EP36: How Ewen Finser is building profitable affiliate sites at scale - Domain Magnate

EP36: How Ewen Finser is building profitable affiliate sites at scale

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On this episode of the Domain Magnate Show, host Michael Bereslasvky chats with Ewen Fencer, CEO of Venture 4th Media. This episode is packed with great advice, how to find great content writers, and advice on starting up. 

GUEST BIO:

Ewen Finser is the CEO of Venture 4th Media. Ewen is a digital media operator, strategically developing branded web properties bridging the divide between targeted niche audiences and late stage eCommerce adoption.

SKIP TO THE GOOD PARTS:

  • 23:46 – 25:57 How to find great content writers.
  • 42:48 – 47:24 What separates mediocre content from quality content.
  • 52:25 – 57:38 Ewen gives some advice to anyone who is wanting to build a site.
  • 58:38 – 1:00:14 Starting up with video.

SHOW TRANSCRIPT:

Michael Bereslavsky 0:13 Welcome listeners and viewers. In this episode, I’m talking to Ewen Fencer from venture 4th Media. Hi Ewen.

Ewen Fencer 0:25 Hey, Michael, how’s it going?

Michael Bereslavsky 0:27 It’s been good. So I’m excited to catch up. We spoke last time, about a year ago. And it’s interesting that you took a slightly different direction in terms of going more if building new websites rather than buying sites. Right. So tell us more about it and how did you get to it?

Ewen Fencer 0:48 Yeah, so building has actually been my background. That’s how I got started, like, so many people in this space, you know, trying to get some income online, you know, quit the day job, I feel like that’s a very familiar story for many people. I started doing that in about 2013. And then was able to quit my day job in 2014. Just building a couple sites from scratch, literally doing everything myself, from the content writing to the development to the you know, the effort, literally A to Z content site publishing, and then kind of gradually matured in a very natural way from building sites, one at a time to building a couple at a time. And then started adding in the content teams started hiring writers, editors, basically building our competency in the content production process. And so my strength, I feel has always been in the niche selection and kind of the planning around identifying market caps. And how do we fill that market gap with content. And so you’re really it’s just a maturation over time. Today, we operate over 70 different websites, we have a bootstrap portfolio, which I still run, which is venture 4th Media. And then Venture 4th is also kind of a manager of other or a GP, if you will have a couple other funds, that kind of pool investor capital, traditionally, just from one source. But we’ve also just recently kind of put together a little bit of a larger raise, to go after 20 site launch, which is our most ambitious launch yet to do 20 new sites at one time. But really, it’s you know, I’ve acquired sites and build sites. I’ve compared the pros and cons. I think there are objectively some strengths to building versus buying. And then I also just look at my skill set. And, you know, there’s very few people, I think, in the industry, who are actually building sites at scale. There’s a lot of individual operators, and there’s a lot of funds that are acquiring sites, but there’s not a lot of funds, or that, to my knowledge that are what I call incubating content brands from scratch.

Michael Bereslavsky 3:09 And that’s true, actually, there is not that many people that focus on scaling the building process. I think one challenge really is just like, it’s not that easy. It’s hard because of the constant Google updates. So how are you handling that? And by the way, there was a Google update just a few days ago, and then a few big ones in past months.

Ewen Fencer 3:33 Yeah, so it’s actually really interesting time, because that’s been like all over the internet. I feel people asking me my opinion, but also just a lot of chatter in different groups about it. You know, I actually, it’s funny, because I look at acquisitions, and I think that’s more risky. And so I think it just comes back to what’s your skill set, you know, and some people are very good at mitigating risk and doing due diligence on acquisitions. I don’t necessarily think that’s my strong suit. So that’s kind of why I come to roundups, because I can control all those variables that you talked about, right. So a big thing for me that I see in the market right now is content quality. I think that 95% of the sites that are for sale on any of the major marketplaces, not going to single anyone out, but I’ll say it’s everywhere. The content is not really up to standard. It’s not written by someone who’s a subject matter expert, or it’s written by maybe a non native speaker, and it kind of you can really read it, it doesn’t read, naturally, I guess is the right way to say it. For the market that it’s targeting. So, you know, with the recent update, you know, background a lot of it was around Google saying, Hey, you know, we want to be cracking down on review sites that are not actually informing their readers with unique information. They’re kind of just taking some Amazon description and regurgitating that into you know, a standard kind of copy, paste and not copy, paste, but copy, and then reword it, and then publish it. So it’s funny because our sites we’ve always been doing to their way, we’ve always been focusing on quality writers, writers who are experts in their vertical. And even, you know, starting for four or five months ago, doing a huge push into video, that’s been one of our growth initiatives, because I think having video layer on top of your written content is going to be the easiest way to prove to Google that you are an expert. There’s nothing you know, that says expert more than someone who’s actually reviewing a product or talking about it and sharing their expertise in an authoritative way. And so we’ve really leaned into this idea of expert authors and authorship, maybe long before it was even popular. And so we’re not too concerned about that, actually, our portfolio, you know, again, we have a huge data set. But I would say for the vast majority of them are up with a recent update. There’s a couple outliers here, those sites, they get caught up in the updates. But for the most part, I think it’s a, it’s actually been very rewarding for us. And I am hearing about all these stories about sites being wiped out. But that’s not what we’re seeing. So I’m pretty optimistic, I guess, cautiously optimistic, because you can never completely trust that, you know, Google will do the right thing. But so far, so good for the recent update.

Michael Bereslavsky 6:28 Okay, yeah, that’s cool. So I love to dive more into the details of how you’re building them. But before that, just to get some numbers. So you mentioned you’ve built about 70 sites, and you also acquire quite a few, run some funds. So tells us a bit more about how like, how much have you raised and how many deals have you acquired? How did that go?

