How Atlantic Media’s CityLab plans to make niche work

The internet is favoring niche media, and The Atlantic wants CityLab, its site focused on the shift to urbanization, to take full advantage of it.

CityLab launched in 2011 as The Atlantic Cities and has gradually expanded. In 2014, it relaunched and expanded under the name CityLab. Last year, it got its first general manager, Rob Bole, and in January began being treated as a separate business line. Starting on Tuesday, the site will relaunch with a new mission and a new editor, Nicole Flatow, former enterprise editor of Guardian US.

Bole said the site, with a staff of 27, has a loyal audience and is “moving toward profitability.” But he said it has the chance to grow faster by sharpening its focus on urban decisionmakers, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts like bicycling advocates and neighborhood improvement organizations.

“It focuses on a very specific audience and companies that have an interest in reaching those audiences,” he said. “So the ability to refocus the editorial strategy and tie that to a business strategy was really appealing. The era for scale for pure scale was starting to falter.”

CityLab is part of Atlantic Media, which includes flagship The Atlantic as well as global business publication Quartz and B2B sites National Journal and Government Executive. Bole plans to borrow from best practices honed by those other publications, including Quartz’s native-ad driven revenue strategy and National Journal’s cultivation of a Washington, D.C., insider audience and membership program.

To start with, CityLab decided to stop programmatic advertising. Programmatic contributed 15 percent of CityLab’s advertising, but detracted from the experience, said Bole, who got weekly complaints from users about non-contextual and ugly ads. In its place, CityLab is making a bigger push into native advertising that will focus on content designed to appeal to urban decision-makers. So far, it’s done native ads for Mastercard, Esri and Living Cities.

CityLab also is sharpening the editorial content to focus on making cities more equitable and livable. As part of this effort, the site will reduce the number of verticals it focuses on from eight to five: design, transportation, environment, equity and life. The brand used to say “From The Atlantic,” but now it’s dropping that reference in its branding. “Our brand needs to succeed on its own,” Bole said.

Audience development is a third big prong of the strategy. Like many publishers these days, CityLab doesn’t want to depend wholly on advertising revenue, but wants to get consumers to pay. As a first step, it’s doing research to learn more about its audience, such as how often they come to the site, what they do for a living and their interests. Those findings will help it made ads that are useful to them. For one client, for instance, which CityLab couldn’t name, it’s developing a series of case studies of neighborhood-based solutions that promote inter-generational livability.

The knowledge will also help CityLab develop consumer events and ultimately, a membership plan. “As a niche site, knowing our audience is almost everything,” Bole said.

CityLab has already started to dabble in free events. It’s held a few gatherings called Happy Hour Labs that involve networking over cocktails at a bar, followed by light programming, usually featuring a CityLab journalist talking to an expert. At a recent one in Washington, D.C., 250 signed up for 60 available spots, which showed there was enthusiasm existed for that style of event and an opportunity to charge for events that don’t just have talking heads but involve the audience, discussing policy and ways to improve their communities. Bole’s goal is for events to contribute 15 to 20 percent of revenue in 2018.

For the second part of the pay strategy, CityLab is exploring a membership model for 2018. Publishers are riding a wave of consumer demand for quality journalism, tightening paywalls and pushing subscriptions. As a niche site, CityLab isn’t big enough to sustain a paywall because it needs a minimum amount of traffic to draw advertisers, and its monthly traffic has ranged from just 1 million to 2 million over the past year, per comScore. But specialized publishers such as National Journal, Politico and Stat have upsold readers to memberships costing thousands of dollars a year for professional products and services. In that vein, CityLab will look at a membership program that includes services such as original research and analysis unavailable on the free site.

“We have a loyal reader base, and the idea is to craft something for their needs,” Bole said.

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