Mindful.org is dedicated to a very specific goal–sharing the gifts of mindfulness through content, training, courses, and directories— and helping people enjoy better health, foster more caring relationships, and cultivate a more compassionate society.
Because of that core focus, Mindful has been able to develop deep expertise about how people want to engage in mindfulness–expertise which has provided a launching pad for a range of additional offerings, including a very successful corporate training business, which has become a larger source of revenue than the subscription itself.
In other words, their niche focus has allowed them to be more impactful, while generating multiple revenue streams to support their mission.
In this conversation with Mindful.org CEO Bryan Welch, we’ll discuss how you can build multiple revenue streams around a strong vertical with a small number of passionate members. This conversation was recorded as part of the D2C (Direct to Consumer) Summit that I coproduced with FIPP, the Global Media Association, so you’ll hear a couple of references to the conference.
Listen to the podcast here:
Small Is Beautiful – Niching Down Your Subscription to Grow Faster with Mindful.org CEO Bryan Welch
You do not have to be Netflix, Amazon Prime or LinkedIn to build a successful subscription model. In fact, many subscriptions make their forever promise to a small audience with highly focus on ongoing needs. Mindful Communications, the organization behind Mindful.org is dedicated to a very specific goal. Sharing the gifts of mindfulness through content, training, courses, directories, helping people enjoy better health, foster more caring relationships and cultivate compassionate society.
It’s because of this core focus, Mindful has been able to develop deep expertise about how people want to engage in mindfulness. Expertise, which has provided a launching pad for a range of additional offerings, including a very successful corporate training business has become a larger source of revenue than the subscription itself. In other words, their niche focus has allowed them to be more impactful while generating multiple revenue streams to support their mission.
In this conversation with Mindful.org CEO Bryan Welch, we will discuss how you can build multiple revenue streams around a strong vertical with a small number of passionate members. This conversation was recorded as part of the D2C Direct-to-Consumer Summit that I co-produced with FIPP, the Global Media Association so you will hear a couple of references to the conference.
Welcome, Bryan. We are so glad to have you at the conference.
Thanks, Robbie. It is great to be here.
Can you briefly explain Mindful.org’s mission?
We are here to share the benefits of mindfulness practices, which are primarily meditation. We share the practices through training, courses, magazine and websites. We have a global directory of teachers and events, and we do a lot of corporate training.
Where do subscriptions fit into your bigger strategic picture?
They are big components. They are probably the second-largest single source of revenue for us. Those include traditional subscriptions to the magazine, both print and digital but we also have premium subscriptions that include courses and access to other proprietary content and even coaching.
It is a pretty broad range. I want to follow up on something you said. You have printed content, which is something that many in the audience are going to be interested in. What is the role specifically of the magazine to the organization in terms of its bigger objective in your business model?
The magazine provides value to the business in a bunch of different ways. First of all, I should say that the magazine is self-supporting. In the Print Magazine, we make enough on subscriptions and advertising to pay all of the expenses associated with our content creation with all aspects of the media business. The print business is, in essence, a profitable business but the assets it provides to the rest of the enterprise are really significant. The most important of them is we are studying the engagement of the audience all day long, every day.
That is through both print and digital but we are studying how people engage with these subjects so we become a world authority, then on the right language to use, which topics are most important, and how to present everything about content in our particular vertical. That knowledge of the engagement metrics is central to all of our enterprises. Beyond that, the print magazine, in particular, gives the field of mindfulness a legitimacy that everybody seems to recognize.
The top teachers and writers in the world on the subject are eager to be associated with the magazine. It gives us a retail presence at checkout in places like Whole Foods where we get a level of recognition that is impossible jostling for position on the internet or whatever. At the end of the day, we think we have a much more powerful brand because of the existence of the print product.
That network of people who want to support us in advancing that brand is super valuable to us in all kinds of ways as contributors. They join us for our custom events that we create for corporate training customers and maintains a global network of mindfulness experts. In fact, celebrities in the mindfulness field to the degree we have them who are aligned with Mindful and that is an irreplaceable asset.
