‘What Do You Have That’s Truly Unique and Scalable?’ Lessons From the Axios Sale

“The lesson of the digital era: Chase fads, fantasy and clicks, you fade or famish,” Jim VandeHei, Axios co-founder and chief executive, said last week in a New York Times article. “Chase a loyal audience with quality information, you can flourish.” There are definite lessons to be learned from the big sale of Axios last week.

I had dinner with a scientific, non-journalist friend last night when I brought up Axios—fresh off their $525 million sale to Cox Enterprises. “Oh I know them,” my friend said. “The short, bulleted newsletter—very easy to read.”

Yes, that’s the one. They usually give a quick, one-sentence summary like today: “Morning Brew… has launched a creator program that allows independent personalities to work for the company full time while maintaining separate and distinct products and brands.”

And then you get the all-important “Why it matters: The program will help Morning Brew expand into niche areas, like personal finance, entrepreneurship and productivity, said Austin Rief, CEO of Morning Brew. It will also help the company continue to expand into business verticals outside of newsletters.”

Then comes “Go deeper (2 min. read).” The next “Go deeper” is for a 1 min. read, so they’ve basically redefined the word “deeper.”

“If there’s one thing Axios is known for, it’s for its ‘smart brevity’ format that’s heavy on bullet points and light on expository padding,” Simon Owens wrote in an excellent column titled 4 Things Axios Did Right in his Media Newsletter on Substack last week. “It’s perfectly designed for email consumption, but Axios also prioritized web optimization for each of its scooplets so that they could be easily shared on social media.”

Here are other reasons for Axios’ success:

Develop your platform with growth in mind. “Listen, you’re trying to look at a company’s revenue—what do you have that’s truly unique and truly scalable?” VandeHei told Vanity Fair. “So from the Cox perspective, they’ve got some neat things to work with. We’ve got this national platform with an elite audience. We’re launching our high-end subscription business, Axios Pro, so there’s endless room to grow in the high-end subscription space. We’re in more than 20 cities today, and there are a lot more cities in the United States.”

Right vehicle at the right time. “There are so many ways technology has helped email newsletters become a replacement for the newspaper and magazine as people’s view into the world and how they get news and information,” said Kerel Cooper, CMO of email service provider LiveIntent. “It’s in your inbox. It’s there almost on-demand when you’re ready to consume it. With the pandemic and everyone being home, that growth accelerated.” In Omeda’s Email Engagement Report for Q2 2022, newsletters have a better click rate than every other email type except for reader service and white papers.

Niches contain riches (and first-party data generators). From Owens: “Given the number of verticals that Axios launched, it’s essentially a general interest news outlet at this point—no different from a New York Times or USA Today—but its emphasis on niche newsletters allowed it to generate great first party data that made it the perfect vehicle for native ads.” The Omeda report writes: “Email continues to be a force, and with a few tricks to test out and some diligence, you can optimize performance over time. Plus, when your audience strategy is built on a foundation of first-party data, you’ll be well-prepared for future changes.”

Hire great people. “Axios devoted a substantial portion of its hiring to mid-career journalists with already-existing brands,” Owens writes. (Industry Dive, which was also recently sold for that $525 million tag, used that strategy as well.) “While the average salary was likely higher, these journalists were able to scale up their niche verticals more quickly and efficiently than they otherwise would have if they were hired right out of college.” Owens also wrote that they never became overly reliant on Facebook, thus having more ownership over their audience.”

Stick to your mission and push what you’re good at. “Hopefully, with Politico first, and Axios today, we have shown a way for serious journalism to thrive in the digital era,” VandeHei said. “This country so desperately needs it.” Axios’ founders also wrote a book called Smart Brevity to “share their transformative methods for punching through the noise to get people to pay attention to what matters most.” The title says it all.

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