As someone growing up in the late 90’s, if you wanted to know something — about anything — you had limited options. Search engines weren’t what they are today, being a starting point for any question, ask, or simple curiosity one might have. For many this meant turning to About.com: a plethora of information spanning from diabetes to home repairs, pet food options to child scrapbook activities, and everything in between.
Fast forward to nearly twenty years later, where the internet giant has taken a new name — and a new approach — to content. Earlier this year, About.com rebranded itself to Dotdash, a collective of content destinations focused on what they found to be the most sought-after themes: Verywell (health), The Spruce (home and food), Lifewire (tech), The Balance (personal finance), TripSavvy (travel), and ThoughtCo. (education).
“We knew the content was really great [with About.com], but we made it very hard for people to use it. Dotdash changes that with clear, focused brands and content.” — Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash.
Seeing incredible success with the turnaround, we caught up with Neil, a speaker we’re excited to welcome at TAP 2017, ahead of the event to get a preview into the company’s approach. An unexpected move, traditional advertising hasn’t been a huge focus; in fact, the brand has stripped all content recommendation ads and autoplay video ads from its content, keeping the reader’s experience top-of-mind. As told to the WSJ, “Users need to trust us with health, finance, travel advice. We didn’t think it was a good fit.”
So what has Dotdash focused on, how has the shift to mobile changed the team’s overall approach, and where does commerce come into play?
Back in May, you led the About.com team through a complete brand overhaul, announcing the newly focused Dotdash. What led you to this decision and how was Dotdash created?
NV: I started with the company about four years ago, when About.com was still a very large platform. While it was huge with 100 million users, it was a little old school and under-invested in, it was impossible to use, and all of our traffic was search, which was declining due to a poor experience.
We knew the content was really great, but we ultimately made it very hard for people to use it. A new strategy was needed, so we grew the team to about 200 people, shifted the senior team, and rebuilt the About.com platform from scratch. Everyone was excited with the changes and when we put it out into the world, the decline had stopped; however, nothing happened after that. We still couldn’t get it to grow.
In taking a step back, we looked at three key constituents that we felt mattered for digital media. One was human beings, in that we knew people would trust information from specific resources and experts, which is where our interest in a vertical approach came into play. Second was advertisers, as they knew we had amazing data and the traffic they wanted; and third were the search site algorithms, which avoided putting us at the top of any results list due to our lack in specific focus.
We looked at our content and knew it clustered into key categories, a few being health, tech, travel and home, so we followed this approach. A year or so later, each brand is the fastest-growing in their category and we’ve become one of the fastest-growing digital publishers. Our brands have seen an incredible turnaround to the respective content on About.com, and our traffic is up 50%. A huge win for the team all around.
About.com was created nearly 20 years ago in the days before smartphones and now you’ve rebranded in an entirely new digital world. How important was mobile in the overall strategy of Dotdash?
NV: Since the shift to Dotdash earlier this year, we look at our business by brand now, which includes the six themes. We consider mobile about 45–75% of traffic, which certainly varies based on which category you’re looking at. For instance, someone looking up pregnancy information on Verywell is about 70% mobile traffic. Recipes are also majority viewed on mobile, but our tech site, Lifewire, for example is mainly a desktop platform for our readers.
“It’s safe to say that mobile is a huge part of our strategy, accounting for at least half of our business.” — Neil Vogel
Are there any plans to build out Dotdash’s new brands into native mobile apps in the future?
NV: At this point in time we’ll be sticking to mobile web as it’s been incredibly effective. In my experience, native apps are really great for fulfilling a want or need and gaming. We’ve seen about 60% of our traffic come from Google, but we don’t use AMP at this point. If we can make it a fast, clean experience, which I think we’ve done with our six brands, then mobile web is a great option and a native app isn’t necessarily needed.
With the content now vertical-focused on the six new sites, are you planning to monetize beyond traditional advertising?
NV: In general, we’ve decided to strip out a majority of advertising from our pages, specifically content recommendation ads and autoplay video ads within our content. We look at everything now through brand and vertical, and people need to trust us in those respective categories.
We’ve had a lot of success with commerce, which is a particularly huge opportunity with Lifewire and The Spruce. Most importantly, we approach this so it’s not intrusive to our readers’ experience; we make sure everything we do is in line with our message.
Look at Lifewire specifically, where we help people choose what technology is best for them and their lives. We have a lot of guides, ratings, and reviews around products we trust, which naturally generates commerce. The Spruce, our lifestyle publication focused on helping people make their best home, is also very similar in nature, where home and cooking items are easy purchases.
“We only incorporate commerce in places where it feels natural and where our readers trust us.” — Neil Vogel on Dotdash’s approach.
We’ve seen media sites like Buzzfeed and social platforms like Instagram and Pinterest turn to commerce, connecting their consumers to actionable content. It seems Dotdash is doing the same in some of its content — do you see this trend increasing over time? Is affiliate a big part of Dotdash’s overall monetization strategy?
NV: We will continue to create content for what users want, and will write about what people really need help with. We want commerce to be additive to the user’s experience. One example is that we’ve recently begun getting into trip booking with TripSavvy, and Booking.com will also be incorporated. Overall, our biggest focus is helping people, whether that’s answer questions, solve problems, or be passionate about their hobbies. We’ll inject commerce into that experience where it’s appropriate and not disruptive to the user.