The Toast Is Generating Heat Online

Site is profitable after just 9 months

The Toast is singular among the ladyblogs. It is primarily a humor site with a heavy focus on the literary, pop culture and general nerdy content targeting young women. It doesn’t trade in celebrity gossip, and its editors, Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg, do not work for a man. It does not have outside backers.

Nine months in, the site is profitable and has been since the third month. And its audience is growing, with 30 percent of readers men—among them, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, who declared it “so ratchet.”

Cliffe and Ortberg are ladyblog veterans. The former was the books editor at The Hairpin whereas the latter was a frequent contributor.

The initial mission of The Toast, Ortberg said, was to give her and Cliffe the financial freedom to continue the literary and pop culture writing on which they’d made their reputations. As she put it, “We wanted a Renaissance-style patron to allow us to do the Mallory Ortberg-Nicole Cliffe Show.”

As the site has matured, Ortberg and Cliffe have focused on introducing new, non-New York voices to a wider audience. “There are other states in America and writers live in all of them,” as Ortberg put it.

Ortberg and Cliffe split ownership equally with the publisher, Nick Pavich, who prefers to remain behind the scenes. “I want to be the only white male in history who’s not offering an opinion about [the HBO show] Girls,” he said.

Pavich last year began using vertical ad networks including LitBreaker, BookRiot and Blogads, and employed native advertising. He also brought in digital library Jstor, Warby Parker and several iPhone apps. More than 50 percent of the site’s revenue comes from display ads.

The Toast gets about 2 million clicks per month and a consistent monthly bump of about 150,000, per Quantcast. Traffic-wise, it lags a number of competitors, including Bustle and xoJane. But according to Pavich, the site performs well in metrics such as pages per visit (2.9), time spent on the site (3:14) and unique visitors (16,367).

The site’s unique positioning may be its key to long-term success.

“They have a better chance of success as a niche blog than if they were all things to all women—otherwise, there would be a lot of competition,” says Jim Lin, vp at Ketchum Digital.

Citing BlogHer, Lin said that down the road The Toast would do well to embrace the network model, making it “a hub for brands. [That] is how niche blogs do well.”

Pavich says the next step is the launch of sister sites in the vein of The Awl network. The first of those likely will be a still-unnamed mommy blog.

For now, staying small has its advantages—and its downside. On a positive note, Ortberg and Cliffe get to work from home. But only recently did Pavich start taking a salary. (Revenue is largely dispersed among about 500 contributors.)

“We’ll have to grow up as a corporation,” he said.