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Talking new publishing eras with The Urban List Founder Susannah George

Susannah George talks how branded content, great teams and strong partnerships are key to success.

From humble beginnings, The Urban List has become the place to go to discover your city afresh. Here, CEO and Founder Susannah George talks about the brand’s unique evolution, and how Australian publishers can rethink old revenue models in these crowded, chaotic, opportunity-rich times.

Mahlab Tell me a little bit about the journey of The Urban List – from when it began to where it’s at today.

Susannah George The Urban List launched, rather unceremoniously to be honest, from my bedroom just over six years ago. From that time, we’ve grown from a single city to serve seven markets with an audience of just over 2.5 million people that we connect with the businesses, brands, trends, meals and cities we love.

M Do you see any challenges as unique or especially pertinent to the Asia-Pacific market?

SG We currently operate in seven cities across Australia and New Zealand, and the comparatively small population of these markets poses a challenge when it comes to the ability to scale our audience. Still, we see this as an opportunity to test, learn and refine our model so that when we do look to scale internationally, we are well equipped – both operationally and financially – to capitalise on this foundation.

M The Urban List is one of Australia’s most impressive startup stories when it comes to its rapid growth and market dominance. What do you see as the main drivers behind its success?

SG We’ve been quite privileged in terms of the support we’ve received – particularly over the last couple of years.

Three things have contributed to our growth and capturing competitive market share:

  1. Our investment in finding and developing great people: we have always focused on building strong, local teams for each market we enter.
  2. We regard our audience as our heartbeat, so much so that we ran revenue-free for our first 18 months. We focused entirely on understanding our readers’ motivations and needs, developing a framework that enabled us to maximise engagement, credibility and trust.
  3. Our personality – we provide strong recommendations with a tone that’s inclusive, friendly and packed with wit. We avoid being authoritative, always connecting with our audience as a friend. The result? They trust us and take action from the suggestions we make.

M How does branded content fit in your business strategy and model? Was it always part of the content mix, and do you see this model evolving in the future?

SGApproximately 95% of our revenue is derived from content-led partnerships – it has always been the foundation of our product, and we have become known for content solutions that push beyond the traditional promises of increased awareness and consideration. We pride ourselves on creating content that you don’t just read, but content you live and breathe – leading our audience from awareness to action to advocacy.

As an organisation, we are fortunate to adapt well when it comes to our industry’s need to innovate consistently. ‘Change is an adventure’ is one of our core values, and I am sure that our business model will evolve as new opportunities and client challenges emerge.

M How are brand/publisher partnerships formed, and what are the ingredients of a good one?

SG Without doubt, our most successful partnerships have been the triple threat of leading agency, leading brand and leading publisher working toward the same goal. Open communication and consideration of ideas has been key, as has a willingness to trial new things and take rapid action from the core learnings.

Optimisation is often talked about in the display domain, but not enough when it comes to content. We are constantly optimising the content we produce and it’s this relentless pursuit of the best outcome that has seen us develop our trademark stories to live by, not stories that scroll by.

M What are some of your proudest branded content campaigns?

SG Hands down one of my proudest moments in The Urban List journey was winning our very first brand campaign – a 12-month, auto exclusivity partnership with MINI Australia and Vizeum. I still get goosebumps when I think back to what that represented for us. It was a true turning point – a signal that we were starting to make our mark.

It was back in 2014 – we had only been operating in Sydney and Melbourne for less than 12 months – and had MINI as one of our ‘blue sky’ poster prospects, the sort of brand that we were dying to collaborate with.

That said, we had never embarked on a brand campaign before and didn’t know the first thing about how to tackle it. Fortunately, the Vizeum team approached us about the potential of a partnership – and from the very first conversations at a South Melbourne pub, right through to shooting the final video of the campaign (we produced 30 videos throughout) it was a dream; a dream packed with industry, MINI and The Urban List firsts – week after week.

There are quite a few campaigns since that I have been extremely proud to see come to life and without fail, those that deliver the greatest success and satisfaction are those where client, agency and publisher combine forces to create the ultimate triple threat. The stronger the communication and collaboration between all three, the greater the result.

M Aside from branded content, what other revenue streams do you see as important to the growth and sustainability of publishers now?

SG I think it depends entirely on your scale and financial position. If you’re an independent, careful cash flow management is key for growth, and it’s important to explore revenue streams that provide upfront income and balance the sometimes lengthy payment terms that are the norm with agencies. (No complaints – it’s just how things are.)

Transactional revenue is a strong opportunity if you have a trusted, credible relationship with your audience; and if you can unlock where your potential subscriber value lies, then recurrent revenue works wonders when it comes to making it easier to sleep at night.

As the desire for content increases, those who produce it are also in a strong position when it comes to solving others’ creation obstacles by offering sub-licensing opportunities.

M The Urban List is loved not only for its useful guides and locally-tailored recommendations, but for its humorous, irreverent and often self-parodic tone. What’s the place of humour in the increasingly competitive content world?

SG It’s true, and our tone is not an accident. It’s a place that we landed based on much testing over first few years. It’s a tone that has proven to cut through online, and a tone that has seen us much more successfully move our audience from action to advocacy.

M Currently, The Urban List is a major player in seven markets. How did you know when a market was ripe to break into?

SG We are self-funded and while we always have growth plans, we can only expand into new markets as and when cash flow allows. We get requests to enter new markets every day, and recently polled our audience as to where they’d like us to head next.

The top candidates were the UK, Tasmania and Queenstown (in that order). Watch this space!

M What do you see as the main virtues of growth-orientated publishers?

  1. SG Be willing to listen to your audience and to action what you learn – even if it means short-term commercial sacrifice.
  2. Invest in the best talent you can afford, and show them you believe in them.
  3. Forget what the rest of the industry is delivering and focus on the power of your team – I’m constantly amazed by what they can achieve.

M What’s next for The Urban List?

  1. SG A continued focus on our audience as we both learn and lead where their interests lie next.
  2. A revitalized suite of opportunities for brands and agencies to engage. We recently launched our branded content Studio and the calibre of the concepts they’re producing is insane.
  3. Continued expansion into new markets and new verticals – we can’t wait.

You can hear Susannah George talk “Reinventing The Publishing Model” session at Sydney’s Publish conference on October 19. Our own Bobbi Mahlab will also be speaking in the earlier session, ‘Who is the Content King? In-house Versus Agency‘. Learn more here.

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