Ewen Fencer 6:55 So, around 2017 2018, I helped co found this group called our mountain capital, and they’re basically a capital allocator for the space. And we did some fairly large acquisitions in the, I’d say, in the content space, like, you know, some seven books, seven figures, some six figures, just to kind of explore the market. And kind of the net result is that it’s, you know, some were great, some were not so great some were kind of breakeven, but it wasn’t really the hockey stick return profile that we were expecting from acquisitions. So that is partly why we pivoted to doing ground ups. And so within our mountain, I was kind of eager to try ground ups at scale. because historically, I would say, if someone asked me, hey, you know, can I invest in you do a grand upside? I’d say, well, I don’t know if the economics work there. You know, I don’t know what their return profile is. So we launched something called center keel media, which is like a subsidiary child company, with Al mountain being the lead investor. And really around the concept of how can we prove the different variables around growing a site? What are the mile markers, so you know, people that knock on ground ups, it takes a while, right? It’s the Google sandbox, there’s all sorts of stuff. So I said, Okay, let’s measure that. And so let’s use a very disciplined approach to doing that I use a concept from Jim Collins, which is fire bullets, then cannonballs. And basically, the idea is, don’t fire all of your capital in one shot, fire, you know, a little bit of it a significant portion, but not majority of it, on validating your hypothesis, first, seeing what the results are, and then doubling down on the winners. So we kind of took a portfolio approach, we’d launched 10 sites, each site, we want to get over 100 articles, ideally, 150 articles. So each site received between 10 and $15,000, for seeding the content, and then we just let the site sit there in different verticals, but we just wanted to see, okay, well, I think these are good verticals. But what do I know, you know, let me see what Google says. Let me see what the world says about these sites. And then just be very, very patient, waiting to get the proof to be honest, to see which sites are growing faster. And then around, you know, nine to 12 months, you start to see sites generating traffic. And there are some winners, there are some losers, and sometimes they’re not the ones you expected. And so then once the site, you know how we’ve set up now, once the site gets passed around 20,000 pageviews per month, we say, okay, it’s gone from being a bullet to a cannonball, and a cannonball gets anywhere from 20 to $30,000, in additional capital to kind of double down because it’s been proving itself out. And so we do that on a portfolio basis. And we just found the winners. And we double down the winners. And we kind of forget about the sites that are not working, we don’t even spend time really trying to figure out why or what happened. Maybe later, we’ll go back and do something with them. But the idea is to optimize in the most efficient manner around the best possible candidates, rather than worrying about the ones that aren’t working so well. So that’s kind of the the incubator in a nutshell. But that’s been my experience of coming from doing the acquisitions we have done acquisitions to my work is really not focused on the ground up, and we’re launching, in may actually just around the corner, we’ll be launching a new fund for $600,000 for 20 sites. So we’re doing a stair step from 10 to 20. And we’re gonna see how that goes. And then the idea is every, I’d say six to nine months, doing another cohort launch of 20, 30 sites, and just continually doing that over and over again, for as long as we can. And as long as there’s a good ROI, and constantly kind of reevaluating the process along the way. So that’s really been my focus. More recently lasted last two years, almost 100% focus on ground ups versus acquisitions.

Michael Bereslavsky 11:14 Right, cool. So, you’ve raised some capital, you’ve acquired some six, seven figure deals, and then you also like, test it a little bit building sites from scratch, and then decided that this is a better approach for you. And what are the results like? So it’s been at least two years kind of focusing on it fully? And do you have some numbers you can share in terms of profitability? How soon do you expect to receive the investment back? And like, what percentage of sites are successful?

Ewen Fencer 11:54 Yeah, so we built a model, that’s the fun part about it, you build the model, and you test it, you figure out where you’re wrong. And I love that process of, you know, learning something new and proving myself wrong. So the first incubator was $250,000, for 10 sites. And so for me, there were some important return profiles, like, obviously, getting earnings, you know, to certain levels important, but then you can nicely with the spaces, then you can also do the asset value calculation. So, the earliest indicator was back in November, in December, I think, December, we reached like, $11,000 per month in top line revenue from those 10 sites. So we can start to do the math, like, okay, you know, if this number holds, and it was December, so maybe we’re a little aggressive, let’s say it’s $10,000 a month, is what it’s going to do, we kind of look at the forward earnings profile and say, okay, we’ve basically made our money back, if you do the asset value, you either do a 3x, let’s say, have a four earnings multiple, you can get that 1x. That was very important, because I want to see how long does it take us to get, you know, on paper, a 1x asset value return? And so the answer for our process is anywhere between 16 to 18 months, which is actually faster than I expected. It’s still not a quick win in my book, but it’s a lot faster than I expected. And then today, you know, so January, February, typically down months, which they were because of the, you know, seasonality, and then March, our projections are coming close to $13,000 per month. So that’s really kind of were, what 20 months in, that’s a good reassurance for us that, you know, we’re approaching it to 2x, maybe 3x. We’re getting close to that. And then may will be the two year mark. I’d like to get to, you know, $15,000, let’s say, by the end of May. And then the really interesting part, I think, happens in the next year, because then we have 10 sites, and you asked about the distribution. I’d say, four of the 10 sites were cannonballs. And two of them are kind of in this bucket of their late bloomers. Like they’re growing, they’re growing a lot more slowly. And then I’d say there’s like, you know, maybe four, three or four that are kind of really slow, and some have not focusing on them. And I say, Well, one of those three is I call it dodge just never took off. And that’s okay. You know, we modeled…that we modeled, actually, one site never doing anything. To site or three sites that were just wouldn’t, would grow but not, not to the level that we would want to reinvest. And then we modeled, like three to five sites that would be growing like a cannonball, and they’d get a capital allocation as they have. So our model has proven to be remarkably accurate in terms of the distribution of winners, but we didn’t expect That was we have one site in particular, that’s a huge outlier on the upside, like, we we didn’t model, a site that could grow that quickly, or, you know, get to over one of the sites is over $6,000 in revenue, which represents, like, almost 50% of the earnings. But that was not what we expected. So there’s a little bit of variance on that front. But overall, you know, if we do that, she get my calculator out. If we do that math, so let’s just say $13,000. And it’s March. So I think that those numbers will hold. You know, it’s not a it’s not December’s not q4. So, you know, obviously, on an annual basis, it’s 156,000. If you do a 3x, multiple, that’s 468. You know, if we do a 3.5 546, you know, and I’ve seen some multiples above four, so let’s just do four. That’s like 624. So we look at that additional $250,000 invested, you know, we’re well above a 2x. In my opinion, so based on the results. So that’s pretty exciting. And so we’re just gonna see how far can we scale this? You know, can we do 20 launches? Can we do 30 launches, what breaks in the process, because that’s the other component. But really, it’s been good validation for us that we’re actually onto something here, it takes a little bit longer, we have to be patient, but that’s who we are. We’re like a patient company. We’re not looking for any, like overnight success.

