“We invest almost all the money back into our business.” That’s a line that trade reporters often hear, typically with a great deal of skepticism. When it is true, it typically means a certain group or technology within the organization is receiving the lion’s share of that investment. (As a cub reporter I remember hearing a CEO give our B2B division a motivational speech that boiled down to pointing to the then red-hot, yet soon-to-crash consumer apartment guides and saying, “Be more like them.”)
For Industry Dive, investing back in the business appears to be a) true and b) the key to their success. Founded in 2012 by Sean Griffey, Ryan Willumson and Eli Dickinson, Industry Dive has grown to cover more than 16 industries, reaching between 7 and 8 million users per month. (Industry Dive even caught the attention of national media with a 2017 profile in The Washington Post titled, “A Boring Business That Warren Buffett Would Love.”) In 2019, Industry Dive won a Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile (“In Search of the Real J. Peterman.”)
But the financial results are what gives Industry Dive its bragging rights. In 2017, the company generated $15.9 in revenue. By the end of 2019, CEO Griffey projects the company will be around the $29 million mark, with no events, no print and an almost exclusive focus on digital media—something more and more B2B companies view with a wary eye.
Here, Griffey talks to Connectiv about why Industry Dive embraces its label as a B2B media company, what’s driving the surge in revenue growth (hint: it’s not acquisitions—yet) and why he regards the pivot to decision-based content as one of the biggest dangers facing the industry.
Connectiv: Sean, you’re in 16 different markets today. What’s the largest?
Sean Griffey: From a revenue standpoint, retail is our largest market. That’s just from sheer volume, from growth we’ve done increasingly well in supply chain and HR and from a brand standpoint our place in the market is smaller but may be even stronger with our utility and waste brands. We’re reaching between 7 and 8 million users each month across our platform—newsletters, Web, apps, etc.
Connectiv: Industry Dive did $22.5 million in revenue last year and you’re on pace to do around $29 million in revenue in 2019. What’s driving that growth?
Griffey: We grow in two ways—we get deeper into the industries that we are already in and we launch in new markets. When we launch in new markets, we think it takes 18 to 24 months to become material to the organization, so to some degree that growth we’re seeing now is due to publications that we launched two to three years ago that are starting to hit their strides (supply chain, hr). It’s really larger share of wallets in markets as our audience grows. In our established markets, we find that we’re doing more complex deals from a content studio/brand studio side, but we’re also doing more of the standard advertising/lead gen which is the backbone of our business.
Connectiv: What is the current revenue mix?
Griffey: At the end of the day, almost all of our revenue comes from marketers. In the broadest sense, we are 99.9 percent advertising-based but that doesn’t mean Web ads. Pure digital display is probably less than 10 percent of revenue. The rest of it comes from the brand studio which is approaching 20 percent of our growth revenue, and newsletters and lead campaigns. When we say lead campaigns, very few of our products are priced as guaranteed leads, it’s more of a sponsorship basis. But at the end of the day, most of our advertisers are evaluating their success based on the leads that they generate from us.
Connectiv: It seems like the broader B2B media industry is starting to follow that trend. Digital display is single digital growth or even flat for a lot of publishers while at same time they are seeing growth from marketing services even though it remains relatively small overall. As it grows, publishers are starting to grapple with the complexity of that type of deal. How does Industry Dive manage both the complexity and making the margins work?
Griffey: It is the most complex thing we do. When you compare it to running an ad on a Website or newsletter, the content studio is hard because by its nature, the content is complex and it involves multiple rounds of coordination with clients for approval and from a larger group of stakeholders than you would if you were just running an ad in a newsletter.
There’s no real secret to how we make it work—we dedicate full time resources to it, real experts that know how to do it. We keep it separate from the rest of editorial so the clients get the focus that they deserve. But the most important thing for us is to be willing to say no to bad deals. That’s something that maybe 10 years ago we weren’t as disciplined for. If someone came to us with $20,000, we said, ‘How can we get that $20,000?’ We got ourselves into deals that ultimately took too much time, too much effort and too much money to execute from the publisher side. When we started Industry Dive seven years ago, one of the things we said was that we had to be disciplined about the type of deals we would take. When you’re small and bootstrapped, saying no can be really hard but not getting caught in that trap is what’s really allowed us to grow.
Connectiv: You’ve made two recent acquisitions--health care and science website InsightCity in February, and Mobile Marketer in 2017. How much has acquisition attributed to your growth?
Griffey: Acquisitions have been pretty minimal, less than 5% of our revenue growth. Our acquisition strategy has been opportunistic to date. We either built relationships with folks who came to us and said ‘now is the time, we’re looking for an exit’ or bought something opportunistically.
I think in the next phase of Industry Dive, we are prepping to be more active in acquisition. We need to make sure our structure here can handle adding on new titles and teams as well as preparing ourselves financially to go make larger scale acquisitions. The ones to date have been assets and brands rather than entire teams and capabilities. As we look to the future, finding people in our existing markets is attractive but finding people who can jumpstart us in new markets is definitely attractive as well. It is a growing part of our long term strategy.
Connectiv: What investments in the business are paying the biggest dividends?
Griffey: Almost all of our money goes back into people. We have continued to invest in the digital experience here and we see that elevating the brand and raising the company as a whole. As a company we have over 60 full time journalists and we’re probably hiring 10 more as we speak and 10 more by the end of the year. As our content continues to evolve, we continue to roll out new things for the audience. We’ve got an interactive map tracker in our smart city publication that tracks the roll out of smart scooters and bike across different cities and the laws that pertain to it. Those are the types of things that the editorial team can do that makes us more valuable. That almost always pays off. In 2019 we are planning to launch into a couple more industries and I see us investing more in audience data.
It comes down to execution. That’s been the plan, we grow audiences and we monetize them more and invest back into editorial and content which increases audience. It’s that virtuous circle. At the end of the day, that’s all we are doing. I wish there was a secret to it but there are no secrets in media, it’s just an execution game.
Connectiv: A lot of publishers have tried to limit their associations with the term “media” to reflect diversity of revenue as well as the development of more recurring revenue models. A few years ago, Connectiv did a study that found the majority of respondents said that by 2020, they think their companies would be better classified as “business information” or even “Business technology company.” You take exception to that. Why?
Griffey: I fear this is the pivot to decision-based content. In media, most of the pivots we’ve made as an industry have not gone well for us. In some markets, decision-based content can be valuable. I heard one speaker at an event says every story they write should tie into some decision behavior that they can capture and build a profile for their audience. And purchase decision behavior is where they are pushing.
That’s really interesting but a dangerous trap. There are some media companies that on some level are SEO plays—they are writing about purchase decision and buying guides for very specific industry pieces and that will work for them based on the nature of the purchases in their industries, But as it becomes more widespread, we forgot the value of what people turn to us for and we miss the part of the decision based process that’s most important—the underlying strategy and direction of the business. If you cover the media industry and you wrote about software that handles paywalls all day, that may work for you on some level when a media company wants to go to a paywall because maybe they will find your article. But you won’t have the decision maker saying, ‘what are the trends shaping the industry, what are other people that I admire and respect doing that I need to do.’ It won’t lead to someone coming up with a strategy that drives the underlying business. In B2B, the people who make the strategies are much more important than ‘now, which technology will help me do this.’ As I see more of us rush to the last mile of the smallest purchase decision, I think we are missing the big piece.