Highsnobiety's Daniel Neumayer: Not building our business model on sheer scale enabled success

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With so much negative coverage of news publishing, we at Bibblio wanted to shine a spotlight on the many vertical publishers that are thriving. So we created an interview series called "Vertical Heroes".

In this third edition, Highsnobiety's Director of Audience Development Daniel Neumayer discusses their German-based streetwear publication, covering trends and news in fashion, art, music, and culture. During our latest trip to Berlin, Bibblio CEO Mads Holmen had a chat with him to talk about how clickbait got publishers into trouble, the importance of UI and how's he deepening relationships with Highsnobiety's audience.

Mads: Who is your publication’s target audience?

Daniel: Highsnobiety caters towards an influential community of urban, primarily male young style seekers and brand enthusiasts.

M: What different types of content are you offering these style seekers?

D: We create our own premium editorial content across print, video, audio/podcast and social, covering the products, ideas, trends and personalities driving contemporary urban youth culture.

Daniel Neumayer, Director of Audience Development at Highsnobiety
Daniel Neumayer, Director of Audience Development at Highsnobiety

M: How large is Highsnobiety in terms of audience and staff?

D: Our audience reach has grown to 45 million across all platforms globally. The company has grown to over 180 full time employees with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

M: You've managed to grow impressively, what has been the secret sauce?

D: Highsnobiety was founded 14 years ago, long before sneakers and streetwear entered the mainstream. As one of the first blogs – and a true authority – in this area, we have not only benefited from but actively contributed to the huge momentum that streetwear has gained over the last years. Our mission was and still is to be the most influential global brand for culturally connected, style savvy, forward-thinking young men.

We are committed to deepening our relationship with and service to our audience by continuing to expand our core media business with the launch of our creative brand studio, Highsnobiety+, insights practice, and e-Commerce offerings. This service to our audience and brand partners is the reason we have grown and are able to scale at such a rapid pace.

M: How do you prioritize attracting new audiences vs. engaging existing users deeper?

D: Our main focus lies on retaining existing users and fostering a highly engaged community. I know that many publishers are saying they're now confronted with the monetization problems of their former clickbait strategies. The difference at Highsnobiety is that our business model has never been built on sheer scale. And this is what enables us to actually walk the walk. We strongly believe that it is a much more fruitful and sustainable approach. Be it on site or on social media, engagement works as a multiplier that has a positive impact on all other areas.

Nonetheless, we do have an acquisition strategy for new users in place as well. Getting our content and brand in front of people that have never interacted with us before, gives us the chance to turn them into fans over time, after all. But also when it comes to acquiring new users, we don’t just go for anybody who is good for an extra click. We rather choose our initiatives wisely to attract new readers within our target audience that have a promising potential to become regulars.

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M: Could you share a bit more on how you turn these into regulars?

D: In order to keep our audience coming back for more, we need to understand exactly what they are looking for and especially what they love on our website as well as our other platforms. Of course, different sub-groups of our audience, be it due to age, interests or via which channel they come to us, have different expectations and so we make sure to analyze them separately. With this knowledge as a basis, we tailor our content and the way we distribute it to those different segments.

When it comes to content, topicality, expertise or recurring formats are among the factors that we use to build an audience of ever-returning visitors. For distribution, there are channels like organic search, where the above aspects are reflected and help us attract the same audience by building authority over time. Other channels like social media are naturally made for retention. We build strong communities that engage with our posts and thereby get our content delivered on a more frequent basis.

Apart from this, newsletters or other means of direct push notifications are another valuable channel since subscribers have actively opted in, several times, to receive updates that we can perfectly tailor to their needs.

M: What are the key audience metrics you define success of these strategies by?

D: While many companies strive to find a single north star that leads the way for all efforts, we are rather looking at a set of KPIs. Oftentimes, it is easier to accomplish a certain company goal – which is potentially connected to your personal goals – through measures that may negatively affect other important factors.

Striving for the most unique users is a great example here. The objective has resulted in dubious clickbait strategies that neglect everything but tremendous click-through rates. In turn, publishers have ended up with audiences that stay for less than 10 seconds and mostly bounce after a quick look at the teased image – not really a high-quality readership and certainly not the outcome that was intended in the first place.

For that reason, our set of metrics tries to balance different factors that we see as paramount for the success of Highsnobiety. They are built around four key areas – frequency, quality, volume and efficiency. Of course, these do not only count for the users we get to visit the website. Our audience spans across many different platforms on which we define success in a very similar way.

M: What does SEO mean to you these days?

