Interviewer: Peter Houston
Mark Alker: We’ve been going since 2001. We’re a mountain bike magazine predominantly, although recently we’ve branched out into other disciplines. We kicked off, we were a print magazine – actually, to be honest, let’s rewind before 2001 – we started off as an online website only in the.com bubble, which probably burst as soon as we got in there! It was our fault. That was it.
We couldn’t get anybody to pay for advertising, I think we had one advertiser buying a banner. And we decided that kind of ironically for the time that the future lay in print, so we decided to take it not offline, but we decided to take the long form stuff we were doing, and put that into print.
And so we launched our first print title in 2001. But we kept with the website, and we kind of differentiated online content with magazine content, so we kept all the longform stuff in print, and we did all that sort of daily news type things and the forum online, and the two worked together from the word go in 2001.
We did launch funnily enough on April 1st 2001, and that was right smack bang in the middle of the foot and mouth crisis. So I think we were an outdoor magazine launching at a time when nobody could go outdoors.
Peter: So it’s been uphill ever since, which is probably not the best for a mountain bike magazine really!?
No, well, we do go up, we go up to go down! So it kind of works.
So you’re still publishing in print?
We’re still publishing in print. Print’s really important to us.
Every couple of months is it?
We’re bimonthly. We started quarterly, then we went to six. And then I remember we made a decision to go up from six, so we decided what should we do? Should we do eight and then everybody panicked and thought, we can’t fit eight in!
So I made one of the most awkward decisions that we’ve ever done, which is we went to seven issues a year, which caused havoc with the accounts and cash flow. Because we couldn’t predict when anybody was going to pay us at all, because seven does not go into 12.
So we retired…I think we went up to eight, and then we’re down to six.
What drives that frequency decision? Is it just whether you get enough advertising?
I have to say, yeah, because we’ve got a big online presence, for us the frequency principally came down to advertising, how much we could make from each printed issue. So that was principally the driver there.
I’ve heard you describe your print presence as an ongoing battle. And it’s clearly one you love or you wouldn’t still be doing it, but it is a struggle, so what’s the issue there?
Well, I guess the issue is, how would I say this, print is is our is the core of our brand, because we started with print. Everybody knew us as print. And in the industry that we’re in, print still to this day commands a level of respect that gets us through the doors of a lot of big industry names like Shimano, and Specialised and Trek.
I think there’s a recognition in the industry that whereas anybody can publish anything from the bedroom, to actually still today to be in print, that’s really difficult to do. That’s really bloody hard to do. And I think that gives us a level of credibility within the industry that we certainly don’t want to lose.
So yeah, we’re still in print with a huge online presence to back it up.
What’s your distribution in print, is through retail, or is it direct?
Yeah, well we’re around about 6,000 subscribers, and we stick around sort of 4,000 into the news trade. So we are there on the high street, we’re on WH Smith’s shelves, and various independents. It’s a combination of the two; news trade has been the biggest challenge of the last few years because the efficiencies are just bloody awful.
So we’ve tried to concentrate our print offering to our subscribers, we tried to make it a real…basically we’re trying to use the newsstand as a marketing platform to get subscribers. We have different covers on our subscriber copies to the ones that go into the newsstand. And we have more pages in the subscriber copy.
So it’s like people see it in WH Smiths or wherever, love it, and take a subscription?
That’s it. We’re using the newsstand as discovery, and trying to then convert
So how do you do that inside the magazine? Is it special offers that you’re giving people, or is it special content? How do you convert people inside the magazine like that?
Well, we do put stitched-in inserts with voucher codes and the usual traditional things. But what we do is the last 32 pages of the magazine, so the newsstand version’s 116 pages, and the subscriber copy is 148.
So the newsstand copy, when you pick it up, as you move to the back, the last page in the magazine is actually an advert telling you what you’re not getting, and that you would get if you’re a subscriber.
