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 find the posts on these blogs, thanks to improvements in search technology and early forms of social discovery, such as blogrolls, trackbacks, and Digg.

“There was all this content, and it didn’t have to be on a portal or on a site anymore,” Arora says. Content feeds, in the form of RSS and Twitter and eventually Facebook, also helped small publications build audiences.

But with all this competition for readers’ attention, Arora realized, no single publication would be able to achieve massive reach. The only way to get really big as a new media company, he reasoned, would be to build a service that brings publishers and advertisers together.

“My belief is that consumers are going to continue to go to more diverse sources of content, and you have to have a model that accepts that, not fights that,” he says. “In the new model, which I call the platform model, companies recognize that you need to have an ecosystem in which great content can be created and great advertising can be brought in and consumers can be reached, but it’s going to happen across a large number of sites.”

So that’s what Glam has built—a large network of independently owned and operated sites. They all fit under the “lifestyle” rubric—no news, politics, or commentary—and most are tilted toward a female demographic. (That was more of a historical accident than a deliberate choice; Arora ascribes it to the fact that fashion bloggers were in the vanguard in the early days of the medium.) Today Glam blogs span seven lifestyle areas, including women’s style, men’s style, home, entertainment, wellness, food, and parenting.

Arora's whiteboard diagram of Glam Media's history and business model

Arora's whiteboard diagram of Glam Media's history and business model.

A couple of representative Glam blogs: Mizz Fit, which is all about women’s fashion for the gym, and Airows, a male-oriented “lifestyle inspiration” blog that aggregates photos of expensive cars, watches, houses, and furniture.

While Arora says he doesn’t want Glam to be in the content business, the company does operate a handful of destination sites—Bliss, Brash, Foodie, Glam, and Tend—where it promotes the best articles from member blogs. It’s in the process of augmenting these so-called “hub” sites with social networking features powered by technology from Ning, a Marc Andreessen startup that Glam bought in 2011.

The company’s real customers, of course, are brand advertisers, and its real specialty is finding the right match between ads, the content on each blog, and individual readers (a task for which it has built a custom ad placement engine, called Adapt; Glam doesn’t use Google’s Doubleclick or any other outside advertising network). Arora says Glam strives to place ads that will have the same “emotive” impact as print-magazine or television ads. Sometimes those come in the form of simple banner or tower ads, but they may also involve complex layouts like an interactive Nike ad where a site’s content is completely boxed in by giant graphics of running shoes.

So what’s the difference between Glam Media and a plain old advertising network? The way Arora explains it, most ad networks exist only to fill slots in a publication’s inventory that the publication hasn’t managed to sell on its own. By contrast, Glam has dibs on each member site’s “prime time” content—meaning the material that premium brands will most want to see juxtaposed with their ads. “We have the first right to decide what’s ‘prime time’ or we cannot work with you,” Arora says. “It’s like being NBC, versus being an affiliate station.”

Glam also insists on having the right to moderate comments on member sites, and to “curate” content at a high level. That doesn’t mean tinkering with article copy, but it does mean making sure that a blog’s overall tone and content fits with the expectations of advertisers.

“We have 4,900 blogs worldwide and we have only had to enforce this twice,” Arora says. “They know the standards. They’re just there to ensure that we don’t have any unmoderated, brand-unsafe content.”

Not meeting traffic goals is a far more common reason for getting kicked out of the Glam network, Arora says. While churn is generally low, there’s a waiting list of 2,000 bloggers who’d like to take the place of any departing publication.

Last year, three bloggers in the Glam network cleared $1 million in ad revenue. Says Arora, “There is only one person in the traditional editorial world who makes that kind of money, and that is Anna Wintour,” the renowned editor of Vogue.

The other 4,897 Glam blogs presumably brought in considerably less money—but in a way, this is the reality the whole Glam model was designed to accommodate. Most lifestyle blogs “are good small businesses, but they cannot go to scale,” Arora says.

Glam bloggers, he says, are “real journalists who have a point of view. The problem they are having is lack of size and scale. We have created a technology architecture that understands a distributed media model. So when I say that new media has a new business model, that is what I mean.”

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

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.