Interview: How A Weekly Newsletter Became A Parenting Media Brand
Michael Rothman, co-founder of Fatherly and speaker at our upcoming CXI 2018 conference, discusses the strategy behind building a digital lifestyle brand for millennials
While today’s internet abounds with parenting blogs and resources, one publication in particular has firmly established a place for itself by targeting modern dads specifically. Fatherly is a digital parenting brand dedicated to providing its readers with news, expert advice, product recommendations and more regarding child rearing in the 21st century. Michael Rothman, guest of PSFK’s CXI 2018 conference, is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-based publication, and has managed the business’s transformation since 2015 from a weekly newsletter into a wide-ranging media brand.
Michael will be interviewed on stage on May 18 in New York. Our founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes caught up with him to discuss Fatherly and the future of building a digital lifestyle brand before he takes the stage.
Piers: You’ve agreed to be part of the conference lineup on May 18. We’ve been following what you’ve been doing with Fatherly for quite a while and have been impressed with the media business that you have developed as well as the voice that you created within a specific niche. Tell us about what you’re trying to achieve at Fatherly.
Michael: Our mission is to create content that empowers men to raise great kids and lead more fulfilling adult lives. That succinctly sums up what we’ve been building, even during the early days when we were a weekly newsletter that packaged content from remote parts of the parenting web and distilled it for an audience of young, relatively new parents. What we wanted to do with Fatherly from the outset is take all of the digital innovation, the sense of brand and voice that had blossomed even as far back as 15 years ago.
It seems like there’s been so much innovation across every conceivable lifestyle vertical in digital publishing. For whatever reason, parenting was a backwater. The parenting landscape then was a bunch of Web 1.0 sites that were just clumsy re-outfittings of print publications. Then there were the mom blogs that were characterized by being very specific to one person’s experience and didn’t necessarily speak to the whole of the mom universe. It certainly excluded men.
We thought that by creating content that spoke to dads or at least blended journalism with emotional honesty, we’d be able to speak not just to dads but also to this new generation of parents more broadly.
What is it about this new generation of dads that’s either different from previous ones or just isn’t connecting with traditional media messaging?
Maybe a combination. This is a generation that grew up with social and digital media solving their lifestyle inconveniences. What seems like bigger disruption to your life than having a kid? There is a sense that digital and social media, things that you can just access on your phone, can help solve these urgent lifestyle problems. This is an audience of people who realize, now that they have real responsibilities that go beyond themselves, that there are ways technology can be useful to them.
They have expectations that weren’t being met. It was strange to me that if you read parenting publications or parenting sites, there is this sense that once you become a parent you become a completely different person. Our insight was that you’re still the same person that you were before, albeit with a lot less free time and shifting responsibilities. We realized that tonally there could be a way to speak to this generation based on who they were before.
Also notable: At a macro level people are becoming parents a lot later for a whole host of reasons. The effect is that by the time they become parents, they’re not defined by the act of becoming a parent. Typically, they have a better sense of self if they’re having kids in their, say, early to mid‑30s or later. They’re pretty well established financially and in who they are as people, as opposed to a generation or several generations ago where people were having kids much younger and their identity as parents was much more formative.
Since you started the company, you’ve obviously been on a journey yourself in terms of the media business. You started as a newsletter and now that business has evolved. Can you describe how Fatherly manifests today, and how it’s going to evolve over the next 12‑18 months?
We started off as a newsletter. The first challenge that we were solving was that there actually wasn’t a deficit of parenting content—there was a glut of it. The problem that anyone entering the parenting space discovered was that there was too much content and too little curation. Rather than creating additional content, we went through this process of isolating variables that we can test for and openly solve.
Helping to solve the curation problem was top priority. Then, through that process, we recognized very quickly that actually there could be a whole set of content that relied on experts, that relied on journalism, that helped tell stories like getting a Navy Seal captain to give you tips on how to build an epic pillow fort. There wasn’t anything like that out there, so we went from a curation model to an original content model.
