You don’t have to search hard to find a reason to cheer PinkNews’ success. Its campaigning journalism, born out of the campaign for marriage equality, has demonstrably helped LGBTQ+ people in the UK in the fight for representation. Its editorial and social headcount has increased dramatically over the past year as a result of some smart bets by its Head of Platforms Ellen Stewart. Its existence has proven beneficial to its audience, members of whom have found a sense of community among their fellow users.

Perhaps the best reason to be happy for PinkNews’ existence, however, is that it is proof that one man’s “side hustle” can grow to be the world’s leading LGBTQ+ publisher, which receives over 30 million users a month across its platforms.

PinkNews was founded in 2005 by Benjamin Cohen while he was a tech correspondent at Channel 4. He saw a gap in the way LBGT+ news was being reported, and grew from just him and a few freelancers to really gain traction around the time of the Equal Marriage Act, particularly after they launched the Out4Marriage campaign. They became an online-only platform in 2007 after dropping the print edition, and have been ranked the most visited LBGT website globally.

Speaking to us this week on the podcast, Stewart attributes some of that success to the title’s smart use of platforms. She notes that while PinkNews’ publishing strategy used to be primarily focused on Facebook traffic, the social network’s decision to de-prioritise publisher content taught the PinkNews team to be more strategic in their use of third-party platforms:

“That transition really allowed us to uncover the dedicated readership that was there, that we didn’t necessarily know about. You know there were users who are landing on our home page who were literally typing in and coming to the home page. It reminded us that not only are we a news publisher, but we’re a resource. That has really helped us hone in on our strategy across a whole collection of platforms.

“If you take for example, our Instagram account, as it currently stands we don’t monetize. We have done a few bits of sponsored content on there, but the main aim of this platform…it’s been a great way for readers to discover us and to understand PinkNews as a publisher, and what we stand for as a brand. So, what we’ve managed to do there, although we’re still quite small, we’ve curated a super engaged following. Which, in turn has given us access to LGBT+ influencers and talent that the website on its own might not have allowed us to do.”

While the use of Instagram as a tool with which to attract new readers rather than for monetisation isn’t unique to PinkNews, its success across other platforms is rare. Even as other publishers sought to extricate themselves from Snapchat, for instance, in the face of a falling user base, Stewart argues that PinkNews has found a way to make the ephemeral social network work through a combination of a revenue share advertising model alongside traditional commercial takeovers and creative services.

However, she acknowledged that it took a while for the small PinkNews team to find that successful strategy:

“It genuinely started with me just drawing little squares in my notebook, and trying to change news copy into multiple Snaps, is what we call them, to tell one long story. And I would literally draw them out and give them to the designer, who must have thought I was completely off the wall. And then we would just design the whole thing up and then we’d watch it, and it was then we realized it didn’t work or it did work.

“But very quickly I realized that… when you’re doing a completely full screen mobile UX, everything has to move constantly, which is something even the people who worked on our video team… weren’t used to. For example, on our Snapchat channel, if you look really closely, even the text wobbles slightly just to keep people’s eyes on the content.”

While PinkNews’ visibility during the marriage equality campaign undoubtedly won it a lot of supporters, it took a lot of experimentation and iteration on publishing strategies for it to have achieved its current level of success.

Listen to the full episode below:

Chris Sutcliffe / @chrismsutcliffe

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