Michael Bereslavsky 16:35 It’s nice. So these 10 sites are from that, on that one project. But you mentioned you had, or is that like, the bulk of your portfolio now? Or do you have a bunch of other sites, also, you’re managing currently?

Ewen Fencer 16:50 Yeah, so I have what I call my skunkworks, which is my own bootstrap company, which, you know, we’ve grown sites from scratch for years. The issue with with a bootstrap company, as you probably know, is that you don’t always have the capital available to kind of invest the way an asset deserves to be invested in. So we kind of have sites all over the map. But you know, that personal portfolio in terms of asset value is, I’d say, around, I don’t say, probably over 3 million at this point, if not more. So, you know, we have sites that are kind of mature that are, you know, in the six figures, and a handful of those, we have sites that are, you know, maybe mid five figures, a whole bunch of those, and some smaller ones, but you know, very kind of, I would say haphazard growth, because we didn’t have, you know, an outside capital source where we could just kind of plug in, you know, $250,000. And so that’s the advantage of what we’re doing is that now we can be disciplined in our allocation versus kind of reinvesting whatever we have available that month.

Michael Bereslavsky 17:55 That’s nice. And how you’re managing those currently. Is it all this your internal team? Or do you outsource a lot? Yeah, how is it structured?

Ewen Fencer 18:07 We’ve kind of have taken a very, I guess, organic approach to the organization structure, we have kind of a what I call a C suite, which, you know, that they’re basically fractional folks that…full time CEO, basically. But then we have a CEO, CFO, fractional CFO, we have a fractional, what are called chief revenue officer. And those are kind of the people that helped me at the strategic level make decisions and their various functions. I say the most important function is our content production process. That is, like I tell people, you know, in this business content is your product, right? And so we have to get that right. We have a team of over 100 different writers, kind of in our our Rolodex, but you know, they’re part time to freelance, but just people that we can call on, we’ve built a custom software, kind of system content management system that manages the workflow of assigning topics and doing revisions, and paying writers, I found that was a huge friction point was that either I, one of my managers would have to be going back and forth via email, or Dropbox or whatever, like, hey, the articles were delivered, the writer says, Hey, you sent the invoice. And they’re kind of sending them at random times. There’s no like discipline to it. There’s no kind of systemization. And so what I wanted to create was like, we could call the content conveyor belt, just like an assembly line. Basically, the writer logs into a WordPress dashboard, where they can see all the available topics that they are tagged to that they have permission to see across all of our assets, all of our sites. You know, let’s say there’s one writer who’s you know, an expert in automotive and fitness. They’ll see the sites that are relevant to their expertise. And then each profile, each writer profile has a rate per word. built in. So as they’re writing in that WordPress editor, it’s calculating, you know, how much they’ve written, what they’re owed. And then it gets, there’s a submission process where they have to follow are slps submitted to the editor, you know, did you include the right title tags Did you include the schema markup, all these different kind of technical things, the editor will review it for both the technical stuff and also the content quality, and then they’ll push back if they need to. But if it’s approved and goes to approval status, there’s then an API that pushes that article in WordPress draft to the right site. So it’ll push it to the child site, if you will, the main site where the article will go live. And then it goes to that site as a draft, but it’s all ready for publication. So we’ve already kind of saved ourselves a lot of time. And then the fun thing is on the back end, for me, because I had a lump of payments, or are used to, and there’s, we have PayPal, mass pay integration, so we can kind of create the auto generate invoices for all of our writers, based on all the sites they’re writing for, gives us a nice paper trail for the accountants. But then, you know, it’s an easy payment system, we do payments, bimonthly. So once in the middle of the month, once at the end of the month, and it works really, really well, the writers are happy because they know when they’re getting paid. And we’re happy because we’re not just responding to random emails that are coming in or random requests. And so that’s a big part of our structure would be that process itself. And then we’ve been building out, we call the monetization team, which has its own manager, and they’re in charge of just working with our affiliate partners, we work with a lot of non Amazon brands, we have a very deep, I think, knowledge base of all the affiliate players, because we have so many sites in so many different verticals, you know, I can you know, we can easily pull from that database and say, okay, who’s the best affiliate for this site, we can test things out. And we’re also building an outbound process where we can go to big brands, and kind of pitch them on what you know, sponsored placements, that’s one way to call it, but really for them to, you know, we get a lot of inbound from brands saying, hey, could you read some articles about our products? And typically, we have so many opportunities, it’s hard for us to give a good answer about, hey, when when can we get this up. But with the sponsor article process, we can basically put together a media kit for the brand, you know, put together a package of 10 or 20 articles around something they care about some topics they care about, and have it branded with their, you know, affiliate links. And so we’re doing a lot of stuff around that. I’m trying to think what else but like, I think that’s the focus, it’s really content production, monetization, we have an email marketing team, we do that as well. And we’re our big push right now is into video. So we’re standing up kind of a video team where we’re having, we’re trying to see if our writers, as many as possible can also shoot video. And so we kind of have that, that process running, also sourcing new video from, you know, people that are in their, in their topical area, creating video content anyway, who would be interested in submitting video. So that’s, you know, fairly straightforward kind of overview of what we have going on. I’d say the core is still content. But it’s a we’ve evolved over the years kind of add on some different management functions too.

Michael Bereslavsky 23:34 And so with content, first of all, I’m curious, what’s the typical price you pay per article? and are they all American or native English writers? And how do you find the best ones?