So we list all the articles in there that are subscriber-only, and then we put an offer at the bottom. It tends to work, it’s kind of old school.
Well, that idea of old school is kind of coming back again, because people are putting so much emphasis on reader revenues. We’ve talked about this separately but I know why that is. But for you, what’s the benefit of that reader revenue?
That reader revenue, well, there’s a loyalty that’s built in with that, but principally the reader revenue is security. Those subscriptions that, like I said before, we can we can bank them a year in advance. And I think for a business to be able to look ahead 12 months and go, this is what we are scheduled to receive, is very, very powerful. That’s kind of like the financial bedrock of our business.
With advertising of course, we’ve got, especially programmatic, I’ve got no idea sometimes what we’re even going to learn tomorrow.
So can you talk about the split?
Yeah, we are approximately 40% reader revenue, 60% advertising. And I would love that to switch. We would much prefer to have the majority of our revenue come from reader-generated revenues.
So you basically want more reader revenue because it’s more predictable than you’ve got in terms of advertising?
Absolutely. It’s within our control. Advertising, marketing, what the industry wants to do, what they want to spend their money on, that’s out of our control. What we sell to our readers, what we offer them, what they want, that is within our control.
And is your advertising mostly online or, I mean, you’ve got print advertising, but what’s the balance between online and print advertising?
Online advertising is pretty much double what our print advertising is. Although in the last two years, we’ve actually seen a small increase in our print revenues. I think we’ve gone up about 5% year on year for the last two years.
Ah you’re the magazine did that! Wow.
But I think the power of that is because we’re selling more campaigns now, rather than just selling one page, we’re combining it with digital offerings so that when we can go to our advertisers, we can say, well, here’s a spread. We can give you everything, we can give you social media, we can give you video, we can give you online advertising and sponsorship, and we can also give you print. So we’re selling more packages, and I think overall that’s actually lifted our print revenues.
In terms of digital, what is that advertising? Is it banners, is it anchor positions, or are you selling on programmatic?
Oh god programmatic…where do we start with that? We get a lot of revenue from programmatic. God, I do hate it.
I hate it simply because a lot of our programmatic revenue first of all gets paid in dollars. And the thing is that when Donald Trump can put out a tweet about China and all of a sudden the exchange rate goes through the floor and we’ve lost a few hundred dollars in a day. And Boris Johnson does something daft and again, the exchange rate gets hit and our revenues change. I didn’t get into this business to to battle with exchange rates and politics.
And also, it’s so unpredictable. And that’s the the hateful thing about programmatic. I don’t know whether our programmatic revenues are going to be high tomorrow, or whether they’re going to be low. And so yeah, we’re saddled with it.
Like I said, it’s it’s a large amount of money. But I hate the unpredictability of it.
But if I described you as a smaller publisher, you wouldn’t be offended by that.
No, not at all. We are. We’re at the arse end of Yorkshire, there’s 10 of us here.
So to get to grips with programmatic must have been quite a daunting challenge?
It was, I’d say it’s an evolution. We were with it from the start. We had AdSense, running through Google from the word go. And then it got to the point where there was other providers, and then things like, I got very familiar with words and vocabulary like ‘the stack’.
And for a long time, I was actually manually managing a stack of a whole bunch of programmatic providers, and literally looking at what they were earning and then shifting them around. So yeah, there was ‘the stack’ which I called that the ‘shit shower’ because it was just such an awful thing to manage!
But was it worth it in the end?
I have to say it has, because we rely on that revenue. It’s a large part of our revenue stream.
So if there was another small publisher out there that was terrified of programmatic, would you say suck it up?
There’s lots of talk about how this is the end days of banner advertising. And there’s a certain amount of truth in that, but they aren’t going away anytime soon.
And as a small publisher, I think there are options out there where you can just plug in, switch them on, forget about them.
