‘The Times Should Own Warby Parker’: Thrillist’s Ben Lerer on the Future of Commerce and Content

When I met Ben Lerer on a grassy hill outside the Four Seasons at SXSW, the Thrillist founder was looking to run.

He was dressed in black running shorts, running sneakers, and a gray tee. “Dude, you can’t move three feet here without running into someone,” he said, talking fast. “I’ve just been trying to run all day. I went to brunch like this.”

Since founding Thrillist as a Penn grad in 2005, Lerer has been moving fast, too. Thrillist began as a newsletter and web guide for New York City bros seeking adventure, but it soon blew up. Thrillist’s first growth steps were predictable; they expanded to new cities (LA, SF, Vegas, Miami, Chicago) and replicated a successful formula. But then, the unexpected happened: Thrillist bought JackThreads, and a bold new model that combined content and commerce was born.

“We had built a big audience of guys who trusted us, who took our recommendations to heart and acted upon them,” Lerer told Mashable in 2013. “But there was a part of the relationship missing. We’d tell them about a shirt; they’d buy it somewhere else, and they’d leave us—they’d lose the connection to our brand. More importantly, we didn’t understand any of the data about what was happening out there. We knew we were driving a lot of traffic to retail, but we didn’t know how much we were affecting guys’ behavior. So we recognized we could be both a media business, with brands paying to get access to [our subscribers], and also drive some purchases to ourselves.”

That bet paid off. Thrillist Media Group—which includes Thrillist; JackThreads; gadget-focused SuperCompressor; and CoLab, an in-house agency launched in March—is now a $100 million-plus business. And most importantly, the company has figured out how to do the big thing that most media companies and retail brands can’t seem to figure out: combine content and commerce into a seamless experience that builds trust and doesn’t come off as sleazy.

Busy as hell and itching to sprint a few laps around the lake, Lerer took some time to spill his secrets to success, discuss why The New York Times should become a retail brand, and explain how retail brands can make content and commerce work together.

One thing that’s always really interested me with Thrillist is the ability to maintain reader trust while you’re still profiting off of the product that you’re pushing to these readers. That’s something I think every brand would want to get achieve—and something most media companies are skittish about attempting. What’s the secret sauce there?

There are a few. One is that the nature of our content has always been service-focused. Since the minute we launched, the brand had a philosophy around giving guys information that they can actually use, helping guys figure out how they’re going to spend their time and money in categories that they care about. Trust has always been a requisite part of how we have to build our relationships.

Another part has been that the categories we cover have not been hard news so to speak. We’re telling people where to eat and where to drink and where to have fun and what kind of gadgets they should be buying, what kind of clothes they should be buying. These are categories that are much more naturally linked to telling people how they should spend their money.

You have to hold yourself to the standard of: If you’re making a recommendation, it better be good. You build trust by telling people about cool shit, and the same thing applies to retail business. Sell good stuff, treat your audience right, and it’s all going to be fine.

I think where you get into trouble is if you use the relationship that you have as a media business to “shill” or to sell crap. You can’t use the relationship to take advantage of the audience. That’s a big difference between the way that we think about commerce and affiliate-driven businesses. You see companies put these really crappy commerce links around their experience rather than really standing to the products that they sell.

Is that a concern in the native advertising you do? Do you have a standard of working with brands that are of a certain level of quality?

That’s a great question. It’s something that we have to struggle with when you have a brand that is selling something you’re not pumped about.

When brands work with us, they’re not buying our endorsement. You can’t buy our endorsement; you can buy our ability to help tell your brand’s story and distribute that story in a relevant way to our audience. But we can’t explicitly go out and say that their product is awesome. We have to always hold ourselves to that standard.

The reason we can’t step over that line also is that more of our money comes from our audience than from our advertisers. Our retail business delivers us more income than our ad business does, and that will remain the case. If we go and we do shitty work on the ad side, we don’t just lose the advertiser next time who’s like “that didn’t work.” You actually lose the customer in the media business or the retail business.

Do you think that your model of really driving a media company through commerce is replicable to other publishers?

Yeah, we believe that if you are a media business in the digital world and your only business model is renting your audience, you are not going to have a very good business in the long term. But a media business is incredibly well positioned to become a business that builds a direct transactional relationship with its audience because of the nature of what a media company does.

A media company’s entire asset is knowing how to talk to and build trust with an audience. If they can take that relationship and that ability and find a way to build direct monetization of that audience, you’re going to have a bigger and better business. A few years down the road, that’s something a digital media business is going to have to be able to do if they really want to stay around.

