Key Insights

Key Insights

Headshot of Sara Jerde

Key Insights

Key Insights

Bustle Digital Group has a reputation of swooping in on media’s dying door and “saving” titles by purchasing them for pennies on the dollar. But now, the publisher is reinventing itself as a modern media organization, creating its own publication and a new and improved, custom CMS to be used across its portfolio for a cohesive feel for readers and advertisers.

BDG’s plans to save itself from the same fate as the publications it cobbled together lie in its CMS, called TypeSet, which is structured around a feature BDG is calling a “card story” format that offers the newsroom a new type of storytelling and the ad sales team a new space to entice advertisers.

The rollout of the feature comes with the launch of Input, a new tech site from Josh Topolsky, co-founder of The Verge and founder of The Outline, who joined BDG in April when BDG acquired the latter title. While the site softly rolls out today and there are no advertisers on the site, the company says branded content cards will be available come February.

Investing in the CMS and making it the company’s backbone is the next stage of BDG’s maturation. It paves the way for other merging publishers, especially as the trend of combining assets will continue with only the context of how other, traditional media conglomerates navigated the space before them.

“It’s a really challenging time in digital media,” said Jason Wagenheim, BDG’s chief revenue officer, of the CMS’ card feature. “We know what works and what doesn’t. And we feel really confident that this is going to be a game changer.”

The current plan is to use the CMS on all of BDG’s brands by June 2020. Under that scenario, brands can advertise across BDG’s sites, including the women’s lifestyle collection—Bustle, Romper, Elite Daily, Nylon and the Zoe Report—as well as the “culture and innovation collection” under Topolsky’s editorial direction, including Mic, The Outline, Inverse and Input.

Competitive media landscape

BDG’s new tech site enters an already crowded field of tech media with brands rooted in magazines like Wired, established tech websites like Recode and soon-to-be-launched tech sites like Protocol from Politico. It’s also going up against other media companies that are combining forces like Vox Media and New York Media.

It’s a business model BDG built itself on. If the 2000s were about big media consolidation—AOL/TimeWarner; NBCUniversal; CBS/Viacom (the first go ’round)—the age of digital media consolidation is upon us.

“You have all these brands and they all feed up to the parent. It’s a good model, but it isn’t the cheapest model,” said Tim Smith, IPNY’s director of communications and media planning. “The real deal becomes at what point does the model stop. At what point is there too much?”

This year, BDG acquired three companies and is now operating with a portfolio of nine editorial brands, an events company in Flavorpill and an archive of work at Gawker.com that executives said would relaunch this year before they changed their minds.

BDG also attracted big names to the executive team which has grown this year to include not only Topolsky, but also Emma Rosenblum, previously the executive editor of Elle, as editor in chief of the lifestyle collection, and Elizabeth Webbe Lunny, previously the vp of media and the publisher of T Magazine, as evp of revenue. This did come with a handful of layoffs among the editorial staff, however.

In 2019, BDG’s portfolio captured an audience that reached over 75 million unique visitors, according to the most recent ComScore figures. BDG expects the culture and innovation collection alone to reach 20 million unique visitors by the spring of 2020.

“Anything that we build or acquire now has to be transformative for our business. And that’s what we think this represents,” Wagenheim said, adding, “We’re not going to be the company that goes and launches a shoe line or does a lipstick line. We’re going to diversify our revenue by being able to compete everywhere.”

That strategy included hiring Topolsky, who joined BDG on April Fool’s Day, and picking up on his plans to create a new tech site in Input. The Outline’s CTO, Ivar Vong, joined BDG and helped create the technology behind the CMS, in conjunction with the company’s engineering team, for BDG’s brands and with agency Code and Theory on the design. Input has hired people including former reporters and editors from Mashable, DailyMail.com and engadget.com.

Building a CMS for Bustle Digital Group

It was always the “dream” at The Outline, Topolsky said, to build a CMS that could be used across brands. “We couldn’t get there on our own,” he said, while sitting in an airy, well-lit conference room looking out over a floor occupied by BDG edit staff inside the company’s Manhattan headquarters.