Ewen Fencer 23:46 Yeah, so that’s…it’s almost taken for granted that we have such a good writer team, I find it relatively easy to pre qualify writers, we pay anywhere from three cents to eight cents a word. Depending on the subject matter expertise of that writer and the technical nature of the work. In terms of where to find them. This the standard places I recommend, I recommend problogger if people are looking for her have experienced writers, but also kind of thinking outside the box. And there are certain verticals, I’ll give you a good example. Auto enthusiasts are like mechanics. You know, typically a mechanic is not going to be writing, right? They’re going to be working on a car somewhere in the shop or doing something like that. So how do you find those people and kind of bring them online. And so we’ve had success using Craigslist. It’s kind of a non traditional way of finding writers, but that’s worked. And then also going into forums and just posting for you saying hey, looking for some writers, Facebook groups works as well, and just kind of going a little bit off the beaten path. And a lot of times you’re going to find super passionate writers who, like just wish that someone would come along and pay them three cents a word that doesn’t seem cheap to them? It’s like, well, I can. I’ve been writing about this anyway, in this forum. Now I can write about it for this blog and get paid to do it. That’s great. And so, yeah, I think we look kind of at multi channel kind of recruitment strategies, but thinking a little bit outside the box and not just going to Upwork we, although we do that, as well. And yeah, to answer your question, it’s primarily native speakers. Although, you know, any, anyone who can, you know, speak and write, you know, in English, I think is great. Obviously, we have a content filter for that. But, yeah, we have, like, travel writers from all over the world, just depends on the vertical, but there are certain verticals, where they kind of have to be a US based writer, because they’re talking about, you know, US based products. And so that’s, that’s probably the bulk of our writers are US based.

Michael Bereslavsky 25:57 Okay. Yeah, we do similar. Problogger has been good and finding people for groups. Now, what we’ve also started doing is, like many writers know, other writers, and good people usually recommend good people. So just like asking you for recommendations has been good. Yeah. And yeah, and basically, we just try to keep the good ones. And we’ve got a similar rate as well. Yeah. So it’s pretty standard, I guess Upwork. I haven’t had good luck with Upwork. That’s been the last few times we’ve used it. We’ve had like, so many inquiries, and just almost none of them look good.

Ewen Fencer 26:38 Yeah, Yes. Yeah. Getting the writers off of Upwork, too, I think is key for us, because we have this whole process. And so, you know, it doesn’t really, it’s not really Upwork isn’t the right mechanism. For us. It’s a good place to find people. Yeah. writers, but, you know, working with an Upwork. It’s own kind of crazy system. So we try to, you know, work with writers one to one.

Michael Bereslavsky 27:01 Yeah. So let’s talk more about SEO. Do you do you build backlinks? What else do you do besides content around this websites?

Ewen Fencer 27:10 Yeah, it’s kind of funny, because like, you know, we don’t do a whole lot of off page. And that’s maybe a weakness of ours. I think it definitely is a weakness. But it’s something we strategically decided. Many years ago, I kind of looked at the whole backlinking game, and I said, Is this something I really want to become an expert in? It doesn’t seem, it seems a little bit like the word I use? Well, it’s a little bit like this kind of alchemy. Basically, it’s like, it’s this weird science of turning something into gold, where it only works in the context of Google. It’s a thing that, it’s a function that works for Google, there are some some benefits to having an outreach process for sure. You could do other things with that. But I just strategically decided two years ago, let’s focus on content first, and see how far that gets us. I think a lot of times people are doing everything at once. And so it becomes really hard to separate the causality, you know, is it? Are you ranking well, because of your interlinking? Or your ranking well, because of your content quality? Are you ranking well, because of your links. And so if you’re doing all of those things, at the same time, it can be very difficult to determine, you know, what’s causing what. So I try to take the content first approach, we do some outreach, like later on, say, when a site is six to nine months old, but really just to get, you know, maybe five to 10, you know, referring domains, from quality sources, we’re not, you know, there’s no keyword density, this or that we’re just really trying get on the radar of Google. And it’s all very natural. And we find over the years that our our sites tend to rank on content, and they do attract links naturally. And I know people think that doesn’t work. And I would say it does work. It’s just a lot slower. But again, we’re very patient with our process. And so we’re not to worry about staying ahead of the game. When it comes to links, we’re just kind of betting that in the future, links are going to become less and less relevant. And other kind of signals will become more and more important for the rankings.

Michael Bereslavsky 29:14 Yeah, makes sense. And so you build a new site, you add a bunch of content, occasionally you add some videos, and probably do the keyword research, do the topic research, find some good affiliate monetization options, right. And at what stage do you start monetizing it? Do you put some heads right away? Do you put them later? And also, like, do you mainly use different affiliate programs? Do you also use ads? media wire surfing?

Ewen Fencer 29:45 Yeah. So our approach, it’s kind of a hybrid between ads and affiliate are to answer your question of monetization. We don’t monetize our sites until they get to that what I call the cannonball stage, so above 20,000 page views a month. It’s not that we couldn’t make money earlier on, it’s just that it wouldn’t be optimizing for the right thing we’re trying to figure out, you know, is this site worth our time first, and then once we’ve determined that it is, then we’ll start monetizing, but also above 20,000, pageviews, you start to get into the territory where you can monetize with some of these ad networks like ad thrive, or media vine, or zoic is okay, you can do from the start. But it gets interesting once you get higher level of pageviews. So we’ve kind of set a bar for where we start monetizing. And then we can just roll through those sites on a conveyor belt and monetize it all at once. And so in terms of your question about affiliates, like traditionally, I’d say if you talked to me four or five years ago, 90% of our revenue was from Amazon Associates. Today, it’s like 10%, we kind of swung very hard in a different direction. And so you know, we literally have hundreds and hundreds of affiliate partners. And there aren’t shareasale, CJ, you know, all these other networks reckon a lot of a lot of programs, we’ve actually discovered, we reached out to the brands and told them about the affiliate marketing landscape, and they create a program just for us. And so that’s kind of a unique advantage. A lot of the programs, we have higher than advertised rates, which takes a lot of work to get to that point with affiliate manager, which is not something you can necessarily do with Amazon, you can’t negotiate with your account manager, really. But with these little brands, or even the bigger brands, they’re much more open to that. And then we also do what I like called these sponsored brand packages, where basically the brand is paying us up front for our content production cost. So there, you know, there’s typically some, some benefit there. I’m trying to think anything else we do, we do have a handful of sites where there’s digital products, and I think that’s kind of where we draw the line. Like anything past digital products, we’re not too interested in even drop shipping, and eecom. You know, eventually we might do something in that space. But we just like to stick to what we know, which is the affiliate landscape. But I mean, what I think is where people are realizing is that the affiliate landscape beyond Amazon is truly massive. And there’s so much opportunity, there’s a lot of risk, there’s a lot of programs, they’re not great that don’t pay out on time that don’t convert well. But then the advantage just becomes your data, the advantage becomes your experience, your conversion rates, all that stuff that is very unique, you know, knowledge that you can then leverage and build more sites, let’s say in that neighborhood around that, that affiliate that’s working really well. So yeah, it’s a today it’s a mix of affiliate, and display ad and then doing some brand sponsorships as well.

