Building a business from a blog

Commercialising a labour of love was an experimental journey.

This post follows on from “How a dancing robot led to Londonist“.

In 2010 Londonist Ltd was set up and we embarked on trying to commercialise our labour of love, setting out to experiment and answer three key questions.

  1. Why would advertisers want to spend money with us?

This we had prepared for. Our website traffic volume was attractive and built organically. We had a genuinely interested and engaged audience who cared about Londonist and what we could help them discover around the city.

Audience research showed they were a highly social bunch, hitting some of the ABC1 ‘millennial’ bingo words that media companies enjoyed so much back then; good incomes, up for going out, doing things, ‘early adopting’, ‘trend setting’, influential.

We knew they were also nerdy, like us. This would come in handy once we grew in confidence and could talk to all our favourite London institutions looking for the culturally adventurous and curious customer.

As Managing Director, I wanted us to stand out as ‘good guys’, to build strong personal relationships with advertisers and demonstrate what good value working with us brought. We would be responsive to advertiser needs and creative with our solutions, delivering quality campaigns which would keep customers coming back to us as trusted partners.

2. What paid for content would our audience accept / tolerate / enjoy?

We had an idea that sponsored content advertising had to be “Londony” and not look out of place amid our editorial. It had to be properly labelled as paid for.

After the first couple of small deals, we got feedback from our readers and swiftly learned how important aligning our commercial content with our editorial values and making it relevant to our audience was. It had to be credible and transparent.

We resolved that all sponsored content advertising should be of genuine interest to our best readers, about London brands, organisations, events and experiences.

Our in-house team worked hard with clients to make their advertorial pieces relevant, natural and interesting, pushing back where we thought our readers wouldn’t like their approach. I am proud to be responsible for influencing the strapline of a dating app around this time, explaining to the client their translation from French to English had an unintended sexual subtext that wouldn’t be helpful for their big launch.

We would – and did – turn down opportunities that didn’t fit or weren’t appropriate. Like the dating app that offered free drinks to women in bars, the logo of which placed a provocative martini glass in front of a female form.

3. Could it scale and become sustainable?

With London 2012 on the horizon we were commercialising at an exciting time for the city and there were a lot of relevant opportunities.

Single sponsored posts developed into packages of content, with social media and email marketing add ons. We pondered our pricing hard, wanting to create a fair, value for money offer for accessing the excellent audience of a premium brand and reflecting work involved in producing quality advertorial. Our in house team often had to go back and forth with clients a great deal before, during and after a deal to make sure they were happy and get the invoices paid.

Our first sales deck was a print brochure to snail mail to hundreds of potential local advertisers.

With a small team of interns and now working with a core team in an office, there was more capacity and talent to get commercial deals in and delivered. Our portfolio of customers expanded and many became regular repeat customers. We went to hundreds of meetings to ‘sell’ Londonist to those we were dying to work with and some who we weren’t sure of but knew they had budget. We stretched the limits of credibility for a buck at times but always the best commercial relationships were with those organisations our team and our readers genuinely liked.

Mutually beneficial media partnerships were forged with some of our favourite editorial subjects – museums, galleries and festivals – often collaborating on events. Londony pub quizzes in places not pubs became a recurring theme (on several types of boat, museums, a shipping container, a bookshop) and we became dab hands at getting people crafting or drawing on maps of a night out.

We even tried creating promotional videos on a shoestring, roping in team members as unwilling actors and branched out into merchandise (the mugs were a big hit). The first Londonist DVD was sold through Shopify and shipped from our Old Street office one Christmas, lugging sack after sack of DVDs across the Silicon Roundabout to the inevitable crazy queues at the Post Office.

We put our media kit online with snazzy case studies. It pleases me to see it still in use today.

There were tough compromises along the way, balancing the revenue requirements of an ever professionalising staff team and the organisation’s shareholders with the core editorial values of the original endeavour and the expectations of its staunchest fans.

But from a standing start in late 2010, the business was turning over half a million and profitable, supporting 8 FTEs and a host of freelance contributors by the time I left in 2016.

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