PSFK's Piers Fawkes: our B2B publication works due to relentless iteration

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With so much negative coverage of publishing, we at Bibblio are shining a spotlight on the many vertical publishers that are thriving. Welcome to the "Vertical Heroes" series of interviews.

In this seventh edition, PSFK founder, president & editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes unveils how his B2B company helps brands and retailers build tomorrow's customer experiences. Bibblio CEO Mads Holmen had a chat with Piers about being service-minded as a publication, their spin-off event this January and developing their paywall solution Wallkit that they're offering to others.

Mads: Who is your PSFK's target audience?

Piers: Our focus is to serve innovation and consumer insights executives who work in retail, at brands – and strategists and planners at agencies. We see three distinct user types – which can relate to their seniority (but not always):

  1. An innovation lead, who's a problem solver within an organization – and typically called upon to be an idea presenter and generator.
  2. A manager, who identifies opportunities for their organization. They are a cross-function communicator and project coordinator.
  3. A director, who are internal growth catalysts. They tend to be multi-disciplined leaders and are subject matter experts.

M: What different types of content are you offering these retail and brand professionals?

Piers Fawkes, founder, president & editor-in-chief of PSFK
Piers Fawkes, founder, president & editor-in-chief of PSFK

P: We think about how we serve those three user types in similar but differing ways. Overall we look to provide daily research on market trends, consumer insights and competitive activity through newsletters and our site. We provide tools on-site to help manage knowledge resources and synthesize findings into solutions and research reports. The reports are our most sought-after content and we prioritize our SEO efforts to this content type.

We also present strategic recommendations through webinars and events. We offer paid research presentations of existing research and professionally facilitated, multi-day workshops through our PSFK Labs division. We also take corporate teams on 'trends safaris', putting them face-to-face with retail innovation in the marketplace.

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

P: We have 200,000 monthly readers and 25,000 newsletter subscribers. We publish about 30 times a day in different formats. Most our daily content staff are contributors. Full time staff on editorial is just two people. The research and report writing team are 25.

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M: You've managed to grow your revenue impressively. What has been the secret sauce? 

P: We probably don’t look like we grew on paper – but financially we did once we added the Wallkit paywall. Then we focused on the few folks who literally bought into us for our bespoke and strategic services. It's a low 5 figures for a 10-person team to be members and have access to reports and our researchers.

We focus on trying to understand what our role is in our reader, subscriber and member’s day to day. We help them identify and evaluate new opportunities. We also help them formulate actionable recommendations, present and communicate strategies, and understand innovations and evolving industries.

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

P: The joy of charging for content means that we can focus on creating great content rather than make advertisers and sponsors happy. If you make just enough of that great content available for everyone – and for us, this is mainly through the free newsletters – it brings in a stream of new folks into our pipeline.

M: How are you retaining these subscribers beyond creating content?

P: Firstly, we focus on the retention of our highest paying audiences. The Wallkit membership system helps us segment our audience and user type, and then create triggers to engage folks who are coming up for renewal. We do have to make sure that not all correspondence is automated though. The personal touch is a significant factor in our success.

M: What's the key audience metrics you define success by?

P:  Our goal is to reach a membership & subscription growth of 25% on last year’s numbers. It's $15 a month for an individual to subscribe to all our content. We track all this through Wallkit.

M: What's PSFK's social media strategy?

P: As we’re a B2B publication, it’s LinkedIn mainly. The professional social platform is a bit of a stodgy beast, but here are some new ways to present ideas developing in this space which we’re exploring. It's worth checking out what Gary Vaynerchuck is doing with multiple images.

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

P: Wallkit changes the content shown based on the subscriber or member level – or whether you’re a stranger. We can therefore funnel newbies to rich, evergreen content and we can provide our highest paying members with content that fits their needs and previous behavior.

M: Are you working together with other publications for retail and brands?

P:  We’d love to do that. It'd be amazing to have our readers be able to look at content on other publishers’ sites and vice versa. Again, Wallkit allows this gate-crashing to happen with rules in place to help both publishers.

I’ve started to reach out to folks in my space to make this happen – and if there’s anyone reading who wants to be part of this, let me know.

M: What's the area you're most excited about? 

P: We are building a spin off called New York Retail Innovation Week – it’s part calendar, part in-convention, part content program. Events are interesting as long as you can find a way of delivering them without doing all the work. Check out NYRIW if you want to learn more. 

NY Retail Innovation Week home page
NY Retail Innovation Week home page

M: From your own journey, what do think other vertical publishers could learn? 

P: I see PSFK as a service. We try to approach our UX as software. It doesn’t always come out that way because the legacy of publishing (and doing what publishers are “supposed” to do). This means we have a lot of muscle memory to overcome. The key motto at PSFK is relentless iteration.

M: Can you share some interesting stats on launching a subscription model?

P: Yes. Installing a paywall will reduce your traffic by about 95%. And of the people who will continue to interact with you, 95% will not pay you directly for subscription.

M: Which other publishers do you look to for inspiration?

P: I look at the edges, at students making digital zines to artists creating digital experiences to engineers pushing the boundaries of code. If you spend all your time looking at your peers’ work you just optimize. If you spend time looking for patterns in the weak signals, you can find just enough direction to help you evolve beyond the others.

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