Michael Bereslavsky 32:44 Yeah, we’ve we’ve been doing some similar things trying to take many sides of Amazon, we’ve actually found that pretty much any program is going to be willing to pay a higher commission rate. I mean, unless of course, it’s Amazon, Google or something massive. And then yeah, but pretty much, any program on affiliate network, if you reach out to them directly, you, you have a call with them, you talk to them, you tell them who you are, they will generally be willing to pay higher rate. Like with some, we’ve been able to negotiate rates, like three times higher in very competitive spaces. But what we found the biggest challenge is that, like, there are many niches that you would find a lot of programs on, on these networks, like, yeah, like cJ linkshare, and all that. And they just pay like 5%, maybe even like 8%. But in the end, it’s less than Amazon. Because even if Amazon might be paying 3%, the conversion rate is so high. And then it’s really hard to compete, even if they pay you higher rate, like 10 or 12 increases, it often doesn’t come close to Amazon. So that’s been often a challenge in many, many industries. I’m curious, like do you solve it by like going to specific niches where there are some really good affiliate programs or like–

Ewen Fencer 34:13 That’s part of it. I think in our launch process, one of the one of the validation steps before we launch is to go out and and kind of build what I call the Rolodex of all the affiliate possible affiliate partners. I compare their advertised rates, I add in any have knowledge of higher rates that they pay or experience, you know, what their numbers are, what their conversion rates are, if we have experience, you know, say we work with Home Depot, for example. You know, we might have seven different sites, you know, in different kind of verticals that would, you know, work with Home Depot and kind of compare the conversion rates and see, is it worth it? Because to answer your question, I think, you know, you have to know your numbers. And I agree, a lot of times Amazon’s great because they convert, but I would also say that there are verticals where Amazon is not Amazon’s not equal across every category. Like they have some very strong categories, and they have some categories that are typically out of stock or don’t have a great landing page. So just being very thoughtful about that both ways, and being flexible and saying, you know, what all of the data kind of proved to me, which is the better place to send people. But yeah, I would say, looking at the big networks, just testing things out. And, and yeah, not being afraid to negotiate, I think it’s not for people, like, sometimes, I know, traditionally, maybe a little more introverted, you know, I would just want to like, monetize the site, and, you know, not really talk to people. But the just reaching out to an affiliate manager, sometimes they’ll just offer to bump your rate just for saying hi, you know, and so, then being able to establish a regular relationship, that in the future could lead you to increase. And then the other thing is, you can, you know, in an in a good way, play different affiliates off of each other, or partners off of each other. You know, so, you know, this is a bad example, because they’re really big, but like, Home Depot and Lowe’s, right? Like, they’re very competitive, so you can kind of go to their affiliate manager and say, Hey, you know, Home Depot is paying me 10%, could you do 12, and kind of go back and forth that way. So, and what I always say to people is $1, of Amazon revenue, and $1, if choices give me $1, of Amazon $1 of non Amazon, I’m always going to take the dollar, that’s not Amazon, because there’s potential, there’s more I feel there’s more security in that relationship. So that’s just my overall opinion. But I would agree with you that there are still many cases where Amazon is the better solution. But I think if you just have to make sure that you are I want to make sure that I dig as far as I can. You before saying that Amazon is the best place to go. Because a lot of times it’s not necessarily the case, but it’s just a matter of finding all the affiliates, because that’s its own problem to find them.

Michael Bereslavsky 37:04 Right, so do have an affiliate network or an ad network, that’s your favorite. Then, you know, in terms of ad networks, I mean, like, the more the more advanced bounds like like ad fraud that require a higher, minimum pageviews. And for affiliate networks, there are quite a few. They’re also the ones like you mentioned, if we’ve honed in the big brands, but you also have a different CPA offers and all the different performance networks. So I’m curious if you have any specific ones that you had the most success with?

Ewen Fencer 37:38 I mean, on the affiliate side, I would say it kind of is vertical specific. I mean, if you’re in the outdoor space, for example, avant link is great. They have like Rei and all these big outdoor brands, you know, you know, sure, they all have pros and cons, I think CJ is has tracking problems sometimes, or the data fidelity is not great. shareasale is a great interface, easy to use, but doesn’t report as much data back. So there’s pros and cons, we use a tool called apt fluent, which I think impact radius just acquired them. But affluent, is a program that manage on the on the publisher side, aggregates all of your affiliate programs. There’s other programs out there, I think, athletics, there’s a couple other like competitors, a tracking omics is that kind of an upmarket competitor. But that can aggregate because that’s the problem, right? Is the data is then all over the place, how do you pull it all in so you can analyze it. So we use that to aggregate recommend people check those out. And then on the ad side, we said, we’re about 50/50, ad, thrive media vine, I kind of like it that way, because they’re very comparable. And there’s some platform risk of just being on one. So my experiences, it’s vertical specific. In general, they’re very, very comparable, like their RPMs are going to be within two or $3 of each other. The one thing I will say is that just they do have vertical specific strengths. And they’re not published, these are not publicized like that, like the ad networks are not going to say, we’re not good in this vertical Decker is gonna want to get as many people as they can. So I would just look very carefully at that and evaluate that. And if you have two sites in a similar vertical, put one on adthrive, and one on media vine and just kind of measure. We have we have one example that right now, we’re looking at two different sites in a similar vertical ones on Android ones on media vine and their RPMs are slightly different, maybe three or $4 apart. And so we kind of asked the team, why is this and how can we optimize it and maybe we switch one side over? But the I mean, I think they’re both great. I would say other programs to look at is zoic is fine, I think for for an adsense alternative, but you know, slightly lower RPMs in our experience. But yeah, I’d say Android media, Vine, and then really any affiliate program, but the key for me is integrating it into a data source which is affluent or something like that.

