4 Lessons From Thrillist Media Group’s Success in Both Content and Commerce

Advice-focused publisher is preparing to launch an agency

When it comes to men's lifestyle content online, Thrillist Media Group believes it has the market covered. Its sites—food, drink and travel-focused Thrillist; technology- and lifestyle-based Supercompressor; and men's fashion portal JackThreads—tallied a combined 14 million monthly uniques in January. 

IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg talks with

Thrillist Media Group CEO Ben Lerer. (Photo: IAB) 

Thrillist Media Group CEO Ben Lerer spoke during a fireside chat Monday at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., about blending content and commerce to connect audiences with brands. Adweek caught up with Lerer and Todd Anderman, Thrillist Media Group president of sales, marketing and operations, to talk more about Thrillist's strategy and future plans, including opening an internal agency.

Here are four takeaways:

1. Agencies can get results by combining custom content and data

Echoing the move many digital publishers have made recently, Thrillist Media Group is opening its own internal agency, Lerer said. The yet-to-be named division, which the company developed over the past year, will create branded events and content, and it will use Thrillist data to advise strategy.

"Publishers know how to tell their stories and talk to their audience in ways that a third party might not," Lerer explained. "I think in our particular case because of the content and commerce, we have an ever-deeper understanding of our audience from a data perspective—and anecdotally, we really get these guys. That's why we built the agency."

Anderman said what sets its agency apart from competitors is that it will focus on creating content based on brand goals and then using data to execute the right distribution strategy. For example, Thrillist will create 10 pieces of content for a brand and measure in real time how its readers are reacting. Based on what performs, it will optimize what should be distributed and where.

"For us, it's a real art and science mix," Anderman said.

2. A men's perspective doesn't have to exclude women

Lerer said Thrillist content is written from a man's perspective, and it will always have a masculine tone. However, because much of the subject matter can appeal to anyone, it's reaching many women, as well. He noted that women are often comfortable reading men's content, while men might shy away from a women's publication.

Anderman, however, believes the success with a wider audience is due to the fact that Thrillist properties have always taken the tone of a "friend," and it focuses on imparting what he calls "high-low advice."

"We'll write about the best steak restaurant that you'll go to and then the dive bar afterwards," Anderman said. "We write about those guys who are getting a pair of $300 sneakers and a T-shirt. You really can't classify this person by the terms of what they are doing. We're seeing that content mix resonating outside our typical demo."

3. Thrillist's success stems from its service roots

Lerer said the company has a lucrative content and commerce business because, at its core, its content has always been rooted in giving advice. That didn't change when the company began partnering with brands.

"The idea that we're giving guys information around how they can use their money, it built a certain kind of relationship. Even if we were independent of commerce, we already had a relationship that was mid-to-lower funnel," Lerer said.

4. Experiential marketing is another kind of native content

Custom content doesn't always have to be written, Lerer points out. Thrillist Media Group also creates events, such as Hotel Thrillist and Best Day of Your Life, that allow brands to interact with consumers offline. Last year, it held about 75 events in 20 cities. It also creates other types of real-world brand integrations, including a moon boot inspired by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon footwear created through a partnership between JackThreads and General Electric.

"When we think about experiential, it's that same idea as the moon boot," Lerer explained. "It's physical content. It creates a different kind of engagement with a user. It's a way to take something we're doing online and take it out into the real world."

But Lerer said it's about more than slapping a marketer's banner over the door. People have to be willing to pay for the experience, so events must bring brands and consumers together in seamless ways.

"The brand basically has to make your experience better," he said. "That works offline and online with our ad product, as well. A brand has to add value to our customers."

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