Kaitlin Pike

Men’s interest e-newsletter Thrillist has grown from a 600-person personal email list in 2005 to one of the most popular men’s brands online. Today it boasts 2 million subscribers, adds another 100,000 every month, and covers 17 cities across the U.S., and soon possibly throughout Europe. Thanks to the talent and hard work of its roughly 60 employees, Thrillist has successfully used email – an “old” medium compared to new channels such as Twitter – to surpass $10 million in sales this year and maintain a loyal audience.

Ben LererWe recently spoke to Thrillist Co-Founder & CEO Ben Lerer about the company’s success and future ventures such as its recent ecommerce acquistion, as well as what he’ll talk about in his Web 2.0 Expo New York session, “Taking an Online Publication to the Next Level.”

(Check out the full audio interview with Ben Lerer below. And stay tuned: We’ll soon have a way for you to download this and other Web 2.0 Expo New York speaker interviews.)

Content is King

The growth for Thrillist was slow and steady in the beginning, but great content, and not extensive ad buys or list acquisitions, attracted the large audience they have today.

“We’ve never done list buys,” Ben said. “That’s one of the core pillars of the way that we’ve built the business. When we went out and we raised cash the stipulation was that we couldn’t go out and market ourselves; we couldn’t buy an audience. We had to put the money towards building a really great product. We had to roll the dice and hope that the product was good enough that it would go viral.”

Thrillist’s focus on content above all else means that analytics – most email marketers’ number 1 tool – is a significantly lower priority. “We’re not a data company. We’re getting better in that area… but content is king here.”

The Email Renaissance

While some skeptics claim “email is dead,” Ben argued the opposite: people know how to manage their email inboxes better than ever nowadays, and they can get exactly what they want via email. “As an email newsletter, if you’re allowed into that inbox you’re in sort of select company,” Ben said. “When someone signs up for Thrillist, they know what they’re getting themselves into because they know what a subscription via email is… Some of the smartest marketers and advertisers understand the power of email.”

“Email is the furthest thing from the flavor of the month,” Ben said. “It’s old… Now more than ever it is even more powerful because now there’s sort of an email renaissance going on right now.”

Ben pointed to other businesses using email as their key communication channel that aren’t necessarily in the newsletter space such as the variety of “daily deal” companies who rely on it to alert people.

Thrillist Expands

Earlier this year, Thrillist purchased Jack Threads, an invite only shopping community. Inspired in part by the success of Gilt Group, Ben said Thrillist decided to enter the ecommerce space to offer deals their audience would appreciate.

“What we recognized was that there were other businesses that had gone and leveraged an asset that we already had to build a really nice business,” he said. “We have more guys reading Thrillist than Gilt does shopping in their community. And Gilt’s going and making all this money. Why don’t we enter that space as well? We have the audience and the trust of the readership. There’s an obvious extension for us to enter commerce and have them not just buy things from the people that advertise with Thrillist or the people that we cover editorially, but also buy things in effect from us.”

Along with their purchase and integration of Jack Threads, Thrillist is also expanding onto new platforms (iPhone app, soon to be on the iPad) and into new geographies (San Diego, UK, possibly other European cities). They’re also working on a Thrillist.com site redesign to make it “more of a destination than just sort of an email capture field.”

“We have our hands full now and a lot of projects happening simultaneously.”

Lerer Ventures

“It’s a good time now to go and make some bets. We have a feeling that there’s some businesses being started now that are going to end of being big companies in a few years,” Ben said while talking about Lerer Ventures – the somewhat new seed stage venture capital fund run by him and his father. The list of companies they’ve already invested in includes TweetUp, betaworks, and A Bit Lucky.

To hear more about Lerer Ventures, Thrillist, and online publications, listen to the audio interview (posted above) and come see Ben speak at Web 2.0 Expo New York this September. Register today with code webny10scm4 to save 25% on conference passes.

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Kaitlin Pike is the Community Manager of Web 2.0 Expo. She can be reached @w2e or @kcpike.

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2 Responses to “Ben Lerer on the Future of Thrillist and Online Publications”

  1. The Email Mafiaon 28 Jul 2010 at 2:33 pm

    [...] There has been a lot of discussion lately on HackerNews around email newsletters by Jason Baptiste here and here as well as our own case study about StartupDigest as a newsletter company here. Email newsletters are a huge business and I believe that we are going through an email renaissance right now (Thrillist founder Ben Lerer thinks so too). [...]

  2. K Tibaijukaon 09 Aug 2010 at 7:07 am

    Love this company’s branding and image. Thanks for this great interview.

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