Michael Bereslavsky 40:13 Yeah, we’ve had a similar experience like this, it might be a little bit better than AdSense, but usually forms less than medium vine and and then thrive, although it does depend on niche my way. We had the the co founder of media vine on our podcast last year. And she mentioned some interesting things about it as well, that kind of like focused more on female traffic, female driven websites, like moms blogs cooking. And I think that’s probably one of their strengths. So in those niches probably the best, and at thrive or think they they also have more, like tech related sites, things like that.

Ewen Fencer 40:56 Yeah, I would agree with that. You know, but I think it also does change, you know, because they’re basically what they’re doing is they’re, they’re the ad tech, which is integrating all the different ad partners, basically, in all the different bidding systems, but then they also do like outreach to the brands. And so it’s kind of like, well, who do they have in their back pocket? You know, do they have a major brand that’s relevant for your vertical? And they don’t necessarily tell you that, you just kind of have to figure that out? Because that’s the X Factor to me is, you know, what’s their sales process to these other big brands? Can you can kind of see, you know, who’s advertising on your site? But, yeah, I mean, that’s a, it’s kind of a, how I’d recommend that one of those two, if someone’s at the traffic threshold, and that’s the big thing, it’s just getting to the threshold is half the battle. Either one of those is probably good, but then being open to testing it out and seeing which one works better.

Michael Bereslavsky 41:52 Yeah, as, monetization is important. But I would imagine in in that line of business, the main, like, the main challenge really is getting the traffic. So I want to circle back to how you you do that, because writing good content is important. But in most niches, you’re going to be up against lots and lots of other websites that also write good content. So you’re going to have something that separates you from the pack.

Ewen Fencer 42:23 I would say, Yeah, I would say in you know, controversially, maybe, but I would say that good content is subjective. And it’s, I would again, I would just argue that a lot of content is not good, let’s put out or it’s mediocre, I guess, is the right word. It’s not bad. It’s just kind of okay.

Michael Bereslavsky 42:45 When was like your test to just read it?

Ewen Fencer 42:48 Yeah. So it’s funny, because I was talking to, I was talking to some other people that day about sometimes get asked on due diligence questions like, Hey, is this a good buy? Can you take a look at it. And I’ve seen some really complicated due diligence spreadsheets that are like, six tabs deep, you know, with all the different processes and my proprietary system, so please don’t copy it, is to take the URL, put it in a traps, find the top article and read it. And that’s all I do. Because nine times out of 10, that’ll tell me everything I need to know about that site. I mean, the content, again, the content is the product, if you if you read that article, and you’re like, this doesn’t make any sense, or this person is like all over the place. And they’re just they’ve used like, clearly that just use surfer SEO to like throw in a bunch of NLP, it sometimes they read, like, very, very interesting, because it’s like, clearly someone who was low budget writer, and then someone optimized the article with surfer. So it has these big phrases thrown in there. Like as if someone knows what they’re talking about. But then without the context, it’s just like, random phrase, it’s like back to the days of keyword stuffing. And so I would just, that’s my big thing is just read the article. And so I would argue that like literally go to any of the brokers, or any of the places, you would buy content sites today, and I’m not gonna name names, but I would say every, almost every single marketplace, most of the sites for sale, the content is very poor. But most people buying sites don’t start with that analysis. They start with the p&l analysis, they look at the niche, they go, Oh, this is an interesting vertical. It doesn’t matter, you know, because the asymmetric downside as a site goes to zero or a site declines, 50% you know, and that, that can throw the entire kind of model off base. And so yeah, so I think content to me, quality is, you know, obviously, not just the kind of semantic words that they use, but also the expertise that’s communicated by the writer. We’d like to have our author profiles front and center. You know, like we talked about doing video incorporating video and original photography into articles as much as possible. And, you know, really covering the topic in depth being the most comprehensive resource. So, I mean, there’s little tactical things like, making sure you have frequently asked questions, you know, making sure you have, you’d have a part in the article, you’re discussing the criteria for, you know, how you evaluate these products and the data driven processes around that, you know, a lot of times, what I see is, you know, sites that affiliate, I see, I see affiliate content sites, and I just tell people, we don’t build affiliate review sites, we build content brands. And so part of that means speaking to the entire audience, not just the audience, part of the audience, that’s going to make you money. And so with ad networks, that makes actually makes it easy, because you can still make money on informational topics, but really focusing on building a base. So if you’re talking about, a good example, dogs, or something, you know, of course, you know, I was gonna write about what’s the best dog food and send people to Chewy? That’s obvious, right? But what about all the common dog ailments? What about you how to train your dog in different ways? What about dog names, you know, just thinking about that person and serving them entirely. And I kind of use the analogy of here in the US, you know, you go to like a bookstore, Barnes and Noble or whatever, there’s this section of the bookstore, where all these magazines are, it’s got like the magazine rack. And that’s basically what we were doing is we’re taking that offline experience of a passionate magazine that was created just for you, you know, with whatever you’re interested in, whether it’s horseback riding, or automobiles, or motorcycles, and then querying a digital equivalent. And so sometimes the content we publish has very low probability of making a lot of money. And that’s okay, because we’re covering the topic completely from A to Z, we’re really being a resource for that user. And so a lot of the sites when you visit our sites, you wouldn’t you couldn’t initially really tell that they were affiliate sites, that’s kind of my one rule of thumb is like, when you visit it, does it feel like an affiliate site? Or does it feel like, like a media site? And that’s, I think the difference? It’s a subtle difference. But yeah, I think that’s my big argument, I guess, is that a lot of sites are not doing content, content, they’re not taking content quality seriously.

Michael Bereslavsky 47:26 Do you have like author profiles? Do you have a whole offer persona made up, or maybe even, like, use the real ones from one of your writers how to do that?

