How Condé Nast’s Ars Technica tweaks its approach for the UK

While many publishers aim for scale, Condé Nast-owned tech site Ars Technica goes the other way, proving there’s value in niche titles when it comes to differentiating overseas.

The technology title has been around for 17 years in the U.S. (bought by Condé Nast for $25 million in 2008) but only celebrated its one-year U.K. anniversary last week.

Ars Technica founder and editor-in-chief Ken Fisher wouldn’t give specifics but said the U.K. traffic and revenue have exceeded expectations. “It took us four years to grow this kind of scale in the U.S.,” he said. “In the U.K., it took six months.”

It’s carved out a solid reader base in the U.K.: 652,000 monthly readers (excluding mobile traffic) on top of 6.5 million in the U.S., according to comScore. Its own figures put the U.K. monthly reader count at 1.5 million; the truth is probably somewhere in between. Since its U.K. debut last May, the London office staff has grown from four to 11 people.

One thing it didn’t want to do was to just take a carbon copy of the American plan and apply it to the U.K., Fisher said. 

Digiday spoke to Fisher and U.K. editor Sebastian Anthony about the U.K. strategy. Here are the takeaways:

Sticking with niche
The U.K. tech media market is saturated, so standing out against the competition is tough. Other tech-focused titles like AOL’s Engadget, The Verge and Dennis’ tech site Alphr are broadening their editorial focus to look at the role technology plays in topics like lifestyle, culture, science and automotive.

Ars Technica is sticking to its core focus on tech and gaming for high-brow IT and tech specialists. U.K. pieces include features on new games releases like “Uncharted,” (pictured above) to gadget reviews like “HP EliteBook G1 Folio Review — the MacBook as it could have been.”

“The overwhelming majority of players in this space are going for mass audience, and there may be an e-commerce play in that at the end of the day. But because we play in the more rarefied space, there’s no one else really that covers this stuff,” said Ars Technica founder and editor-in-chief Ken Fisher.

Condé Nast U.K. runs independently of the U.S, and the same goes for Ars Technica. Fisher isn’t convinced that off-site content distribution is worth it commercially in the U.S., whereas in the U.K., there’s a case for exploring what platforms can offer. 

“There’s a lot more to lose in the U.S. if they screw things up, but if I put one person on running Facebook content for the day, I won’t lose much,” said Anthony. He’s looking at running content through Facebook’s Instant Articles, and video is another planned growth area. “Condé Nast is behind on video, we need to do more there,” he added. 

Creating the “honey pot” for advertisers
Ars Technica joins a growing number of publishers — including the Guardian, Dennis and the Daily Mail — where the newsroom gets involved with creating content for brands. Many publishers funnel branded content creation to separate, in-house content studios to maintain editorial integrity. But Ars Technica has its editorial staff create all native advertising copy, keeping copy editorially authentic by not telling the writer who is sponsoring the articles. 

“Nine times out of 10 native means editorial talent knows who the advertiser is, knows their objectives and that they have to write something they’d like. That’s a formula for disappointing the reader,” said Fisher.

This method applies to Ars in the U.S., too. For U.K.-specific content, Fisher and Anthony will brainstorm editorial themes and ideas for articles that they can commission to a specific staff writer with expertise in that area.

The content will be labeled as “presented by” the advertiser. “We try and work with agencies and clients on ideas that we can do legitimate journalism on. That will create that honey pot for the kind of readers the client would want,” added Fisher.

IBM is among the regular brand partners, and has funded editorially commissioned articles like “Demystifying artificial intelligence: No, the Singularity is not just around the corner.” Articles made this way tend to generate an 300,000 views, according to the publisher.

That’s not to say that all advertisers are comfortable with giving up control of the message they’re paying for. Some advertisers couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of handing over control this way, according to Anthony.

Now that it’s more established here, Ars can afford to be pickier with its partners, he said. “If the advertiser gets too shirty, we walk away.”


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