Glam Reinvents Blogging and Brand Advertising for a Fragmented Web

6/27/13Follow @wroush

When the logo on your building is visible from 101, the freeway that snakes between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, you know you’ve arrived.

And Glam Media has arrived in a big way. A collection of independent lifestyle blogs tied together by a premium-brand advertising operation, Glam is, from a certain point of view, the largest non-tech media property on the Web. Only Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo attract more U.S. unique visitors, according to comScore data from February 2013.

That means it’s bigger than Amazon, bigger than Wikipedia, and bigger than Apple. “Glam Media is huge!” The Atlantic enthused in a piece about Mary Meeker’s latest slide deck on Internet trends, one page of which drew attention to the comScore top-10 list.

On the other hand, only a fraction of Glam’s 230 million monthly visitors actually go to Glam.com or any of the other community sites the company owns and operates directly, such as Bliss.com, Brash.com, Foodie.com, or Tend.com. Most head instead to one of thousands of partner sites that have advertising contracts with Glam, like Afrobella, a beauty- and hair care-focused blog published by Trinidad native Patrice Grell Yursik, and The Awesomer, a gear-and-gizmos blog run by longtime gadget blogger Paul Strauss (both publications are based in Chicago). So it’s arguable whether Glam, which is more like a federation than a single media property, deserves a place on comScore’s list.

But what’s not arguable is that Glam has amassed one of the largest networks of blogs in the publishing business (4,900 of them), attracted premium brands that long shied away from advertising on the Web (it has worked with 89 of the nation’s 100 largest advertisers, as ranked by Ad Age in 2011) and raised a shiitake-load of venture money ($155 million at last count).

The 10-year-old company has been able to grow so fast in part thanks to its unusual publishing model. Unlike other online media networks, such as Say Media, it doesn’t own most of the publications in its network—it just supplies them with ads (though it also exercises some forms of editorial oversight; more on that in a minute). It doesn’t require its affiliates to use a common publishing system, and it doesn’t do much to promote traffic between properties in the network—you won’t see links to The Awesomer on Afrobella, for example.

Bliss.com, one of the "hub" sites where Glam features contented curated from its network of niche blogs.

Bliss.com, one of the "hub" sites where Glam features contented curated from its network of niche blogs.

All Glam really does is recruit the top lifestyle bloggers into its circle, and then load up their sites with premium-brand ads. In other words, it’s the rare media company that’s figured out how to profit handsomely on online advertising without messy complications like employing writers, designers, and IT administrators to generate all the content. (In a February article, Business Insider estimated Glam’s 2012 ad revenues at $120 million to $150 million, and also cited unnamed sources who said the company is in conversations with the SEC about going public.)

Glam founder and CEO Samir Arora compares the company to cable channel operators like Viacom, Time-Warner, or Disney, which match content from studios with advertising from big brands and ship the whole thing to consumers over someone else’s distribution network. These days, there’s no point in trying to own the whole media stack, in Arora’s opinion. “There are no hits left in the content business,” he says. “Every year the head is getting shorter and the tail is getting longer.”

This fragmentation, abetted by search technology and sharing over social networks, explains the decline of giant content portals, in Arora’s view, and opens new opportunities for middlemen who can help independent content creators—the long tail—fund their own small publishing operations.

“We have had the same business model for almost 10 years now, and that is that we want high-quality content—what a portal used to promise you—plus high-quality brand advertising and brand experiences, without following the portal model,” Arora says.

I met Arora at a party in San Francisco celebrating the publication of Glam’s first print book—Foodie Top 100 Restaurants of the World—and asked if I could come down to the company’s Brisbane, CA, headquarters for a full walk-through of the company’s history and business model. He obliged, and filled up an entire conference-room whiteboard in the process. The story is an interesting one for anybody who cares about how journalists and other content creators will fit into the media picture as ad dollars shift from traditional print venues to a panoply of digital forms.

Arora, the former CEO of Web design startup NetObjects, says Glam was born at a time—2003—when “deportalization” was starting to take hold and Web surfers didn’t need to turn to sites like Yahoo and AOL for compelling reading. Personal and professional blogs were multiplying, and it was getting easier to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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