The magazine gives you a reason to reach out to and a reason for these experts to come and be connected with you, which in turn powers the quality of the content. It’s because all the content is in one place and under your brand, you have the opportunity to study and understand how individuals respond to that content, which allows you to, in turn, create even more services and experiences to help them achieve their goals.
The corporate training business, which is more than half of our total revenues are corporate customers or prospects who very often ask us, “How are we even sure our people will be interested? How do we know that you are going to be able to keep them interested in and engage them?” If it is not a benefit, they did not want to pay for the training programs.
We can show them real-time engagement metrics from the past few years or the past couple of weeks if they want. That shows the engagement we get with our content both from the general public as well as our other training customers. It is a pretty powerful value proposition for products across the spectrum of things that we sell.
There are a couple of things I want to pull out here that are important for the audience to understand. One of them is the value of engagement that you can prove what engages the audience and that, in turn, is valuable to your corporate buyers. The other thing, which I want to pull out is that you said that your corporate training business is the number one biggest part of your business. Subscriptions are almost, I do not want to say that there are in service to that corporate business but there is not as large a source of revenue, which is interesting, especially for people that have media businesses and are thinking about how to extend and expand the value they provide.
The subscriptions are second but for sure, over the last few years, we would not have had a growing business if it were not for the ancillary revenue streams. It is pretty difficult to create significant growth in subscriptions. It is a direct response marketing game, it is usually iterative and takes time. You build data, knowledge, you test, create a control, then you test again. On the corporate training side, we might secure a contract that would double the size of the corporate training business.
We can bite off big chunks of new revenue in corporate training in a way that we could not do on the subscription side because of the mechanics of growing a subscription base. They serve each other in profound ways. We also wouldn’t have the resources we have to support subscriptions and to market subscriptions if it weren’t for the ancillary revenue streams like corporate training. I call it ancillary because it is not subscriptions but it is larger than subscription so perhaps I should adjust my language.
They are neutrally dependent. What brings the corporate training business to you is your credibility as a magazine, as a content creator and as a convener of experts. Without that, the corporate training business probably wouldn’t be as big and as vibrant but in fact, it is the business that defies the continued investment in the subscription as well.
You mentioned something very interesting about engagement. One of the pitfalls that many of us discovered as we moved into digital media many years ago was that the digital advertiser was looking for reach. We have started creating content that was designed to maximize our reach because we were theoretically going to get paid in terms of eyeballs on the web pages. Unfortunately, we discovered that once we started playing for reach, engagement started plummeting in all the other ways that we made money on the website selling subscriptions, books, ancillary products, whatever else we did on the website was undermined by that reach play.
Most of us discovered in most of our categories, you either can focus your content generation on reach or you can focus your content on engagement. I cannot think of very many examples at all for people who have succeeded in doing both. People in the media and the audience-building business end up facing a choice. You can either play for reach for the largest total number of eyeballs on free content or you can play for engagement, and it requires a different strategy and philosophy about content.
I am so glad you brought that up because I have found in many newsrooms and media organizations this attitude, at least about subscriptions that over in marketing, you decide how to price this, whether you want to sell to advertisers or sell subscriptions, that is fine. We will keep creating the content that we have always created. When you move to a subscription model for sure, you need to optimize around content that that audience is willing to pay for, meaning content that they care about.
By focusing on what they care about and what goals there are trying to achieve, in your case, mindfulness, also opens up all of these additional potential revenue streams, ways to ensure that there are going to achieve their goal but it does require different content. The article that is going to attract eyeballs might be very different than the content that someone is willing to pay for and come back to again and again.I sometimes caution people against trying to picture doing too much to try to create a persona around the audience. Click To Tweet
You can make changes that would allow you to get twice as many people on the website but in all likelihood, you are thinning the blood thin. You are just finding a lot of less interested people and the very interested people are not as interested in that shallower form of content. You can lose the existing revenue streams trying to reach a much larger audience sometimes.
You almost grow faster by aiming more narrowly. I wanted to talk to you about that by targeting a specific vertical, in this case, mindfulness gives you a real advantage over more general plays that are even touching on the same content. Can you talk a little bit about what you alluded to this in the early part of our conversation you know about your audience that somebody might not realize if they included mindfulness as 1 of 4, 5, 6, or 7 different areas of focus?
