The New Curators (of Content)

How Thrillist, PSFK and start-up iFlow are capitalizing on the accelerating need for content curation. (This article first appeared on
Barring the invention of a “time turner” like the one Hermione Granger sported in 3rd Harry Potter novel, most of us will never have enough time to consume the information we might otherwise want to absorb.  There’s simply too much info and too few waking hours.  Enter the notion of curation, a relatively new term that is not unlike the editor of old, a trusted person or organization that filters information and aggregates it in an organized fashion for others to enjoy.

According to Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation, “curation is the new way of organizing the web going forward.”  And no doubt he’s right.  Curious about why new curators like Thrillist and PSFK were thriving while the traditional publishing world floundered, I spent some time with their respective founders, Ben Lerer and Piers Fawkes.  These conversations plus one with Eric Alterman, the founder of a new curation engine called iFlow, revealed four insights that could help you too capitalize on the curation phenomenon.

You can’t curate for everyone, so be targeted
In Brian Solis’s recent tribute on to Rosenbaum’s book, Solis noted, “the social capital of a curator is earned through qualifying, filtering, and refining relevant content.”  The key words here being filtering and relevance, something that Thrillist with its focus on urban males 22-30 has done exceptionally well.  Explained Lerer, “we’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver.”

Thrillist, for the uninitiated, started in 2005 with a newsletter to 600 New Yorkers and is now in 18 markets with 2.5 million subscribers.  Added Lerer, “our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic.”  Lerer and his fellow curators of newish nightlife have built a highly profitable business during a time when traditional publishing tanked. This was done, according to Lerer, “by zoning in on a small sector of the population and speaking to them in a voice that they trust.”

It’s not curation without a well-defined focus
The New York Times famous line “All the news that’s fit to print,” made sense when newspapers were the primary source of daily information.  Now it seems more like a potential epitaph, as newspaper readership plummets in the face of more focused web-based alternatives. One of the up and coming alternatives is PFSK, which founder Fawkes described as “the go to source for new ideas for creative professionals.”

Founded in 2004, PSFK has grown from a trend-spotting website to a hybrid company that publishes content, creates events and provides consulting services to clients like Nike, Target and BMW.  When asked if PSFK was in the curation business, Fawkes affirmed, “yes, our job is to find new ideas and we present them up to 50 times a day.”  Reflecting on their focused approach, Fawkes added, “every month a million designers, ad folks, digital entrepreneurs and media mavens get inspired by our content.”

If the curation is good enough, it will [almost] market itself
In the new world of curation, “information becomes currency and the ability to repackage something of interest as compelling, consumable and also [as a] sharable social object is an art,” wrote Brian Solis. This perhaps is the fundamental difference between the old world newspaper and the new world of curators.  New world curators can connect and engage with other curators, helping to disseminate information quickly and at little to no cost.

Ben Lerer of Thrillist recalled taking this approach out of necessity since, “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,” explained Lerer.  By “putting content first and making sure its written for the guy reading it,” Lerer and his team developed a loyal audience that in turn shared the content and or acted upon it demonstrating they too were in the know.

Human curators beat the algorithms
No matter how you many words you type into Google, you’re not going to find a recommendation you trust without clicking deep into another site.  On the other hand, a quick visit to Thrillist and PSFK provides recommendations and ideas that are trustworthy without fail. When discussing the shortcomings of algorithmic curation, serial entrepreneur Eric Alterman explained, “only human curation can deliver real time content… that consumers are actually seeking.”

Seeing an opportunity in the limitations of algorithmic curation combined with the overwhelming flow of content generated via social media, Alterman is just about to launch a new curation platform called iFlow.  Alterman believes that iFlow will address the problem of information overload, enabling “efficient curation into highly contextual aggregate streams [that] include all content types.” Given Alterman’s track record of turning ideas into successful companies like KickApps, his hope “to bring the art of content creation to the widest possible audience,” is anything but a pipe dream.

Final Note:
While admittedly I’m no longer in Thrillist’s demographic, I became a fan in ‘08 when one of my clients wanted to connect with their readers.  Seeing Lerer’s presentation at a recent PSFK event, I was simply blown away by their success in three short years.  It was the quality of the presenters at this conference that got me thinking about curation and led to my conversations with Lerer, Fawkes and Alterman (see their respective interviews on

Making a Hit While Serving Customers

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.