Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Ellen: So, Pink News is actually quite a lot older than people think. It was founded by Benjamin Cohen in 2005, as a side hustle, while he was a tech correspondent at Channel 4. He started the whole business – he’d be able to answer this much better than me – he started the whole business…  he saw a gap in the way LGBT+ news was being reported and thought, ‘I’m going to make my own thing in my spare time’.

It started off just him on stuff, then a couple of freelancers… and then it came into its own and started gaining more mainstream attention around the time of the same sex marriage act, The Equal Marriage Act. PinkNews was really instrumental in that campaign. Ben and PinkNews launched the Out for Marriage initiative, which really helped  push the legislation through Parliament. 

So, since then things snowballed I guess. We’re now the world’s leading LGBT News publisher and as of last month we are attracting up to 30 million users a month, across both our own, and also operated platforms. So, that’s who we are I guess in a nutshell.

Chris: Well that’s amazing to go from a side hustle to as you mentioned, this campaigning voice with that much reach.

In 2005, this was when Facebook wasn’t even a thing. Obviously LGBT news was reported but it was in the mainstream regular press, and your LGBT+ specific publishers were more lifestyle brands, whereas PinkNews is, as it [says on the tin, it’s a tired cliche], has the word news in it. We are a news publisher. So, I think that was the main initiative.

You moderated a panel last year. Is it ClexaCon is that is that right?

Yeah. That’s The one.

So on queer journalism, are there any inherent advantages to publishing for an LGBTQ+ audience that other media can’t necessarily replicate?

This probably applies to not just the LGBT+ space but other minority audiences. The best kind of thing… working for that type of publisher, is that you truly know who your users are. Previously, I did this, I’ve worked in the mainstream, I’ve worked at Evening Standard, Independent, Metro, Huff Post, and I’ve never been somewhere where it’s been so easy to define who we’re speaking to.

We also get a lot of feedback, which I try… I think is a good thing.  I’ve been bowled over by the amount of people who will somehow find an email address and write a really long email. Whether that’s telling us we haven’t done a good enough job, or what we are reporting on, like a certain topic has really opened someone’s eyes.

We recently ran a story, it was a video feature, about being asexual. We had someone write into us, who was like ‘Thank you so much for covering this. This doesn’t get spoken about in the wider media’. And it’s just a little thank you, like encouragement. It was like ‘Oh… It reminds us why we’re here’. And that connection with the user is something that I just haven’t experienced elsewhere.

So, I guess that’s the biggest benefit.

It’s that kind of engagement, that drive to have an audience member reach out and actually sort of say, well you should be doing more of this, or as you mentioned, that’s just been life changing for me. That’s something that a lot of publishers would kill for.

Yeah, I also think that where I’ve worked at bigger publications where you do get feedback, but it kind of gets lost in an angry Twitter storm, rather than a personalized email. Although, I do remember one of my first gigs as a journalist, if someone wanted to make a comment about your story, they could email the reporter directly, and most of the stuff I would get was like, ‘You should be fired… Who the hell hired you.’ So, it’s quite nice when people actually write in and are specifically talking about an actual issue I guess. Or maybe I should’ve been fired, who knows.

But there was another one actually last week, that someone wrote in about our Snapchat channel. They were dyslexic and they were like, ‘We really enjoy your channel, but I just feel like the text appears too fast. I understand if you can’t do anything about this, but if you can, it’ll be really great because I love reading your content’. And I have spoken to the rest of the team about this, and we’re actually taking it on board since someone did genuinely take the time to e-mail us about something so specific. So, yeah, it’s been it’s been a really interesting experience working at the minority publisher.

Yeah that’s a nice segue because you mentioned kind of the work you’ve be doing around Snapchat, and over the past year we’ve seen this huge reversal in sentiment around what you can actually do on platforms. Some people are maybe saying larger, more generic publishers can’t necessarily monetize that. You have to use it as a marketing tool. I just wonder how is PinkNews actually using its platforms and platform publishing?

Being dependent on one platform for say, monetization, is a really scary place to be, because it’s not your owned product. So, to a certain extent you’re at the mercy of someone else. So, I think it’s about having a multi-platform approach and knowing specifically why you’re using each platform and what you’re trying to get out of it. For example, I mentioned earlier about the Facebook algorithm change this time last year. It was a make or break moment for PinkNews. It seriously forced us to… I mean in my first week it seriously forced me to reimagine our growth strategy.

That’s the definition of deep end!

Exactly. For example we had to seriously up our SEO game on our owned platform. Before the Facebook dry up, I probably would have called PinkNews an almost exclusively Facebook publisher. And our content was totally geared to performing well on that specific platform. We did well. We’d used to bring in up to 10 million visits a month, and Facebook was a big part of that. When they pulled the plug, so to speak, it was a bit shocking. But it was almost a blessing in disguise to sort of see your real user base.

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.

