We are constantly being told that the publishing industry is suffering, yet sites such as BuzzFeed continue to flourish by finding new ways to create content that people want to share.
But BuzzFeed is focused on the younger, cat-gif-loving generation, as are many of its competitors.
Now, new publishers are beginning to find gaps in the market: shareable content but for a different audience.
Those of you reading this in the UK could be forgiven for not having heard of LittleThings. Neither had I.
But when a representative of the brand sent me the following table of stats, the publisher suddenly had my attention.
Given how quickly LittleThings has grown in such a short space of time I thought there might be something other publishers could learn from its experience.
So I interviewed the site’s Chief Operating Officer, Gretchen Tibbits, to try and find out the secret behind its success.
Please give me a basic overview of the site.
It’s all uplifting, feel-good content. The mantra is you always feel better when you leave than when you got there.
We’ve got more than 45m monthly unique visitors and around 80% of that comes via mobile. We’ve got more than 7.1m Facebook fans. Monthly we go between 80m and 120m video views.
Our target audience is primarily women in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
How have you managed to grow your audience so quickly?
Firstly there’s very much a desire out there for good news, and currently there’s a real dearth of it.
Also, very few sites out there are speaking to the Gen X marketplace. The millennial marketplace is very overcrowded in publishing, but there aren’t a lot of media properties talking to these older women.
We were originally part of a company called PetFlow and our content began within that brand, so when LittleThings became its own entity last September we already had 3.5m Facebook fans.
In a little over a year we’ve double that figure, and that growth not only shows the desire for this type of content but also what happens when you create content that people want to share.
We pride ourselves on storytelling around the content, too. We are close to 60 people today and half of them are writers, editors or designers.
About a third of what we publish is original content while two-thirds is curated. But we put the LittleThings lens on it.
We’re also very protective of our user experience. If you look at our site compared to others there are far fewer ads and it’s very clean so as not to jolt the reader.
How did you find the gap in the market?
When you look at the market you can plot the sites that are out there in the lifestyle and women categories, and you’ll see lots of people fighting for that millennial woman but few targeting the older generation.
So when we looked at the marketplace there was this whole demographic that was incredibly underserved. Nobody was talking to these women and bringing them positive news.
Where does your traffic come from?
Facebook is a big partner of ours and we very much embrace that. The majority of out traffic comes from there and we’re also participating in Instant Articles.
But we’re very focused: we have a testing algorithm that all our content is run through, and that determines what we push out onto social channels.
So everything that hits our Facebook pages has been tested to make sure that what we’re putting out to our audience is very much what they’re looking for and is something they’re going to interact with and share.
What else do you do to market the site?
We’re not doing what I would call direct marketing but what we are doing is syndication with key partners.
Today.com has a section on its site that includes our weekly wrap-up of trending articles. We co-produce content with AOL. The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Yahoo and Daily Motion are all syndication partners and will pick up our content.
So instead of a direct-to-consumer campaign we’re working with content partners to build our brand in that way.
What is the key to creating shareable content?
There are a lot of aspects to it.
For curated content we have sourcing algorithms we use where we look at trends and analytics of things that have been posted very recently and then we have our own performance metrics we apply to them.
What we’ll do is look at something right after it has been posted, look at a number of criteria and say whether we believe it’s going to get a lot of social pickup or not. And if so we’ll be the ones to drive that.
For original content it’s about keywords and ideas, and whether it has the ‘wow factor’.
For instance, we co-produced a piece with the Today Show about how putting bright red lipstick under your eyes and covering it with foundation covers the bags beneath your eyes.
That’s a wow factor for our audience, and the important thing is that anyone can do it.
It sounds kind of silly but our audience wants the content to be approachable, so we have to show them things they feel they can actually do.
But a huge amount of it comes down to just knowing your audience.
How do you work with influencers?
We have select partners we work with, people who have a large social following and are interested in bringing the type of content we produce to that following.
I look at them as another form of syndication partner to help our content reach a broader audience.
How does the site make money?
Advertising, both direct and through ad networks. We use banner ads but we also have a number of sponsored content programmes running.
From day one LittleThings has been cash flow positive.
Has ad blocking been an issue for you?
The US is a little bit behind Europe in the adoption of ad blocking, but it is also something that tends to be adopted more by millennials and in particular males. The fact our audience is Gen X women means many haven’t installed it.
We also benefit from most of our traffic coming from Facebook via a mobile device. Right now when you’re using the Facebook app on your phone and then go through to a site the software doesn’t block the ads.
Like any smart publisher, we’re paying attention to it. Any businessperson should look at future opportunities and threats, but right now it’s not something that’s negatively impacting us.
What are your plans for the future?
One of the content areas we’re experimenting with is starting to report news, and for us it’s always going to be good news.
We also have an in-house content studio now, so we’re going to be producing more and more content ourselves.
Buzzfeed describes itself as a tech company that creates content, whereas we’re a content company that happens to have brilliant tech behind it and we’ll continue building on that.