It is all we study. As we study our metrics, we are always looking for a more compelling way of talking about the very few topics we discuss. It is a fairly narrow range of topics. We have the luxury of studying how to present them in great detail. I do not think it is possible to do that across a broad spectrum of topics. In fact, because of the mechanics of the internet, the highest knowledge of engagement is going to win. The question is, “Can your team understand the best vernacular, the most effective presentation or the most effective content across a broad spectrum of topics?”
That is generally difficult to do. If you are in a subscription-driven business and you are living on engagement, there is a built-in advantage to narrowing your focus in specializing. Previously, I ran a multi-title publisher. We had a bunch of titles ranging from Mother Earth News about sustainability to Motorcycle Classics, which was about old motorcycles.
We quite consciously kept each of those verticals in its silo with a team of people who studied all day long the dynamics of that audience, whichever one it was. We knew that if we tried to spread that category knowledge across a larger optimization staff, we would lose the minute understanding of engagement from one vertical to the next.
You have been around for a while and as you grow, there are ancillary topics like mindfulness is right next to yoga, for example, being involved in corporate training might be around any number of other workplace stress-related subjects. Do you have a North Star either in terms of the borders for the content that you are willing to focus on or an ideal reader whose journey you are supporting that helps you avoid branching out too broadly as new opportunities and requests make themselves known?
We do have boundaries around what we discuss. If the practice is not based on meditation, we do not consider it part of our product or subject. We think that helps us deepen our knowledge, focus and succeed in that vertical by focusing. The question of, “What is the ideal person?” we tend to focus more on what are the nerve endings that we are touching that are most compelling to people.
In the past, we have found that by trying to focus on a particular demographic or psychographic, we have sometimes missed a compelling audience that none of us thought of. I will talk about Mother Earth News. At Mother Earth News, for a variety of reasons, most of the metric, we started depoliticizing the language we use.
This was a magazine about sustainability and living in a more eco-friendly way but we were finding better traffic numbers when we depoliticized the language. We would use sustainable instead of green, for instance. We basically stopped running pictures of people because we found they were very polarizing, either the audience would identify with that person or they would not but it split the audience. We would go for pictures of barns, bread and vegetables but very few pictures of people, which for a lot of us was heresy. We learned our whole careers people but it stopped being productive for us.
As we depoliticized and changed our language, we were experiencing enormous growth and we did not know where it was coming from until we are a year and a half into this process. Somebody else did a survey. It was an outside survey by an independent organization that found that about 30% of our audience described themselves as very Liberal politically and about 30% of our audience described themselves as very Conservative politically.
There were 3 or 4 bands between those two polls that were spread out with a smattering of people. In other words, we had managed to appeal to people who were at opposite ends of the political spectrum because they were deeply conscientious people. That is what put them at the ends of the political spectrum and we discovered a huge audience of very Conservative people who were deeply concerned about the environment.
None of our editors were Conservatives. Most of us did not have a natural empathy for that audience but the metrics drove us to depoliticize our language in a way that allowed us to discover this huge and very fruitful audience. That is one of the reasons why I sometimes caution people against trying to picture doing too much to try to create a persona around the audience. If you know what you are about and if you study what causes people to passionately engage with you, then you can follow that path and you do not need to theorize about who that person is going to be.
What was the data that told you that you needed to remove the pictures? Was it that you were getting lower engagement or negative feedback? It sounds like you decided to remove the pictures then you saw the uptick in the audience, and then saw that audience uptick came from a more Conservative group. What was the first thing?
It was both engaged in the digital realm where we could measure the engagement and then we surveyed covers before we put them on the newsstand. We also then could compare the performance on the new stand between different covers. The covers are where the difference showed up dramatically. The covers with people on them were dramatically less popular than the covers with bread, vegetables or barns on them.
One weird tidbit and this is the thing you learn surveying and gathering data. For some reason, on the cover of Mother Earth News, vegetables were huge winners. Berries did not perform well. Until now, I cannot tell you why that was but it is quite valuable to understand it. We made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the year in additional new standard revenue because we knew berries did not perform well.
That is fascinating. My brain is spinning, trying to figure out why would a cover picture of vegetables do better than a beautiful picture of berries?