I think our problem is we’ve always had kind of a complicated relationship with advertising. And so for example, if you’re a subscriber, you don’t see any advertising on the website whatsoever. If you register on our website, and login then you see fewer ads. If you just pop along to the website, and just tune in once or twice every week, then you’re going to see the maximum number of ads.
So we actually leverage the unpopularity of advertising to try and get people to join in the community and become subscribers. So yeah, it’s a kind of a complicated relationship we have with advertising.
The banner ad as a conversion tool…
Yes, indeed, subscribe, or we’ll just stick more of these things in front of your face!
So one of the things that you mentioned earlier was the forum on your website. You said, obviously been running that for years. And I had a look before I spoke with you. And it’s mental…there’s lots going on there.
A lot of our competitors over the years have run forums. And I think we’ve done something slightly different that’s kept it alive. Social media came along and our forum didn’t seem to actually lose much traffic because of that, but other forums did.
And I think what we’ve done, we’ve done two things. One, we have just two forums; there’s a chat forum, and there’s a bike forum. And that’s it. We’ve seen a lot of forums out there where they subdivide all these different topics. So there’s other bike websites out there that have got forums that if you’re into full suspension mountain bikes, here’s a forum for you. If you are into single speeds or fat bikes, there’s an individual forum for you.
We’ve shied away from that, we’ve decided to keep everybody in the same room. And I think that’s led to a sort of a success, that it’s just one big melting pot and everything’s there.
But we also look after that forum, we actually moderate it to a to a high level. We have a dedicated team of volunteer moderators, who enforce some strict rules. And also we have a system of self moderation so that the community itself can report anything untoward.
And so I think those two things, that’s sort of keeping it simple, keeping it as single melting pot, and having an active team of moderators who are literally there 24/7 looking after it has meant that things flourished where others have perhaps not.
Why do you think this still works when you’ve got the likes of Facebook, or you’ve got other social media platforms going on?
The way we’ve always kind of explained our forum, it’s a bit like a pub. And the most popular part of our forum – considering that we’re actually a mountain bike website – the most popular forum is the chat forum. The chat forum is specifically nothing to do with bikes.
So the analogy I’ve always drawn with our forum is it’s a bit like a pub. If you are a mountain biker, and you go out with your mates maybe once or twice a week, and there’s a group of you, you go out riding your bikes, then you come back, you end up in the pub, you sit down with your pint, and then you start talking. The one thing you’re not talking about is, you’re not talking about bikes at that point. You’re talking about everything, you’re talking about life, you’re talking about politics.
That only works when you’ve got an actual community where people know each other. And there’s an awful lot of anonymity about social media that means you don’t get that sense of belonging.
I think that’s been pretty much key to why our forum’s still as strong as it is; that and the fact that it SEOs so well! Well, I challenge you to do this and your listeners: go to Google and type in ‘how to kill a tree’. And I guarantee on the first page, you’ll get our forum.
So yeah, I can’t honestly say that the success of our forum is entirely down to mountain biking! But it’s definitely down to building a community.
So the other thing is even even more surprising, I think, is your classified section. So why are these people not selling their stuff on eBay? Why are they selling it through your classifieds?
Well, I think that comes down to a credibility of the platform. The thing is that one thing we’ve done all the way through our existence is, we’ve operated on a system of trust. Trust with our advertisers, trust with our readers, we’ve not tried to shy away from pretending that we are above our readers. We’re just a whole bunch of mountain bikers like everybody else. Our skill levels are pretty much average!
So I think we’re very relatable. And that’s built this level of trust over the years and so that the entire platform, how we operate, how we deal with the industry, how we deal with our readers, we have this level of credibility, that means that when we launched the classifieds, people trusted the platform.
And so I mean, it is huge, there’s 150,000 page impressions a month just in the forum. I think it was around about sort of 30,000 people use it on a regular basis. I think to be honest, though, all of the options out there like eBay, and Facebook sales groups and things like that, I think people use them not exclusively. And ours is just another tool in there to reach a different kind of audience and gives people a greater chance of selling.
