“There’s an opportunity to go deep”: What’s next for Rafat Ali’s growing travel site Skift, 5 years in

This post is by Joseph Lichterman from Nieman Lab

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If you’ve spent even a little bit of time on Media Twitter, you’re probably familiar with Rafat Ali. Ali, the cofounder and CEO of the travel news site Skift, is a voracious advocate of focused, niche-driven media outlets — which he prefers to frame as vertical media. I think in hindsight, a lot of the troubles that a lot of other media companies went through, we went through them a bit earlier than them — two years or three years before them, so we sound like the wise guy now. It clarified a lot of things for us in terms of the direct relationship with users, which now has become a fashionable thing to say, but we’ve been doing it for a while.

I wrote an internal memo earlier this year and the title was “2017 is the year of the Skift subscriber.” Subscriber for us means anybody is an email daily newsletter subscriber — and we now have six other newsletters beyond the daily newsletter, these are specialty newsletters within travel. Anybody who has an email relationship with us, and anybody who has a paid relationship with us — the research subscribers, which typically come out of the pool of the email subscribers. There will likely be an email subscriber that will convert to a paid subscriber. A lot of focus for the last six months has been getting more data on our existing base of users. We are at the end of a four-month-long project on essentially data enhancement. We have emails from all these people — now how do we get more understanding of which industry they’re in, what titles the have? Initially, we didn’t ask for a lot of information beyond email address, but now we’ve wisened up and standardized the data. Any form on Skift will ask for X number of fields now. We now know more about our users: Are they a meeting planner? Are they a corporate travel buyer? Are they a hotel manager? Are they a travel agent? Are they a tour operator? Do they work in digital marketing for Priceline or Expedia? That helps us, as you can imagine, in a million different ways from a business perspective. Understanding and getting the data on our existing subscribers and standardizing the data going ahead. Then being able to seamlessly move that data between [programs]. For our sales team, we use Salesforce, for our marketing and email newsletters we use HubSpot — moving data among all the backend systems. For our subscriptions, we use a semi-inbuilt but third-party software that we have totally optimized — that’s our subscription management software for our research. Moving data between all the systems has been a big of what we’ve been doing this year. We are in a position, long story short, to have the luxury to do the things that will help us build for the next five years. A big part is understanding, segmenting, and customizing the users we have. We are the largest industry news site in the travel industry. That’s great. We achieved that 18 months in. But, as we grow bigger and bigger, sponsors are asking for more quantifiable data beyond just being big. This is a big part of what we are — a big part of our revenue is advertising, but we don’t do typical advertising. It’s pretty much 100 percent branded content. We need understanding of our users. Our editorial needs understanding of our users to be able to figure out what sectors do we need more specialized coverage in. We’re likely going to hire a couple of more specialized editorial people — not this year, but early next year sometime.
All of that creates a more meaningful environment, not just in our company but in other companies in that Vertical Collective group, both B2B and B2C, like Food52, the food site, Fatherly, which you guys have covered, which is growing at a pretty dramatic pace now. They’re consumer, and there are very smart people behind it. In the B2B side, it’s us or Business of Fashion, which is based out of the U.K. They actually completely moved to a subscription service and now they’re really focused on subscribers. There’s a lot of meaningful innovation happening in these companies that doesn’t get highlighted as much. That’s why I evangelize it so much on Twitter and in general. It’s what we live and breathe at Skift: We’re constantly launching new things. We have these 10 core values — which by the way, we’re editing down to six because I think 10 is too much. The first core value is this: Fresh, design-forward, and always launching new things. That’s our first core value. That’s essentially what we do. Our point of view is fresh; our goal for the next five years is to keep it fresh. We’ll always be design-forward for being a small company. We don’t have the budget that Vox has, but for what we are, we’re very design-forward. We continue to embrace the new, and new things from a publishing-technology perspective. And we’re always launching new things. One of the things that we try to do, and I think it has worked well for us, is to surprise and delight. Surprise and delight is a marketing tactic. In our case, it’s essentially constantly launching new things so that the industry is constantly surprised. Hence we are fresh in people’s minds, hence we can continue to build a business that people look to as relevant for the future. That’s worked for us.