Inside Business Insider’s aggressive European expansion

A lot has changed in the 18 months since Business Insider made its 2014 U.K. debut. The U.S.-based digital media company has seen its U.K. traffic grow from 2 million monthly uniques to more than 5 million monthly readers, according to comScore. It beefed up its London staff from 11 to 35 people and generated “triple-digit growth” in advertising revenue. Oh, and the publisher was also bought by German digital media powerhouse Axel Springer for $343 million (£235m) — a deal which has since prized open the door to further aggressive pan-Europe expansion.

That’s not to say it’s been without its sticking points. Jim Edwards, who moved from the U.S. where he was BI deputy editor, to London to launch BI U.K., said there’s still work to be done to establish the brand’s reputation as a quality media source in the U.K., both to consumers and advertisers.

“Our brand perception is two to three years behind where it should be. For years [before the U.K. launch,] people looked down on us, and thought we were a flash in the pan: just an aggregator of stories,” he said. “Initially the mission was just to launch in the U.K. without any screw-ups or embarrassing ourselves.”

In that regard, mission accomplished. Since hanging its London shingle, Business Insider has grown the audience even if it doesn’t have the reputation: ComScore numbers show it to be the largest business news site on the Web for British readers, Edwards points out.

BI covers finance, tech, advertising, lifestyle, and politics verticals, and stories range in format from a single sentence accompanying an image to 10,000-word pieces. “Our two biggest verticals are tech and finance news. That’s our brand identity: the cake,” said Edwards. “Everything else is the icing.”

It posts a lot of icing in the form of aggregated content and lifestyle fare. Still, the site’s best-performing stories tend to be quality pieces written for its core audience, said Edwards. He cited “Inside the crash of London’s £2.7 billion Unicorn Powa,” which has had more than 17,209 pageviews since it published on April 22. Of course, the deck may have helped with clicks: “Topless dancers, champagne, and David Bowie.”

Its editorial focus is popular with agencies. “Media agencies need to plan much more based on macro cultural insights, and those are often defined by the economy, which BI does a great job of understanding,” said Dan Chapman, head of digital at MediaCom. “Therefore, it’s a key player that media agencies should be getting involved with.”

Of the current staff, two-thirds are editorial and the remainder a mix of commercial and marketing. The title just hired its first U.K. video editor, who will build a video team. It’s also hired a lifestyle editor and a media editor. Expect more video experimentation as BI works out what its U.K. audience wants to view, particularly on platforms like Facebook, where BI U.K. currently has 222,116 followers, said Edwards.

Matching audience scale with revenue
When digital media companies scale audiences quickly, revenue doesn’t always follow. Julian Childs, BI managing director for the U.K. and Europe, won’t break out specific figures, but he said that UK ad revenue has grown at a “triple digit” rate.

BI U.K. didn’t launch completely from scratch: It had a base of 2 million monthly U.K. readers for its American content. On the advertising side, it relied very much on programmatic advertising to get its brand under the noses of agencies, according to Childs.

“Programmatic helped us a lot in the early days,” he said. “We benefited from audience buying to reach brands we may not have directly, to build that advertising base and then develop that into more direct relationships. That strategy worked here where the programmatic market is progressive, and we focused on private marketplaces.”

Since then, it has pivoted from reliance on programmatic to native. At launch, about 70 percent of revenue was from programmatic, said Childs. Now it’s the reverse: “Seventy percent is from native campaigns, though not always purely native campaigns, but bundles of native and standard campaigns.”

Until now BI U.K. has relied on the resources of the U.S. content studio for native ad campaign creation, while employing local freelancers wherever advertisers wanted specifically localized U.K. content. But to continue scaling that side of the business across Europe it needs more bodies on the ground, and it has hired several permanent U.K. content studio writers, and it will continue to build the team as demand increases in the U.K.

Mobile audience migration is a reality for all publishers, though Business Insider’s mobile readership seems above the average: Four in five of its readers are on mobile, according to Childs. “That means we’re bullish on things like building mobile branded content,” he added.

Building a subscriptions model
Business Insider makes most of its money from advertising, but like all publishers, it’s diversifying revenue streams. So far, that has come in the form of its subscriptions-based research unit BI Intelligence, which has been exported to the U.K. It costs $2,495 (£1,707) to access BI Intelligence currently for a year.

Though excited about the U.K. launch, Childs is clear that subscriptions here will always be a secondary revenue stream rather than a replacement for its core money maker: advertising. “We’re confident we can grow the subscriber base here,” he said. It could also pave the way for the company to try out other subscription-based products, he said.

Although BI will remain open-access, it’s not afraid to dip its toe further into subscription products in the future. “Just because we are an open-distribution model doesn’t mean there can’t be layers to that model. There are parts of our user base who we think will be willing to pay for specific content, so we’re exploring it,” added Childs.

International expansion
Being owned by Axel Springer has its advantages when it comes to international expansion. Having taken its biggest “leap of faith” in the U.K., where it has its biggest overseas staff count, it’s expanding aggressively into Europe. BI Germany has launched, and a Polish version will soon follow — Axel Springer will do much of the heavy lifting for these, hiring teams and overseeing them. “We couldn’t have launched a native German product without Axel Springer,” said Childs.

A mix of other methods will be used to extend the brand into markets in which its parent company doesn’t have a strong foothold. In Scandinavia, for example, BI has partnered with Swedish media group Bonnier to launch an English version of the site for Swedes at the behest of Bonnier. Likewise, in France, it has also picked the partner approach. Ironically, German media company Gruner + Jahr is the selected partner for expansion in France – courtesy of its division Prisma Media – where it has good traction, according to Childs. BI will also launch a site in the Netherlands.

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