How PopSugar plans to expand its UK business

While many U.S. publishers like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post have been forced to scale back international operations lately, digital media publisher PopSugar is on a growth spurt in the U.K.

The women’s lifestyle publisher has just hired its first U.K. content director, Sophia Panych, who will recruit several more editorial staff to assist with some 200 articles published daily in the U.K. Those are a mix of local original content and stories written by the U.S. team that have global appeal. Currently, the publisher has 10 people based in London — a mix of editorial and commercial staff — and will hire two more staff in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, it has staff in the U.S. whose remit includes working closely with the U.K. team.

PopSugar took a more cautious approach to launching a U.K. presence than other U.S publishers previously have. Rather than attempt to monetize its U.K. audience immediately PopSugar hired a lean editorial team in London in 2012. That team remained in place for four years figuring out what content worked for the local market, and who the audience was. Those insights proved invaluable when it came to differentiating its editorial proposition and giving the commercial team a good base to start pitching to advertisers in 2016, according to PopSugar chief revenue officer Geoff Schiller. That’s a good four years without monetizing the U.K. “We didn’t want to build the plane while it’s in the air; that can be haphazard,” he said.

A go-to method for publishers monetizing overseas operations with lean teams is often to set up programmatic advertising which can be managed from the U.S. office. But that was never an option for PopSugar, whose business model for the U.K. is based on direct native advertising deals and branded content partnerships with both agencies and direct advertisers like skin-care brand Aveeno. Instead, the U.S. team waited patiently.

Ad revenue in the first half of this year is on track to grow by double-digit percentages compared to last year, according to Schiller, although he wouldn’t reveal specifics. PopSugar has forecast that it will grow revenue by 43% in 2019, which will put it on track to be profitable this year. Although the company produces video, the best margins are still to be found on text-based branded content articles, which drive much of the growth, he added.

PopSugar has widened its U.K. editorial mandate to include parenting, lifestyle, beauty and fashion content, and appealing beyond Londoners to women across the country, according to Schiller. Quick-fire news articles with lengthy headlines such as “These Cats Who Live Across From Each Other Have the Romance of the Century, and My Heart Can’t Take It” and “This Mum Is Thanking a Flight Attendant Who ‘Swooped’ In to Help Her Son With Special Needs” are typical fare on the site.

In the U.K., the site has 3 million monthly unique users, according to Comscore. The publisher claims it reaches 1 in 4 millennial women. Even so, competition remains high — with titles like Bustle, Refinery29, Cosmo all targeting similar audiences — and PopSugar has room to grow when it comes to brand recognition in the U.K., according to media analysts.

“Several media companies claim their ‘unique’ ability to reach women 18- to 40-year-olds, but in reality, there are many of them attempting to do pretty similar things online,” said Alice Pickthall, analyst at Enders Analysis. “In their established U.S. business, they have monetization expertise beyond native ads, powered by Taboola, and branded content, so they have potential to move into brand licensing, live events and further monetization of ShopStyle.”

In the U.S., PopSugar creates its own technology on behalf of brands, and the U.K. commercial team can benefit by cherry-picking what would work best for the U.K. market. For instance, the U.K. often uses TrendRank — the proprietary predictive trend tool that anticipates what stories will explode on social media platforms. The tool has proved popular with brand clients in the U.K., according to the publisher.

“U.K. clients want to leverage all our data and understanding and be prescriptive with them on how to connect with that audience at scale,” said Hayley Sharp, U.K. commercial director at PopSugar. “They want to utilize all our credentials rather than create white-label content for them like the U.S.”

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