How Business Insider grew international revenue by 40 percent

While many digital media publishers have been forced to pare down their international expansion strategies, Business Insider is moving full steam ahead.

Ad revenue the digital media publisher receives from its 13 international license partners, eight of which are in Europe, grew 40 percent in the first few months of 2019, compared to the same period last year, according to the publisher. The revenue from those licensing partnerships now accounts for 30 percent of all ad revenue outside the U.S.

It wasn’t always so. About a year ago, BI started to reorganize its U.K. sales team to sell wider, international packages rather than just U.K. specific. During the same period, the publisher changed how it worked with its pan-European media licensing partners so that partners got a larger cut of any international campaigns sold from the U.K. office, and vice versa.

As a direct result, direct partnerships deals doubled in local markets in the first three months of 2019, though the publisher wouldn’t specify from what base. Programmatic revenue has also grown 80 percent in the same period, with a marked increase in guaranteed and preferred deals and yields, according to the publisher. While the majority of international revenue remains programmatic, direct deals are expected to rise further in the coming year.

Figuring out how to make local media partnerships thrive, has been key to growth. “In some ways, being a U.S. publisher makes it harder trying to go international,” said Julian Childs, svp of international and managing director of the UK for BI. “There is a so-called cultural nepotism around supporting local players.”

But by establishing mutually beneficial commercial targets in which local players can sample revenue from the big global deals sold by BI’s international team, and BI can get a stronger economic foothold into local markets that are tough to break into and aren’t as advanced in programmatic as the U.K.

“If we sell international deals, they [local partners] share in the local revenue and vice versa,” added Childs. “Typically, the deals have been direct partnerships, taking advantage of our unique ability to create, engage and distribute across social for partners with high-value audiences in multiple markets in language or globally in English.”

Not every licensing partnership works out. Recently, BI ended its partnership with Bonnier Media because it wasn’t the right strategic fit for the Nordics publisher. BI is currently operating that edition itself and remains dedicated to growing in that market, according to Childs. “It’s a combination of the right partner at the right time for that market. It has to be win-win for both sides and adding value for the readers and advertisers in the market. We’ve seen audience growth often between 5 and 10 times by adding local language sites.” BI is looking for a new Nordics partner.

Creating local media partnerships is a popular expansion route for publishers because it’s lower risk than investing in the overheads required to run an office. The first few months of 2019 have been a blood bath for digital media companies, and many have scaled back non-core international operations as a result. BuzzFeed pulled out of France, Mashable has all but disappeared from the U.K., and Huffington Post will officially end its licensing partnership with Burda Media in Germany in the next few weeks.

Having Axel Springer as a parent company provides decent insulation. In Germany, BI’s licensing partnership with Finanzen, a startup owned by Axel Springer, has recently been absorbed into the core Axel Springer team in its Berlin headquarters. Axel Springer’s sales house Media Impact will lead sales.

BI’s licensing partnership with Finanzen began in 2015 with a skeleton staff, and in that time the German audience grew to 4.75 million monthly users, according to AGOF, Germany’s equivalent to Comscore. The existing team will remain in place, and Axel Springer has assigned editorial and digital strategy veterans from its major titles Welt and Bild, to grow the brand further.

Although the strategy has been to ensure BI doesn’t rely on U.K.-only budgets, the London office grew 25 percent to 60 people in the last six months. Soon, the headcount will soon be 70 people, added Childs. Of the 12 commercial staff, six are dedicated to international sales.

The rise in programmatic guaranteed deals isn’t isolated to Business Insider but is a wider trend that’s accelerated in the last year as a result of increased demand for brand-safe environments. “In may ways, BI’s growth is unsurprising,” said Ryan Storer, svp and head of media activation for Essence EMEA. “There is an appetite across the industry to prioritize programmatic guaranteed deals with publishers you want to have a presence with and where context is a premium. Post-GDPR context is getting greater recognition rather than third-party data buys too, so these rises [across publishers] are being driven by context seen more as a currency and brand safety.”

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