But say you’re the tech section of The New York Times and you write a glowing review of the iPhone 6. Then there’s a button to buy the iPhone 6 right below it. That could tarnish the editorial integrity of the piece because the reader might think, “Oh, they’re just raving about the iPhone 6 because they want to drive more sales to the iPhone 6.”

I totally get that. The New York Times is a special example on a bunch of levels. They’re the best of the best true news-gathering organizations. They probably need to play by slightly different rules and hold themselves to a different standard because there is that perception that The New York Times has a responsibility to the public.

That being said, The New York Times has a ton of remnant ad space. My philosophy for how the Times would approach this is: Don’t put a “buy” button at the bottom of your articles. Use the tens and tens of hundreds of millions of valuable impressions and engagements that you have with your audience that you’re not monetizing through premium advertising solutions, and use those to promote retail businesses that you have a stake in and that you own. Ultimately, build businesses independent from your editorial so that you can benefit from building through your ad space.

The Times retail shop, pretty much…

Well I wouldn’t say the Times retail shop. [They should] invest in businesses that you believe would be successful advertisers of The New York Times. I actually always use an example and it’s meant to be provocative—it’s not realistic: Warby Parker. The Times should own Warby Parker. Or should be incubating innovative retail businesses that have a direct modernization of the audience.

They should take some of the remnant ad space that they have to help grow that business and operate it independently and own it independently. But you’re now some of your own biggest advertisers. That way, you’re not at the mercy of your advertising base. If your advertisers are not willing to pay you enough for the value that you’re creating, use the space yourself to build your own businesses.

That’s an idea that makes some people uncomfortable. But you’re being totally transparent. You’re using remnant ad space to build businesses that add value. That is a better experience for me, to discover innovative retail businesses by ads in The New York Times than to look at awful retargeting ads of a car dealership’s website—ads that are getting crammed down my throat in programmatic display.

How would you approach it from the other side? Say you’re already a brand and you have the commerce aspect. Right now, we’re watching commerce brands trying to launch content offerings and struggling to do it really well. How would you approach that if you were taking over a retail brand?

I think that it goes the other way, which is retail businesses need to find a way to build relationships with their customers where they’re not only going and having to buy access, buy access, buy access, buy access, and market, market, market. They’re able to take some of those brand dollars and create their own relationship through content. You see some brands like Red Bull do it extraordinarily well. Then you see other ones starting to think about how they can create content that ultimately builds a relationship that goes beyond just selling a physical product, that ultimately helps them endear consumers to their brand, like how GE is convincing people to think of them as thought leaders.

The perception that people have of GE, even though it’s not a consumer-facing brand, is that it’s extraordinarily innovative. They’ve found ways to become content creators, they do it through partners. They do it through the Lunar Footprint series with us and doing the moon boot. They do it through partnerships that they’ve done with BuzzFeed. They do it through the partnership that they did around the brain with Mic. They’re finding ways to find partners who have these authentic relationships, and partner with them to create content that actually adds value that ultimately changes the way people think about GE.

They also do pretty well with their owned platforms as well. GE Reports is pretty damn good; they have an audience of almost a million now.

Is that true?

Yeah, it’s great stuff.

Yeah, and you’re going to see more and more brands start to do this and start to put dollars toward content creation. Because it’s an important part of how you stay relevant, and the way to stay relevant with a customer is not to keep jamming a bunch of fucking ads down their throat all day long.

I guess the advantage that Thrillist has is that you aren’t tied to just writing out the products for your brand. I think that’s the big problem that retail brands face—if we’re talking about our own products, it’s going to seem a little sleazy or pushy.

Well, that’s why I think a lot of these brands are starting to find doing branded content with publishers is important. Because they’re going and they’re borrowing the trust that these other brands have already built with their audience.

Although, I think over time you’re going to see brands starting to more and more go down that Red Bull route, building out their own internal infrastructure around always-on content and becoming publishers of sorts.

That’s probably a pretty good balance between renting and owning.

At the end of the day, whether you’re a media company or a retail company, you’re trying to do the same thing, which is to build a trusting relationship with the customer. I don’t know that it has to be black or white, that if you’re a media business the way you make money is renting your access to the audience. If you’re a retail business, you own the access to the audience at the bottom of the funnel by selling products.

I think media businesses and commerce businesses are going to start to do more and more things that the other one does, and the definition of a media company is going to change. It’s already is changing.

Image by Thrillist

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