Ewen Fencer 47:36 We like to use our real author, it just, it’s, it’s easier for us like to, you know, have the authors submit, you know, and even if they want to link out to their own blog, or something like we’re okay with that link out to their LinkedIn profile, or their Facebook, you know, we let them share who they are, and why they’re interested in this vertical as part of our vetting process, when we hire them, if they don’t have a passion, or expertise in the area, if they’re just kind of a general copywriter, you know, we won’t, we probably won’t hire them. Because, again, the thing that doesn’t scale is expertise. And we want to make sure that that is highlighted. So we have about pages, we have sites that have editorial policies. You know, we have, you know, contributing writers, editors, again, doing the thing that the magazine would do, basically, it doesn’t mean that we have to pay people necessarily a full time salary, it just means that we’re highlighting their experience in in the best possible way.

Michael Bereslavsky 48:37 Yeah, that’s. So that’s a good strategy. So it sounds like you’re really planning things long term to make sure that this site last long time and, and do well and continue to grow. That’s important.

Ewen Fencer 48:51 Yeah, we kind of have to because we’re doing the ground up, right. It’s just like you said earlier on, like, there’s a, there’s not really run into flipping websites. And that’s a whole business model, you come in, you flip the website, you know, your cash flow for six to 12 months, and then sell it, that’s a great model, not something that I think a lot of really talented people doing that I don’t want to compete with those people I’d rather compete with on the I’d rather take a five year time horizon, and, you know, grow a site over that period from scratch, and do it the right way. So and I think ultimately, you know, it’s kind of like people say this a lot, but optimize for where Google’s going, you know, versus what their algorithm says right now or what you can get away with right now.

Michael Bereslavsky 49:33 Okay, and in terms of content, so what’s the average length few articles and how many articles they usually add on a site? Like edit continuously or all at once?

Ewen Fencer 49:44 Yeah, so I kind of it’s whatever is needed right for that top. So sometimes they’re short form, and we’re fine doing short form and long form. And in fact, if you can do a combination of your think about the questions like, you know, how much does I don’t know how much does a bag of bricks weigh or something, you know, that can be a short that doesn’t need to be 3000 words, right? That can be, you know, 500 words or interlink to your main, your main hub article. So I would say, but I’d say in general, were at least 2000 words, if not more 3000 words, for a standard article, but it just depends, I mean, different types of the article type. You know, if it’s a roundup, it’s a tutorial. If it’s a, you know, top of the funnel, informational article versus a review, we actually don’t do that many reviews, it’s kind of funny with the review update, like a very low percentage of our content is x, y, z review. Most of its like informational, or comparisons or, you know, tutorials or roundups that are interlinked with all those informational topics.

Michael Bereslavsky 50:54 That’s pretty good. And how big are most of your websites, how many articles do usually have them?

Ewen Fencer 51:01 I like to get for the initial validation, I want to get over 100 articles, I think if you’re less than 100 articles, maybe you can get away 50 to test the market, but you won’t have enough topical relevance in a particular area to get traction with Google. And so that’s something a lot of times where people give up, you know, there were I’ve given up in the past on sites is like, Oh, I only launched with 13 articles, or 15 articles, and then I just didn’t see results. So I just forgot about it, because it wasn’t doing anything. But it’s really not enough of a data set, and not enough of a topical array of articles for you to build any kind of authority. But on the flip side, if you do over 100 articles, I don’t, you know, you could have literally zero links. But if you have over 100 articles talking about, I don’t know, I saw something the other day about Koi ponds, like you’re going to rank because you’re covering that topic completely. So that’s kind of that’s my general rule of thumb is trying to get over 100 articles for a new site.

Michael Bereslavsky 52:05 Alright, well, thanks. That was quite interesting. What would be some advice you give to people who are looking to build new sites, or what are some common mistakes people usually make, because a lot of our listeners are probably doing something similar or planning to emulate different strategies.

Ewen Fencer 52:24 Yeah, so I would say, you know, and I think this is lesson learned, for me is like the old way of teaching, kind of how to start a blog, which is, find your vertical, do your keyword research, and then go all in and just keep writing until it works. I would argue, even if you only have, you know, $10,000, or $5,000, to take at least three concepts. And, and launch three sites at the same time, let’s save your limit on capital. And even if you’re bringing all the content yourself, you know, if you can outsource a little, that’s great just to get enough of the data set to really to understand success or failure, because you can pick the wrong vertical, create great content, and not get much traction, and then your then your lesson learned is going to be that Oh, interest rates don’t work, or, you know, this whole affiliate marketing thing is dead. It’s really about getting an a broad enough data set and experience to know where the pockets are. And so I would recommend, you know, depending on how much capital you have, just create a data driven approach where, here’s how much capital you have, you’re going to test out, you know, with X dollars of that budget, test out three sites, see which one starts to rank first, and then take a reserve capital and double down. I think you can do that with any amount of capital or time that you have available. And so that’s my big thing is not to get overly attached to one site. Although I know some people that have done amazingly well with one site primarily. But I think that’s, you know, it’s a lot of thought to their own skill, their credit that they’ve done that, but it’s also that they pick the right vertical, if they had done the same thing in the wrong vertical, they would have wasted a lot of money. So that’s my whole thing is just to try to take a little bit of the portfolio theory and apply it to your business. And it also helps you get become less emotionally attached to your site. So you can kind of make those decisions about buying and selling and improving in a more rational way than just like, Oh, this is my baby, I need to Yeah, I’ll never sell it, I need to like, spend more and more money on it. So I guess that’s my only advice, and then find something that works and just stick with it. You know, if you have YouTube working, great. Just do that. If you have, you know, a certain type of content recipes or something, just do that. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing. You can learn that later, once you have a really successful website. But until you get that traction, it’s not going to help focusing on different things.

Michael Bereslavsky 54:57 So build free websites, right a lot. have content. But how long should you really work on it? Until you know if it works or doesn’t? And if it, you know, if it doesn’t really work out? At what point is it maybe time to give up or move on?

Ewen Fencer 55:14 Yeah, I mean, it’s a personal question, I think all depends a little bit on what your tolerance is for pain. But I would say, you know, set a threshold in your head and say, you know, I said 100 articles, but maybe it’s, you know, for you say, 30 articles across three sites, or 50 articles across three sites, and then give yourself a time period. So for launching a new site, I would say, you have to give yourself at least 12 months or get above 50 articles, at least before you can really tell if it’s working or not. So if you’re under that time prep that time horizon or that article count, you can’t really say if you failed or succeeded. It’s just it’s an open question. And so you can still give up at that point, let’s say 20 articles in. But I would say you’re not really answering the question. I would personally want to focus on getting over those hurdles.

