‘Helping people discover information’: How Red Ventures grew into a giant

Whatever you do, don’t call Red Ventures an intent media company.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based media company, founded in 2000 by CEO Ric Elias, which made headlines this week when it announced a deal to acquire CNET Media Group from ViacomCBS for $500 million, has quietly built a portfolio of over 100 news and information sites over the past five years that the company now says reaches over 300 million readers worldwide every month.

The CNET acquisition was actually the fourth purchase Red Ventures made in 2020: The company also acquired the mental health site PsychCentral, Slumber Yard, a site that reviews mattresses, and Cord Cutters News, a site that covers the OTT space and reviews products such as Sling TV or YouTube TV.

Most of Red’s sites do make at least some money through display ads, and some, such as Healthline, which drew 75 million monthly unique users in July 2020, per Comscore, attract large audiences.

But Red’s portfolio is set apart from most media companies by sites that make most of their money from affiliate commissions, which they earn by driving sales or leads on pricey purchases, such as credit cards, movers, or energy providers. In categories such as credit cards, those commissions, particularly for publishers that drive high volumes of conversion, can run into the hundreds of dollars per user.

The private company’s sites, which does not disclose its revenues, have become a must-buy for banks and credit card companies looking to do affiliate marketing, media buyers say.

Even with that focus, Red’s management bristles at the idea that they are only focused on intent media, which helps market products to people on the verge of making purchase decisions.

“I think the term intent media is fairly narrow,” Red Ventures president of technology and media Marc McCollum said.

“We’re growing our media business overall, which includes news content, it includes video content that may be more top of funnel. It includes content that could be comparisons, reviews and advice.”

Red’s focus on building up its portfolio began five years ago, McCollum said. Some of that has been done through acquisition — in 2016 Red Ventures bought Bankrate, which owns sites including The Points Guy, and acquired Healthline and HigherEducation in 2019 — and some has been done through internal development.

The portfolio strategy was informed partly by plans to assemble sites that would enable Red and its advertisers to chart — and, in theory, move — a consumer down a purchase funnel and into a buying decision: To read about how to save money on one site, research credit card choices on a second before signing up for a credit card on a third. Red tracks site visitors across the sites in its industry categories using anonymous identifiers, McCollum said, and uses its first-party data to customize the offers and site experience they get.

To boost the reach of some of their sites’ content, some of Red’s sites have also forged partnerships with other media companies. The Points Guy, for example, has had a partner distribution program since 2017,  in which its articles about travel and credit cards are shared with sites ranging from Business Insider to CNBC.

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“We don’t limit ourselves to having to own an asset,” McCollum said. “We are in the business of helping people discover information.”

Much of those partnerships have focused purely on distribution. But more recently, they have become more involved. In June, Red Ventures announced a partnership with Time to launch a new version of NextAdvisor, a personal finance brand Red Ventures acquired when it purchased BankRate in 2017.

The newer partnership was the first of its kind for Time, Keith Grossman, Time’s president, said, and Red made every effort to make sure Time editors felt comfortable with the partnership, including hiring former Money editor in chief Adam Auriemma to oversee content for NextAdvisor.

“NextAdvisor won’t be the only partnership we do with Red Ventures,” Grossman said.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Red Ventures has made four acquisitions this year, not three.

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