How long has Snapchat itself been a priority for you? There was a couple of years ago, huge news made around a bunch of the big publishers existing on it and they said, well this is going to be our new way to not just do outreach, but also to do monetization. So how long has it been a priority for you and how are you actually using it?

So, PinkNews was in talks with Snap since, I think late 2017, so before I joined. As I said before, it’s a really small operation and there wasn’t really the resources to wholly commit to it until I came along.

I will admit it was completely daunting to invest, not only time, but resources and money into a platform that we had absolutely no experience on. And we didn’t honestly know if it would even cover its costs. But we were given the opportunity to be the first LGBT+ Discover partner. And that’s just something that we weren’t willing to turn down because we were scared. And I was scared, honestly. But there was clearly… Like I said before, there was clearly a gap, and it felt like our responsibility to fill it.

But it’s actually been really great. It’s probably, I guess, the thing I’m most proud of in my career to date. I think that we did it in the right way. We started off really small like, in the planning stages, it was me and a freelance designer, just ball parking what things were going to look like, and what stories would translate onto Snap that didn’t work on the website. And then the team at the very beginning was like super bare bones, and then as we start to see growth, we were able to grow bigger as we saw those real results.

And fortunately for us, it is a good revenue stream for us. Yes. So, we used a rev share ad model alongside traditional commercial takeovers, and we offer creative solutions as well. It’s sort of part and parcel of the other offerings we have off Snapchat.

For me, the best thing has been the exposure, because now we reach millions of people every day, and tens of millions of people a month. And these people are loyal. Our data shows that over half a million users will visit us at least three times a week. So, we know that we have these people and they are returning to us which has been really really good.

It’s still a relatively nascent content distribution system. And you mentioned right at the start it was you and just this freelance designer. So how were you working out what content would do well on there – was it eyeballing it or was it just…?

Oh my gosh, it’s so embarrassing when I think back to this. 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 were so… We weren’t used to it it’s like… 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.

From those little squares to something which sounds like it’s a very sophisticated publishing strategy on there. As you mentioned something as subtle as having the text move, I imagine that most publishers didn’t even have down as best practice.

Yeah. And there’s still times where I’ll look over an edition that’s due to be published the next day, and I’ll be like: ‘The text looks weird, we need to do something about it’. But, yeah, it’s been kind of crazy that that’s what the minutiae that you have to go into for designing a fully mobile experience.

But, these days it’s a bit more refined now. We have a Trello board… Instead of just my notebook and crappy drawings… But we have three producers and two designers now who all work full time, and we publish seven days a week. But now we sort of… like with everything you get to know what works and what doesn’t work.

And just reading the data and even reading audience feedback, like if I sometimes go onto Twitter and just type in PinkNews Snapchat and see what people are saying about us, it’s to discover more about what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.

And that’s quite brave in itself. Seeking out unsolicited feedback like that where you know people like nine out of 10 people only say negative things. How about in terms of video, I know that you’re investing in new video formats, or rather video on Snapchat.

So, we’ve definitely put a lot of effort into our video operation in the past year. This time last year, we didn’t have anyone working on video. It was pretty much nonexistent. Personally, I really love video as a tool for storytelling.

But, equally this doesn’t mean that everything should be forcibly geared towards video, which I kind of think happened in the general media. Perhaps two years ago or one year ago… Where you sort of just stuck in a video in every single news story that might be slightly relevant… I understand why people do it, but I think that knowing where it adds value to a story is the key to a successful video strategy.

We stay pretty agile in our approach as well. We don’t have rules set in stone like, ‘there must be X videos and X amount of stories,’ or ‘we must publish every single day on YouTube’. Or, ‘a successful video is if  X people watched 10 seconds of it on Facebook, or we managed to get people to watch ads on Facebook’. Metrics, I think are treated a little bit more organically, like if something has done really well for shares and reached a lot of people, then I think that’s equally as successful as maybe at making ten dollars CPM.

An interesting thing that we do here, which I don’t know if other publishers replicate, definitely not bigger organizations that I’ve been in. But our video editor is also responsible for our Instagram account. We don’t have a social media person, because we’re really small. But this has been really beneficial for us because it means that we focus more on visual, rather than video. If that makes sense.

It absolutely does, that seems really really smart.

Yeah. And all our video producers generally sit intermingled in the office with the designers who work on Snapchat as well. So, they cross pollinate a little bit. I’m hoping that in the coming months you’ll see more of that away from Snapchat… In our video storytelling that you might see some more sort of designy aspects. Rather than just talking heads etc.

I’m so jealous about the idea that you don’t have to worry about hitting these metrics, hitting these CPMs, that sounds like such a nice relaxed place to work.

Obviously we’re still a small publisher, but we do also have targets, but it’s just kind of… The nice thing is, is that Snapchat has been a cushion for us, because it has generated revenue for us, it means that we can be a little bit more playful on other platforms, and it’s not always about ‘Shit this has to hit X views in order to make X money’.

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