CHALLENGE: Although millions of its Web fans are unaware of it,
The Onion started as a printed tabloid.
"A bunch of college kids in Madison Wisconsin were putting out
copies of what they thought was good satirical humor," explains
current Publisher (Ms.) Chris Cranmer. It was good enough that
entrepreneur Scott Dikkers bought it from them to run as a formal
publishing company. "I'm not sure what the amount of the sale
was, but I'm sure it wasn't much."
Dikkers' joking goal: To have The Onion delivered to doorsteps
across America just like The New York Times.
Then the Internet showed up and Dickers realized his joke could
become a reality.
But should they abandon local print editions? Should they say
yes to the VCs and partner-wanna-bes pounding at the door? Would
online ads be enough to keep them alive, even if the online ad
CAMPAIGN: The Onion's staff was a very tight team. All had been
on board for years, some since the very start. It felt like a
family. The paper was also already profitable. It was working
and they liked working on it together.
No one wanted to make a radical change, grab VC funds, hire on
loads more people, just to become potentially richer faster.
Cranmer says, "We had tons of offers. We still have tons of
offers - they just never stop. But we've always been confident
in our own abilities. Even if it's going to take us longer to
make it on our own in five years, instead of a quick fix by going
to a portal like Yahoo, we'd rather do it our way."
The Onion's site was launched in 1996 initially mainly to please
the writers. (Note: during our interview with her, Cranmer
mentioned her writers' desires more frequently than any publisher
we've ever spoken to.) "Our initial goal with the Web was to get
out to as many people so they could read us. The writers were
very happy just reaching more people," says Cranmer.
There wasn't a budget for online marketing, and the printed paper
itself was only being distributed in Madison, Milwaukee and
Chicago. But somehow the site found itself being inundated with
visitors from all over the world.
"We had just amazing g*rowth every year. It just got crazier and
crazier." (Typo ours.)
At first, selling ads profitably was pretty easy. As the economy
tanked, the ad sales team (all of whom have been with the company
now for seven or more years) pulled out all the stops to keep the
site profitable. Cranmer outlined three of their tactics for us:
Tactic #1: Focus Ad Reps' Territories to Maximize Sales
Instead of selling online versus print ads, Cranmer divides
territories by local (which is mainly print) versus national
(which is mainly online.) All national reps worked their way up
from the local level.
Recently she's reworked national territories so that reps are now
given clients based on which agency the client's with. "We used
to assign accounts client by client, but we found this is better
because that a rep would tend to get to know an agency well.
When the agency had a new client, they would call the person
they'd worked with before. It just made sense to go down this
line. It wasn't hard for us to do at all."
Tactic #2: Deal with Clients, not Networks or Brokers
"Back in the days when the networks were big, we would be working
with a client who was buying direct from us and then two days
later a network insertion order would come along for a deal for a
client we'd already had for years.
"We realized we didn't need to deal with networks. Thankfully we
have a lot of great relations with big agencies and clients, so
we're not worried about having too much inventory hanging out
Plus dealing with third party brokers had another price --
sometimes they'd represent a CPA buy as CPM. (i.e., the broker
would pay The Onion a flat CPM cost per thousand, but in turn
would bill the client at CPA cost per action.)
"I'll never forget the day when some network had [famed CPA
advertiser] Orbitz ads included as a part of the buy. I'll never
forget those Orbitz pop-ups. I called my reps 'Who did that???'
thinking somebody had sold CPA without me knowing about it."
Pseudo CPM buys come with a price tag -- everyone in the know in
the ad community thinks you've changed your practices. Naturally
this was frustrating for Cranmer who'd spent years turning down
CPA offers flat.
"We lost a lot of buys because I wouldn't take them. It was a
difficult decision. I believe in Internet ads being a branding
Tactic #3: Offer Unusual Sizes
"Every proposal that comes in says, 'What can you do for us
that's different from other guys?' Every one."
After vertical skyscrapers became so popular, The Onion became
one of the first mainstream sites to offer extra-large horizontal
banners. (Check out the top of their home page, link below.)
They also recently started giving every advertiser running a
contest or sweeps extra exposure on The Onion's new 'Contests'
section which is nothing more than a series of box ads. "We kept
getting more and more contests, we said let's just post it all in
one area. It's part of their campaign. They're not paying
extra," explains Cranmer.
