Breaking Media: 5 ways to make and monetize a niche audience

What do you get when you hire over-educated writers and ask them to produce a muck-raking tabloid for professionals? In the case of Breaking Media, you get a badly-behaved but valuable audience of lawyers and bankers.

The company’s signature Above the Law site now has nearly a million monthly readers who enjoy smart legal coverage mixed with crass chatter about sex and salaries. The site’s no-holds barred comment section has also attracted a large and rabid mob of lawyers who make Howard Stern’s fans look gentile in comparison. (Here’s some of the 74 comments posted in response to a recent article on law firm pool parties: )

Behind all this noise, though, is a shrewd plan to leverage a valuable audience of professionals that once belonged only to staid trade publications.

paidContent caught up with Breaking Media CEO John Lerner in Soho last month to talk about the trio of sites — Above the Law, DealBreaker and Fashionista — that were founded in 2007 by Gawker’s Elizabeth Spiers. Here’s some takeaways from the conversation:

To connect with a niche audience, don’t just write about them — be them

Lerner says expert writers help drive the sites’ popularity and create a one-of-us sense of community. At Above-the-Law, for instance, nearly all the in-house writers have law degrees, including former US prosecutor David Lat who first started blogging in the guise of a gossipy woman. The writers’ expertise gives them the chops to write about big stories like the fate of health care at the Supreme Court. But most of the site’s most popular stories — like this one about an Illinois attorney arrested for prostitution — are more lurid than legal.

On data-mining your readers

A niche audience is valuable to marketers because it is receptive to their ads. Breaking Media has taken this a step further by also using its readers to produce marketing information. In practice, this might mean running a poll of the site’s readers on behalf of an advertiser.

“Research has become a marketing service for advertising … we have this audience — what info can we get from them?” said Lerner. “This is real time market intelligence in the legal space of the financial space or the business space.”

He says companies can pay to use Above-the-Law’s 850,000 legal readers as  Nielsen-like data to determine things like associate salaries or best places to work. Lerner stressed, however, that “data-mining the audience” does not result in Breaking Media sharing personal data. ”We display pop-up surveys on the site to or users and query them about industry-specific topics.  All of the information collected is anonymous.”

Breaking Media’s foray into market research is consistent with other media companies that are increasingly relying on their editorial product to drive a secondary revenue stream such as events or commerce.

Low technological barriers mean content is king (again)

The spread of high-quality publishing tools, says Lerner, means that sites more than ever have to differentiate themselves by the quality of their editorial product. ”Technology has been commoditized, so it’s about writers again. WordPress does a lot more for a lot less,” says Lerner. As an example, he cites other small New York publishing companies like Curbed, Gothamist and the Awl.

Display is not dead

Despite a rash of new metrics to measure them, the price for display ads continues to tumble. Lerner says he is not concerned. ”Our CPM’s are solid. We think our audience is worth more than anyone else — that’s the name of the game,” he says. “Advertising is great. It’s still a good business as long as the content structure is right.”

Lerner suggests that there will always be a place for sponsored stories and display advertising that complements the main editorial content. “Branding is not dead.”

It’s ok to mix verticals

Breaking Media says it’s profitable, and that its traffic is growing despite  the network having three very different verticals. I asked Lerner about the challenges of overseeing content that ranges from the High Court to high heels. Here’s how he sees it all tie together:

“From a technological standpoint, it’s not that difficult. From a social media standpoint, it’s not that difficult … The model is focused content in each market with people who really understand that content. The frequency and relevancy must be great .. It’s about building a community and dialogue with experts in the field.”

(Image by Emily Sartoski and Kurhan via Shutterstock)

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