Michael Bereslavsky 56:10 So is there some time frame that’s realistic, until until you reach a point where it can be monetized, let’s say like five or 10,000 visitors per month says usually enough to get like some decent revenue? Would it be half a year, a year? More? Like what’s the average?

Ewen Fencer 56:27 I would say, you know, if you don’t, let’s say you don’t really have an aggressive link building strategy that can change things or if you’re building on an expired domain, but that those are like advanced tactics that I wouldn’t expect. Someone just starting off to have, I would say, give yourself nine to 12 months, to kind of just see how things go. And I would agree, get about 5000. I mean, at 5000, pageviews, you can make some money, you probably spend a lot more time trying to make money, then than it’s worth even I’d rather if I had a choice between monetizing at 5000, pageviews. Versus writing a bunch more articles, I would do that. But it’s all dependent on, you know, what’s your capital available? What’s your time available? But I would kind of wait till you get above 10,000 sessions or pageviews. But it’s also depends a little on your vertical, if you’re not very high ticket, vertical…that might make sense. But if you’re just selling, you know, like, I don’t know, if you’re selling like dog collars, like I don’t know, you probably want to wait a little bit because it’s not going to be a ton of revenue. But if you’re selling around something more high end, like refrigerators or something like yeah, maybe you start monetizing early.

Michael Bereslavsky 57:39 Alright, so 20, 50 articles, wait a year. And by the way, do you use expired domains. So you buy new domains for everything.

Ewen Fencer 57:48 I’ve mostly bought new today, new domains, but we have been testing out in our Skunk Works. In our lab, we’ve been testing out the efficacy of expired domains. And we have some, some pretty good success stories. But it’s a little bit too early to tell. I kind of get concerned with expired domains of is it just tricking Google? And will they like slap the site? At some point? I don’t know, I haven’t…I’ve only been doing it for about a year. So I don’t have the full data set. But I would say I think it’s an interesting investment opportunity. If you’ve already if you know what you’re doing. And you’ve already built a bunch of sites from the ground up, then I think, yeah, test out an expired domain and see how it goes.

Michael Bereslavsky 58:29 Sounds good. And you also mentioned video. And so do you get a lot of traffic from video? Do you get in your social traffic? Or is it nice to Google?

Ewen Fencer 58:38 We just started and the nice thing about video is it’s like ranking in YouTube, it’s wide open. So like you could put a video up today and we’ll be ranking tomorrow. Like, it’s, it’s like the old days of Google. But it’s a lot harder, you know, in some ways, because you have to figure out how to get firstly get your channel above a certain level of subscribers and pageviews before you can monetize it, and then how you do the affiliate offers, you know the description or the call outs, it’s a little bit more of an art. And then so for, for us it’s really a distribution channel. So what we’ll do is we’ll create the video, we’ll upload it to YouTube. And then you know, ideally it’ll start getting monetized on YouTube with ads at some point and or affiliate offers below but also has a link back to the site which helps on SEO front also helps as a traffic source. We’ll also upload a video separately to the to the ad drive or media vine player because that increases the RPM and so will typically go to if we have an existing site go to the articles that are already doing well and see how we can add video and then we just distribute that to you. It’s kind of like killing two birds with one stone you can you can basically get the benefit of YouTube and having it hosted on your ad player and it boosts your time on site etc, etc. So that’s going to be doing it, I wouldn’t say we’ve had like an amazing success yet, although we tend to rank pretty quickly once we get those videos up. And we’ve only been doing it for a couple months. So I’d say like, let’s check back in a year. And hopefully I’ll have good things to share.

Michael Bereslavsky 1:00:14 Do you also do social or any other source of traffic?

Ewen Fencer 1:00:19 We establish our social profile. I’d say Facebook, you know, Twitter, Instagram, if you can, the big social platform outside of YouTube that I like, is Pinterest, because it functions similarly to Google. It has its own algorithm. And it has search intent, which I think is the problem with Facebook is you’re interrupting people watching cat videos. So they’re not really in the right mood, necessarily to consume your content. They might be but it’s it’s kind of hit or miss Pinterest, it’s like someone is going to basically going to a board where it’s either inspiration or purchasing decisions that they’re postponing. They’re basically saying, I want this later. But like to me that there’s some level of intent, just like with Google, so I’d say in terms of my priority for what I’m focusing on, it would be it would be Google organic is the bread and butter is the first thing that I would say YouTube, that I would say email marketing, and I would say Pinterest, those four things are the most important things we’re trying to build competency in. And then all the other social channels are like, Okay, great, but I don’t have any insight or expectation that they’re going to deliver a lot of traffic.

Michael Bereslavsky 1:01:32 Well, thank you. Thank you Ewen, it was a really interesting discussion. And I’ve personally learned quite a bit about building new sites. Although, I have started by myself by building sites, but quickly kind of transitioned to buying. And it’s always interesting to hear about different alternative strategies. So yeah, any final tips or advice to our listeners? And also let us know how can people reach you? If they have a question of learning more about you?

Ewen Fencer 1:02:04 Sure. I mean, I just I don’t really have anything to pitch or sell other than I have a LinkedIn profile. You can check me out there. I’m happy to answer any questions that anyone has. We are putting together like these called the incubator funds. You know, it’s not, you know, it’s not for everyone, there’s still a ton of risk with it. But if someone is interested in like exploring that, that’s something that we could see we were kind of oversubscribed on our current round, but in the future, maybe in six to nine months, we’ll be looking at putting together another one, if all if all works in that network. And then I won’t need any more investors didn’t work. But um, let’s, you know, just reach out to me via LinkedIn. And and let’s, you know, let’s chat. But either way, even if it’s just for help on something or advice. I’m a big fan of just paying it forward and helping people out. And so just feel free to reach out to me and we’ll be happy…to happy to discuss.

Michael Bereslavsky 1:02:57 Well, sounds good. Thank you and have a good day.

Ewen Fencer 1:03:00 All right. Thanks, Michael. Appreciate it.

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