Plus, about a year ago Cranmer switched the site's 40-character
text-link ads from a f*ree bonus to a paid ad unit. "Text links
have always done very, very well for us in terms of clicks," she
says. "In early years they'd buy the banner and nothing else,
and we'd put up the link as a f*reebie. They performed so well
we eventually made them an actual ad unit for sale."
She notes there doesn't seem to be a big limit on the number of
text links you can post before people will stop clicking on them.
For example, we counted 20 in a row on today's home page.
"I know from feedback from our readers that they're very content
oriented. They don't like a lot of in-your-face advertising.
They email us, 'Hey if you keep it as low key as possible, I'll
click on it for you. I'll help you out by checking out these
Aside from ads, The Onion also supports itself with three main
ancillary revenue streams:
Ancillary #1: The Store
It started with just a few t-shirts featuring simple slogans such
as "You are dumb." and "I enjoy drinking beer." Now the online
store carries a wide variety of stuff, from magnetic headline
kits to bumper stickers.
With lots of input from the writers, Cranmer adds three to four
new products every single month, and removes anything that's not
selling very well. (In fact she notes her big battle is in
stopping writers from vetoing older products with still-strong
sales that they are bored with.) The store is completely built
and powered in-house.
Ancillary #2: Repurposing Archive Content
You can purchase a CD of writers reading best-of articles into a
microphone ... and yes plenty of people have.
Although The Onion's first print book featured entirely new
content, the Company has also published three print books based
on archived material. Titles include, 'The Onion's Finest News
Reporting, Volume One' and 'The Onion Ad Nauseam.' These are
distributed nationally at regular bookstores.
Ancillary #3: Personals Ads
The Onion's personal ads are powered by Spring Street Networks,
who also feed ads from Nerve and Salon into a common pool. Each
site gets a cut of the take without having to actually do too
Aside from the Web site, The Onion is currently published in
three other formats -- a regular radio show that's syndicated
through America's largest radio network Westwood One, a
mobile/PDA edition through AvantGo, and print editions now in
four cities including the latest launch in New York.
Why continue producing a local print tabloid? Cranmer gave us
1. Everybody on the staff really likes it. "There's something
really great about holding a paper in your hands."
2. Local print readers love it too, so much so that The Onion
is deluged with phone calls every week a few hours after
the f*ree print edition is distributed ... because often
copies are gone so fast that people miss them.
3. Making the writers happy. When The Onion's Managing Editor
wanted to move back home to New York, Cranmer launched a
Manhattan print edition partly to help his dream come true.
4. Steady ad revenue you can count on. Cranmer says, "With
the Internet being as shaky as it is, sometimes we have a
fantastic month and then nothing happens. You don't know.
Offline is hugely constant. I can go to bed knowing
exactly what's going to happen for each quarter."
RESULTS: "We've been able to keep things small and tight and...
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... make it a profitable venture for all of us," says Cranmer.
Both online and offline editions of The Onion are profitable
although these days, "online is predominant."
Radio syndication revenues are negligible, but Cranmer says
she'll definitely keep up the program because "the marketing
aspect of it is fantastic." It's a big traffic driver.
The Onion actually stopped their Mobile/PDA distribution for a
while when AvantGo announced last year that the formerly free
service would go paid. "It was insane, like $60,000 a year. I
thought are you kidding?" says Cranmer.
At first she didn't think anyone would notice the absence of the
service, once advertised with the slogan, 'The Onion has gotten
smaller and harder to read.' "We took it down for about a week
and we had hundreds and hundreds of emails." So the site's tech
team cobbled together their own wireless feed, and later AvantGo
caved in. "And that was that."
Nope, hardly anybody's buying ads on the feed ... so far anyway.
But Cranmer figures why not keep readers happy in the meantime.
The site itself gets 1.3 million visitors accounting for 5.3
million pageviews per week (yes, that's week, not month.) In
contrast, The Onion's print editions reach 300,000 readers who
pick up f*ree local copies, and 20,000 who pay a token
subscription fee to have it mailed to them.
Other ancillary sales are small slice of the pie compared to ad
dollars. Cranmer notes that store sales always peak for two-
three days after she puts new products in each month (note:
continually freshen your inventory to keep sales high) and also
during the gift-giving season.
You may have noticed one format The Onion doesn't publish in --
email. Cranmer notes she's cracking under reader and advertiser
pressure to launch an email edition soon. "We want it to be
good. We don't just want to rush in and dump headlines into it
and say, go check these out. We wanted something a little
different. We're still knocking around what that difference will
Which pretty much sums of The Onion's whole philosophy of getting
ahead in business ... by really, really trying.