Thrillist’s Email Empire

Thrillist is proving you can build a mini-media empire on dudes. Started as a DailyCandy-like email for young guys with money to spend, it has added a deals service and shopping club. With more than 4 million email subscribers, the company is bringing its dudes empire together as the Thrillist Media Group. Digiday spoke with CEO Ben Lerer about modern publishing, getting into people’s inboxes and, well, dudes.

Why is something as unsexy as email working so well for you?
I’m not the only guy who email is working for! Email is completely fundamental to the way adult human beings communicate. It’s something that is just a part of life. People wake up, check email; get into the office, check email. It’s fundamental like telephone is. Everyone has it, knows how to use it, knows how to maintain order within that inbox. So much has been done over last few years to protect sanctity of the inbox. That invitation to be a part of someone’s daily life is a nod to having interest in the content that is being emailed to you. Most Web traffic stems from people being lost, looking for something. For us, we just think it’s a natural place to make an impact — getting into someone’s inbox. The content we’re creating is really for email. Content doesn’t work if you’re jamming it into an email. The hard part is figuring how content and email can live more naturally in a Web environment and not just an email setting. Email means personal — a one-to-one connection — that we spent a bunch of time fostering, and we have seen a lot of business from it.

Social is the new black, replacing email in the eyes of many. What would you rather have: email subscriber/Twitter follower/Facebook fan?
Email subscriber. Not even close. But I like both of those other things. Jack’s — for what it’s worth, and I’m not really sure what it is worth — but in the last month, we’re seeing that community growing. Facebook engagement grew from 85,000 to 103,000 fans in the last month on JackThreads alone. That growth speaks to the power of that platform and the fact our guys are there. But everyone’s guys are there, right? We think there is an absolute value to that stuff; we just don’t know what it is. We’re figuring that out. We’re driving sales from Facebook, but more from email. And we’re able to tie them back directly to sales from email rather than Facebook.

Do publishers need to think beyond just ads for a revenue stream?
One thousand percent. If you’re relying exclusively on advertising and you’re a media company, you’re in a race to the bottom. We’re not going to be satisfied being a small-to-medium-sized lifestyle company. In today’s world, where everyone wants to be the biggest and the best and something last-able, you can’t scale content far enough. I just don’t know how big it can really get. It’s unfortunate that everyone thinks they need to scale endlessly. A content business isn’t going to be big enough on its own. For certain kinds of commerce, content is a natural place to be. Media companies have always thought about readers and tried to monetize them. Commerce companies think about buyers. The lasting value of a life-long customer is more important.

We’ve seen a little of the spotlight come off the Groupon deals model. Why do you think you won’t see the same type of attrition?
We already show a different kind of staying power. We’ve been doing this for six years. I don’t think Groupon or LivingSocial has lost its luster because of email. It’s like physics — what goes up must come down, right? There’s an inevitability in the world — when something goes up like a Groupon, and expectations are so great, of course, the honeymoon ends. People wanted it to be worth $20 billion. But it’s not. It’s a brilliant re-imagining of the Yellow Pages. I think it’s a great business to be had there, but there’s no way they could have avoided the backlash.

Do you plan to go beyond the male audience?
I don’t know. I would be really nice, and I think we could do cool stuff for women. There are only so many hours in the day. I feel like we should be focusing our attention on the lowest hanging fruit. We’ve done a great job over last year and a half taking our audience and creating overlap between audiences. I would love to find other brands that fit that criteria — sizeable and engaged audience would have interest in becoming a reader or customer of whatever business we decide to go into. We’re making a lot of process. We’re figuring this shit out. We have a great audience.

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