On the distribution side of things, we went from being just an email newsletter to levering social media as a means for audience acquisition. This was early 2015, so that just meant Facebook. We also decided to take a one-platform-at-a-time approach, which was hard at first, having come from Thrillist, which was 200‑plus people at that point and on multiple platforms.
The challenge when you go from that type of publishing environment to a startup environment is that there’s a tendency to just do everything because that’s what your customers are doing. There’s a lot of discipline involved with taking this one-platform-at-a-time approach. We were fortunate then to be probably one of the last publishers to do well organically on Facebook before all of the crazy algorithm changes. Incidentally, those changes have actually benefited Fatherly because they were typically designed to improve the Facebook experience by removing lower quality, click‑baiting content, and that wasn’t ever something that we ever trafficked in.
At each turn of the knob, seemingly the denominator of content in the feed that would compete with Fatherly content diminished, and our organic traffic kept growing. Even recently, we haven’t been affected. At a macro level, all publishers have seen Facebook referrals go down, but on a relative basis, we’ve done probably better than most because of the quality of the content but also because the content we’re developing is ultimately shared by those closest to you, which is part and parcel to what Facebook’s trying to accomplish with these algorithm updates.
Our distribution plan has evolved further. Now that we have a more robust team, we focus on publishing on different channels. Pinterest is surprisingly more of a priority for us because we have a large number of female readers. Flipboard interestingly continues to grow. Instagram is going to be a big play for us simply because that’s now where people are spending more of their lazy two minutes waiting in line. That’s another environment where parents are and thus we need to be.
Then, in terms of where our content goes beyond this distribution, we’re going to be focusing a lot more on original franchises that live on YouTube. Some will live on Facebook, some will live exclusively off‑platform. Series, everything from short, maybe four or five‑minute mini episodes to longer 22‑minute episodic television. UTA, notably, is one of our latest investors, and having their expertise in Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally and also each of these areas specifically has been helpful.
Then this year, podcasting is going to be something that we lean into heavily. We did a test podcast last year, which was an interview‑based format where we talked to celebrities of various disciplines who happen to be parents but who aren’t necessarily known for it. Ken Burns spoke incredibly eloquently about his three daughters and how that impacted his experience as a documentary filmmaker. We talked to Michael Strahan. We recently talked to Laird Hamilton. That’s going to be one of probably three or four podcasting offerings that we introduce later this year.
We also have an amazing long‑form audio doc that we’re working on called “Finding Fred,” which is about the man behind the cardigan. We’ll look at Mr. Rogers, the 50th anniversary of his show’s debut on American network television. We have access to his family, to his personal archives, and we’ve uncovered an amazing perspective. Fortunately, we haven’t discovered any skeletons in his closet, and in this #MeToo era it’s sadly remarkable not to be a creep. He was also a disciplined philosopher and public intellectual whose lessons resonate with parents as much as they did with children 50 years ago.
That’s great. You have a talent to share your message and share your story. What do you think some of the lessons are that the audience will take away from your talk?
We can talk about being a digital media company that relied on discipline and focus to succeed in what’s certainly been the most disruptive digital media environment that any of us has seen over the last 15 years. What we can provide is what worked for us, but I am a firm believer that these tactics of being laser focused on a very specific audience are going to continue to be a very important lesson as the media ecosystem evolves.
If you’re not speaking to someone specifically, you’re speaking to no one, unless you plan on raising tens, hundreds of millions of dollars and are willing to commit 10 to 20 years to the endeavor. Even then, if you look at the large, digital media titans, that becomes a shaky proposition. There should be an understanding now in media, whether you’re on the investment side or you’re on the content creation side, that ultimately digital media or any kind of media is good taste at scale.
Necessarily, you shouldn’t see that style of growth. Media doesn’t necessarily hockey stick the way that other venture investments might grow. If you do, you should be skeptical, and something probably stinks. You’ve seen that over the last couple of years where you had a lot of audience arbitrage masquerading as media companies. Then, there’s an algorithm change, and all of a sudden the emperor has no clothes.
I wonder who you’re talking about. I look forward to listening to that talk. I’m sure it’s going to be educational and inspirational for everybody in the audience.