D: SEO plays a huge role for us – as it should for every publisher. As a sustainable source of traffic, evergreen content optimized for search is a perfect complement to our news- or opinion-driven articles. Our strategy naturally revolves around the core topics for which we are already the go-to source for our existing as well as new audience. With a mix of high-quality, in-depth content and fast news, we attract readers through search and simultaneously keep them coming back for more by building a “one-stop-shop” around their key interests.

Highsnobiety's latest news section
Highsnobiety's latest news section

While keywords will probably always play a central role in SEO, things are changing with AI and the ever learning algorithms. For that reason, we are taking a much more holistic approach to SEO than writing plain texts around high-volume keywords. In order to account for the shift towards search intent, we are making sure in our content creation process that users will find what they are actually looking for. We are aiming to become experts in topic clusters that are core to our brand and audience and thereby own all associated searches on Google.

Apart from all content-related efforts, we are continuously working on the technical side of things to keep up with the search engine’s crawlers and algorithms. Be it page speed, mobile-friendliness or formats like our “Taps” for AMP stories, it is very important to stay on top of ranking factors and make the site ready for new features and other developments.

M: What’s your social media strategy, and how important is it for you to be present on those platforms?

Highsnobiety's Instagram

D: Social media is more important for us than ever. Only the role of social media is shifting. Of course, we have been affected by Facebook’s algorithm changes in the last years. Gladly, however, we have experienced a less negative impact compared to many other publishers since our strategy has always been built more on engagement than on cheap clicks. It would be absolutely wrong to say that Facebook is dead. We still see a large part of our overall traffic and engagements coming from our organic Facebook feed which is also why we still pay a lot of attention to the network.

At the same time, Instagram has taken the lead role as the gateway to our brand. It has become our focal channel where also our most engaged audience lives. For this reason, we are not seeing social media anymore as a means to primarily move users onto our website but rather as an extension of the same. Satisfaction and engagement of our audience is more important than where they consume our content. Thus, our social media strategy is rather aimed at on-platform captivation instead of traffic acquisition.

M: How do you drive engagement when readers land on your site?

D: There are two ways for us to drive user engagement on site. On the one hand, the content we create aims to do its own magic as we write about topics that our audience is psyched about. Be it news about the latest drops that generate excitement or opinionated pieces where we and our readers have a clear standpoint and want to vocalize it too.

On the other hand, it is the user experience and features that we provide to foster engagement. We constantly work on our website to make it a place where our audience wants to spend a lot of time and get lost – in a positive way. Especially mobile-friendliness is crucial to make it easy for our audience to consume and engage with all our different formats from articles to videos to podcasts wherever they are. By building interconnected content cosmoi and an easily navigable UI we aim to provide our users with the most relevant content based on everyone’s interests. Along with all of this, we are starting a dedicated initiative to implement features with which users can interact more with our content or leave their opinion, among others.

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M: Do you work together with other publications in your vertical? In what way?

D: We have previously partnered with other publications to cross-promote our editorial content or work together on giveaways.

M: Would you describe your business as data-driven? What are you currently doing with regards to data & insights, and what would you like to see happen in the near-future?

D: Absolutely. In my opinion, businesses can only survive and grow without a profound analytic approach for a limited time. Insights into the performance of content on site or across social media is just as important as financial reporting. But it is not a matter of black and white. The question should not be whether we base our decisions fully on data or our editorial foresight. Only if the two complement each other, we will achieve the best outcome. Data alone cannot paint the full picture – but it is crucial to confirm conceived measures and help to optimize them.

As Highsnobiety is entering new territories from audience acquisition channels to the recently opened Highsnobiety Shop, we are seeing the need to take our business intelligence to the next level. Especially when you try to build a loyal audience or want your users to do more than simply visit the website, connecting data along the entire user journey becomes crucial. Only like this, we are able to focus our efforts on the right people and decide on the most effective and efficient audience development initiatives.

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Publishing in peril

Web users have enjoyed free access to content for years, which has meant some digital publishers are having a tough time of it. To make money they either put up a paywall or rely on ads and clickbait. Google and Facebook offer easy ways to share content, but these referrals are fickle, hard to monetize, and dependent on algorithms that can change in a heartbeat.

In this ecosystem, quality journalism cannot thrive, replaced instead by sensationalist content and filter-bubbled fake news. The experience for users is jumbled and distracting, putting customer loyalty at serious risk.

Help is at hand

Bibblio's discovery platform lets publishers increase engagement, build loyalty and improve how they monetize. Our AI understands the context of each content item, recommending it at the right place and time, recirculating the publisher's content and personalizing their audience's experiences across any touchpoint.

Using either light-touch self-serve tools or running deeper integrations with support from Bibblio's engineers, these successful publishers have found smarter ways to deliver value through their sites, gain a better understanding of their audience and return their focus to quality editorial.

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