I can see that. But at least they’re doing it. Do you make money from the classifieds?
Not a lot. We have a system whereby if you want to stick – it’s kind of old school again, it’s a bit Yellow Pages – if you want to stick your ad to the top and make it stand out, then you can you can pay a tenner and it sits there for three months. So we have a small amount of revenues.
It’s more of a reader service then.
Yeah, I mean, there’s advertising on there as well. So there’s that.
Again, you’re at the smaller end of the publishing ecosystem. How do you survive? You guys are going almost 20 years. It’s not easy – you’d be the first one to say it’s not easy. What’s the secret to survival? Well, actually more than that, what’s the secret to success? Because you’re growing, right?
Well, yeah, we are. I mean, we’ve got 1.5 million uniques a month coming to the website. The secret, I think, is that you’ve got to love what you do. I mean, we started this as mountain bikers, because it was a hobby, and we turned it into a job.
And I think this is the secret, or it’s the key to all specialist media. You cannot be successful in the specialist media market, if you’re not really into the subject matter. And also give up any ideas of ever getting rich from it. So if you can reconcile yourselves with those two criteria, then I think you’ve got a chance of surviving!
Well, it’s easier to reconcile yourself to the second if you’ve got the first isn’t it!
Well that’s true. Yes!
The other thing that comes through on that is your social media presence. You’ve got 50,000 followers on Instagram, more or less the same 55,000 on Twitter. I don’t know what you’ve got on Facebook.
We’ve got just over half a million on Facebook.
So that enthusiasm clearly comes through, when you look at…I’m looking at your Instagram feed. This just looks like fun! It looks like you want to be part of that group of people.
Well, yeah, I mean, that’s it. It’s that relatability. We do have fun. I mean, it’s stressful as well, we’ve all got mortgages, and we all have to pay the bills.
But at the end of the day, we’re writing about bicycles. And if you can’t do that, and have fun at the same time, then it’s time to do something else.
Absolutely, I think that’s true for any magazines. But one thing I did want to ask about was your Sub-In-A-Box, I think it’s a brilliant idea. Tell me about that.
Sub-In-A-Box. This is this is almost historic now. I think we started this over 10 years ago. We were like any magazine, trying to sell subscriptions, trying to sell subscriptions as gifts, so that your Grandma would buy it for you at Christmas. And the feedback we got was the difficulty of selling a subscription is it’s something that’s almost intangible. It’s something that comes at some point in the future.
And buying a subscription was was always the case of, you’d open a card and there’d be some note and it would say, I’ve bought you a subscription to this magazine, it’ll turn up at some point, I’ve got no idea when. And then you sat there and then maybe two months later, something had dropped through the door.
So we simply just put whatever the current issue is, we put it in a box, we put it in a very nice box with a code in that would activate the subscription. And then we sell that as a gift, so that whoever buys it can hand it over, they can even wrap it up and stick it under the Christmas tree.
And it worked a treat. It’s our best selling product of the year, even though we sell the vast majority of them in November and December.
Is there anything else in the box, is it just a magazine or is there other stuff?
Oh, there’s the latest issue of the magazine in there, we’ve combined them with all kinds of things. We’ve done Sub-In-A-Box with other merchandise that we’ve got, so we’ve done Sub-In-A-Box with a T shirt, we’ve done Sub-In-A-Box with – we ever make our own coffee, so we’ve got Singletrack deadline blend coffee, and we do a subscription, we do an actual coffee subscription.
So because we work with a coffee roaster in Kirby Lonsdale who actually roasts our coffee for us. You can subscribe to the Singletrack coffee subscription, and one month you’ll get a bag of coffee, and then the next month you get the magazine, so you get something every month.
So I guess the the key is just trying to take that subscription product and modify it, and adapt it, and just try and keep doing new things with it.