Making a Hit While Serving Customers

an interview with
Ben Lerer Founder, Thrillist

I saw Ben Lerer speak at the recent PSFK conference and was blown away by how quickly Thrillist has grown.  In many ways, its is a classic example of Marketing as Service, with the newsletter being the service and in this case part of the product that meets a distinct information need.  Thrillist has also had a profound impact on the businesses they’ve recommended, gaining the kind of “make a hit” influence that newspaper critics used to enjoy.

DN: Thrillist has grown quite a bit since its founding.  Can you give me the highlights of this growth in terms of subscribers, markets, revenue, profitability?
We sent the first Thrillist email in 2005 to 600 friends in New York and in that first year slogged through the mud and grew to 30,000 subscribers by the end of 2006. By the end of 2008, we had expanded into seven cities and became profitable, bringing in approximately $5 million in revenue. In 2009, we launched in five additional markets and passed the one million subscription mark. And now, just a couple of months into our sixth year, we’re in 18 markets including our first international edition in London, reaching over 2.5 million subscriptions. With the acquisition of members-only online retailer and the launch of localized deal site Thrillist Rewards, we’re expecting to bring in more than $40 million in revenue this year.

DN: Why do you think the Thrillist newsletter has been so successful?
As with any successful company, the winning formula is always a strong demand and a quality product. We’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver. They were looking for trusted recommendations on where to go and what to do in their city and the best ways to spend their time and money and we do a good job delivering that.

DN: How do you decide what to feature in each of your newsletters?  What is the editorial review process?
We have a local editor on the ground in each of our markets whose main job is to scour their cities to find awesome things.  It has to be something new, unknown or under-appreciated (i.e. an underground supper club, a maker of custom shoes operating out of a warehouse in Brooklyn, or a restaurant with an off-the-menu three martini lunch special).

DN: Talk to me some more about the importance of curating great content…
When we first started out, one of the stipulations with the money we raised was that we couldn’t spend any of it on marketing. So we focused all our energy on building something that people actually liked and would want to pass along to their friends. We know how valuable our guys’ time is and we don’t want to waste it with anything but the winners, so we always put content first and make sure it’s written for the guy reading it.

DN: Newspaper and magazines have been curating content for years yet almost all are losing money.  Why do you think Thrillist has been able to be successful curating editorial content when these other info sources have not been able to make any money, especially online?
Our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic. We’re not trying to reach all people in all cities. We’re zoning in on a small sector of the population, speaking to them in a voice that they trust and relate to and delivering content that they want to read, in a way they want to read it. Because of this, we’ve developed a loyal audience that trusts us and acts on our recommendations.

DN: Do you have a customer feedback system in place to help you measure what content is resonating?

We do have a system that collects data, click-through rates, etc. but we mostly find validation by speaking with the owners of the businesses we cover. We have stacks upon stacks of testimonials about selling-out seats, packing restaurants and huge increases in traffic to websites. We also see the companies being covered in additional press outlets and going viral across all social media platforms.

DN: Have you ever recommended something that turned out to be a bust?  If so, how did you handle this?
We’ve definitely recommended some things that were better than others — that’s part of the challenge of breaking stories. But our batting average is high and I think the audience has patience for when we miss because they really appreciate when we hit the nail on the head.

DN: Can you give me a specific example of a new restaurant or bar that you featured and the impact it had on that business
We recently covered a food truck named “Feed Your Hole,” that serves specialty hot dogs and burgers. We spoke to the owner a few days after our write-up who told us they were experiencing lines around the block and that they even had to turn away crowds of people. Prior to our write-up, they were unknown and by their opening day, there were masses of people lining up for their food. This is common feedback for us but its still awesome every time we hear it.

DN; What role does your website play in your overall marketing and customer service mix?
We recently redesigned our website but prior to that, it was mostly just used as a tool for capturing subscribers. Most of our partnerships efforts drove traffic back to the site with hopes of enticing new subscribers to sign up. Now, our website is more of a destination for users seeking local lifestyle and entertainment content but we still have lots of work to do. Basically, we know we’ve got lots of valuable content on the site but we’re still figuring out how to surface the right content to the right guys.

DN: You’ve added some new services in the last year or so.  What are they and why did you add them?
In the past, we had covered JackThreads editorially – they hosted a lot of brands that we also frequently covered and so it made sense for us to actually be able to sell these brands to our audience, instead of simply recommending them. Another recent launch is Thrillist Rewards, which gives us a chance to monetize some of the local transactions we’re able to drive every day. Our mission is the same with this as it is with our content: we want to bring guys deals that they’ll actually enjoy and are actually relevant for them. A few of our recent deals are “Unlimited Beer and Ribs at Hill Country BBQ” and “a Strip and a Strip at Robert’s and Score’s.” We are also able to help small business reach our audience beyond editorial coverage and national display advertising.

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