“Everybody's brain now moves at Twitter speed. I think we've been doing a lot of publishing that still at newspaper speed."
Josh Topolsky, editor in chief of BDG’s culture and innovation collection

Input, which serves as the guinea pig for the CMS at BDG, will serve readers tech news Topolsky hopes will help the website stand out from competitors and include coverage of AR and VR developments, policies on the limits of technology, hardware, software, new technological devices and tech design.

“Everybody’s brain now moves at Twitter speed. I think we’ve been doing a lot of publishing that still at newspaper speed,” Topolsky said. “But there’s an opportunity to do stuff that’s faster, that’s a little bit more expedited in terms of its delivery.”

The CMS’ engineers set out to create an easy process for making ad campaigns live and an attractive user experience modeled after what a print magazine might look like online, prioritizing images, videos and typography. The individual cards can be created by users to tell any story, with dropdown boxes that allow certain aspects of the cards to be tweaked, from the color of the quotes on the page to the placement of text, but the cards provide a consistent platform for a cohesive aesthetic on the site.

Wagenheim sees the new layout as a way to grab readers’ attention and potentially attract ad dollars soaked up by social media platforms.

“The internet does not look good. Technology has evolved so much. But aesthetically, the internet hasn’t. It’s still copy and squares and rectangles. There’s not any beautiful storytelling being done anywhere,” Wagenheim said. “The platforms have been eating our lunch one because of their scale, but two because of the way they’re able to tell stories.”

BDG’s card story will feel similar to social media platforms

This is at least Topolsky’s third swing at building a CMS after The Verge and The Outline, but with the brands and resources Goldberg and his team pieced together.

The so-called card stories, which can be entirely branded experiences or editorial stories with branded cards interspersed within them, will live on the homepage just like any other article, and the experience of viewing one is similar to an Instagram or Snapchat story in which you tap to move to the next screen. Each individual card can be customized with text or video or photos to give a detailed report.

“It’s Twitter on steroids. It’s almost like if Snapchat and Twitter had a baby. This is the product that they might produce,” Topolsky said.

For example, a story about a new type of skateboard can be reported on by showing the skateboard moving down the road in a video in one card, stats in text on the next card and an image of the skateboard with quotes. Advertisers, then, could put their own branded cards in the middle of these card stories. The same so-called card stories that are built for the BDG’s sites can be edited in real time, and shared across social media platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook stories.

While the site is live today, it will operate in beta mode for around 30 days, while execs shop the concept at CES, then will bring on advertisers, with its branded content cards becoming available in 2020.

“I think it definitely is an environment that lends well to social especially on mobile channels. It is reminiscent of something from one of the more popular platforms,” said a media buyer with direct knowledge of BDG’s plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a more modern, updated cleaner experience. It is certainly different and represents an update from what we’ve seen.” According to the same buyer, a proposed rate card for 2020 hasn’t yet been distributed.

Being as most of BDG’s deals have a branded content component (more than 90%, Wagenheim said), it was important to invest in improving the offerings to partners. “This is the next level of branded content and why we’re betting everything on it moving into 2020 across the whole portfolio,” he said.

With the new CMS, Wagenheim hopes to tap into new advertiser categories. Currently, retail, fashion and entertainment are the top three advertiser categories for BDG, with the audience it attracts in its lifestyle publications. With the culture and innovation collection, Wagenheim says he is targeting other ad categories, like consumer electronics, telecom, financial services and automotive—which currently only account for 10% of ad revenue—and grow them to at least a third by the end of 2020.

Licensing the CMS could also become part of the business model down the line, à la The Washington Post’s Arc or Vox Media’s Chorus. It’s something, Wagenheim said, they’ve “giggled about but haven’t taken very seriously.” For now, he said, “it’s not currently in the cards.”

Sara Jerde is Adweek’s publishing editor, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 presidential race.