainstream U.S. or French outlets.
In 2007, Saint-Martin launched French Morning, which he initially maintained in his free time while working in TV news. Today, the site employs a full time staff of 10 and about 20 freelancers, and it operates city specific verticals all across the U.S. It also recently expanded into the UK.
I interviewed Saint-Martin about his audience development strategy, how he monetizes his content, and whether he plans to scale his model to cities all across the world.
Let's talk about the founding of French Morning. What was your background prior to founding it?
I have been a journalist all my life; I came to New York 16 years ago, to follow my wife. Before that I was working for a weekly newsmagazine in Paris. Here, I freelanced, wrote books, and started working in TV as correspondent for France 24, a news channel.
How did you initially form the idea for what became French Morning?
I had noticed there was nothing for French expats/immigrants in New York (where I started) in terms of news. My idea was to do an outlet where they could find community news, news you can use, and other content related to their life. I had no idea if it could become a business, I just started it.
How big is the French expat community in the U.S.?
Around 300,000 people, so not big..
When did you launch French Morning? And was it just you at first?
I launched in 2007. It was just me, as a side thing. I had a full time job at the time with the TV.
So was it just like a blog to start with?
Sort of, but it looked like a web magazine (with categories, hierarchical homepage, etc...); I had paid someone to design it (for $1,000) and I started a newsletter (weekly), just a list of links of recent articles, soon after the launch.
Give me some examples of the kinds of topics you would write about
We had, and still have three categories of content:
Community-based magazines, anything from the profile of French entrepreneurs in the U.S. to "comparative stories" (why do American do this, why we do that, etc...).
News you can use: from immigration ("how to get the green card") to education (which school to choose), health insurance, pension, etc...
City guide: things to do around you.
In fact, you don't cover any U.S. news unless it's of direct interest to the French expat community, correct?
Exactly. Even with something as big as the U.S. election, we did only a few profiles of dual citizens voting for the first time, or more recently, did profiles of "Francophile" members of Biden's cabinet, those kinds of things. Our approach is really one of local media. Nobody needs us for news about U.S. politics (or French for that matter).
So you launched French Morning in 2007. How did you start to find an audience?
Organically and mainly through our newsletter first. Search was a challenge, because we were talking to an audience in French who all had their browsers configured in English... So it was almost all word of mouth at the beginning, and also some cross promotion to grow our base of newsletter subscribers.
How much time went by before you felt like you had enough market traction to focus on the site full time?
Many many years 😀. I operated as a one man band for three to four years, and at one point I had enough and thought I needed to try to professionalize the operation... I actually hired people (mainly in sales first, then journalists) before being full time myself. I have been working on the site as my main job only for these last two to three years.
How do you approach monetization?
Advertising is still our main source of income. We diversified in events five to six years ago, but most of our "events" revenue is from businesses (as vendors in fairs and conferences) and sponsors. We tested subscriptions but were not able to find a way to do it.
In terms of advertising, everything is sold directly by us. We don't' do programmatic, or affiliation, or anything. We found that our value is knowing and sort of "owning" our niche and it requires selling ourselves, having the direct line with the advertisers, who are all coming to us specifically because they target this niche of expats.
What kind of advertisers are eager to work with you?
Before the pandemic, airlines were our #1 category, especially small and low-cost airlines. After that, there is the large and diverse category of "wealth management and investment,” companies that specialize in managing money for expats. Real estate is also a big source, so are private schools (bilingual education). After that, smaller advertisers are consultants, lawyers, etc.
What kind of ad formats do you sell?
We sell branded content (mainly articles and some videos); email blasts, banners on the site and newsletters; sponsorships for shows and podcasts. We also have a business directory with paid placements.
How does the business directory work? Is it just a list of businesses run by French expats?
Yes basically. A page in the directory is free; people pay to be included in the newsletter and appear on the homepage.
You mentioned events. What were you doing on that front?
We started with a Bilingual Education Fair, where all providers of solutions for bilingual education (schools but also after schools, online, books, etc) would participate, and families interested in bilingual education would come and browse the show. We also did a lot of events around food (surprise surprise), like an annual "best baguette competition" in all the cities we have editions in.
How many cities do you have editions in now?
We have six in the U.S.: NY, SF, LA, Texas (obviously not a city), Miami, DC. Also we opened in Montreal and in London two years ago.
So is your strategy shifting somewhat to where you're trying to create content that appeals to expats in very specific geographic locations, as opposed to a site that aims to appeal to all expats across the U.S.?
Yes. Three years ago I realized that we were getting to a plateau in terms of growth of our audience and revenue. We had roughly 300k visitors at the time for 300k people in our target audience... One way to keep growing was to go after a new audience: American francophiles, people interested in France. We founded a site in English for them (Frenchly); it's a different audience and a different market. The niche is potentially much bigger but less "obvious" than expats. So the other idea was to replicate what we had done in the US globally. We raised money through crowdfunding to help us do that and open in the UK.
Tell me about what you're doing outside of text-based journalism. You're doing podcasts and video, right?
Yes we have been doing podcasts for two years now, in London and in the U.S.; we also do videos. Videos are on the lighter side, funny capsules about French-American incomprehensions. Some have had millions of views on Facebook and YouTube.
How big is your staff currently, and what are their various job roles?
I have around 10 people right now (down from 14 pre Covid). Four are in ad sales; four journalists and two in marketing (mainly for ad delivery).
We also have around 20 freelancers writing for us (or doing podcasts, video) on a regular basis.
So what's your weekly and daily workflow look like as the guy who runs all of this? How do you determine the editorial output on an ongoing basis?
I spend roughly half of my time on the content side and the other half on management/strategy, etc. Editorially, we have one big conference every Friday open to staff and freelancers. That's where most of the ideas come about. Our editorial calendar is largely dictated by the newsletters that come out once a week in most cities (twice a week in NY and London).
When you say "dictated by the newsletters," what do you mean by that?
I mean we organize editorial workflow to make sure we have enough content for the newsletters (for example in LA our newsletter is on Wednesdays, so I make sure we have enough fresh local content for that day). For bigger markets (for us), like NY and London, we publish every day.
So what are your goals for the future? I mean, for starters, there are French expats all over the world; seems like you could continue scaling the model there. But then there are all sorts of expats from different countries where your model could be replicated (Spanish expats, German expats, etc..). Do you think there's a place in the market for such a company to specialize in this?
Our goal, once we have come back from the current crisis, is to continue growing around the world. Our next step should be Asia. We were about to open in Hong Kong over a year ago. The political situation first and then the pandemic forced us to shelve these plans for now, but hopefully we will come back to it soon. Beyond that, aggregating other communities (Spanish, German, etc) makes a lot of sense from a revenue standpoint. It would allow us to go after larger advertisers. My feeling is that it would be doable only by acquisitions. It's something we might look into later.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.