I am not sure. Berries may be slightly more controversial than vegetables. Polarizing, as it were.
It is interesting that the value of looking at what people engage with, what they like and what there are passionate about in following that thread. When I think about subscriptions, one of the things that I believe is by focusing on a group of people that share a passion for something, trying to achieve a goal or solve a problem.
There is a tremendous opportunity to layer in more sources of value. You have done those different ways of delivering the same value through your training, your shop and these other types of value packaging. How did you think about what additional ancillary services to offer? As a media organization, were you a media organization first and then you layered in these other things or did you have the vision right from the start?
We were a media organization first and layered in the others. I had the experience of doing that previously in my career across a dozen or so different media brands, I was familiar with the path. Corporate training is a big project. We’ve got into the corporate training business through a merger so that is different than the others. In most of the other product categories, it costs very little to try it.
We thought there might be a need out there, we figured out a relatively inexpensive way to try, and then we put the marketing out there and measured response because we have access. That is another benefit of having a media audience that we effectively own. We can test product ideas within our own realm and audience for no additional cost, and discover what paths for business development are most promising. We usually ready, fire, aim. We have an idea, we put it out there, and then if it is reasonably successful, we started adjusting and tuning.
Looking out at the landscape, this conference is about direct-to-consumer. Many publications are direct-to-consumer but increasingly, we are seeing consumer products be direct-to-consumer as well, packaged goods and physical products. We are also seeing them realize the power of a media presence and the content in driving commerce. A third leg might even be the power of a community bringing together people that are trying to achieve the same goal or solve the same problem as a third leg of the stool leading to a virtuous cycle.Respect your audience and, to the best of your ability, share their passion. Click To Tweet
Have you seen organizations coming at the same space but either from a product space like, “We have a tool or we have cushions?” Where there are moving into the space or coming from, “We have a community of people that are interested in this, now we are going to create some content to support it?” Do you see the merging or the conflation of these different spaces to achieve the goal of building direct-to-consumer relationships?
It is an often-overlooked source of competition or turbulence for media businesses now because every business is a media business. We have a media business. It’s one of the few media businesses built exclusively around meditation and mindfulness. Everybody out there with a book, meditation cushion, seminar or whatever the product might be are all media businesses, on the internet and all building content designed to attract the same audience.
As a media business, we need to make sure that we are at the cutting edge of technique for attracting and retaining those audiences because there are a lot of people aiming for the same folks with that particular passion or need at a given time. I often think of the outdoor adventure sector. Patagonia is one of the greatest media businesses that has ever been built. It is just they do not sell subscriptions and advertising. They sell clothing but they sell it all around narrative storytelling and there are very good at it. If you talk in terms of audience, there is a huge player in the outdoor adventure content sector.
I love what you said that pretty much every business is a media business now. Everybody is thinking of valuable content but in many cases, that content is supporting the purchase of something else and this goes to this point of content worth paying for. If many organizations are investing in content that there are then giving away as a loss leader to attract attention or tell a particular story related to their product, it becomes increasingly important that if you are going to sell your content, your content needs to be differentiated and deep enough to be worth paying for.
Robbie, I think you touched on something that is going to be an important point in the future. We are only just getting started at this. The value of community and connecting to a group of people who are passionate about what you are passionate about is something that the media business is especially suited to providing. We have always been building community but we were not facilitating relationships in the way we can. Part of my thinking about the future of the business is that we will all want to be in the community building business.
We want to be creating communities that have their own communication networking within them. We are a source of friendship and companionship built around mutual interest. We can do that better than the production companies can because there’s nobody in the room trying to sell you something except content, which is relevant to the relationship. That gives media businesses an interesting opportunity to become community-building enterprises. There may be a lot of value derived from that.
You are right, especially for media organizations that are focused on a clear passion that has not come out of this generalist approach. The more focused you are, whether you are hyper-local or it is a group of people that are gathered around a hobby, passion or business, those people are going to get as much if not, more value from the relationships with other like-minded people as there are going to get from any particular product or even from an article. Figuring out how to layer in that community as a key benefit is not necessarily right for every organization but it is worth exploring.
I can think of a lot of examples. For instance, Freeskier was originally a magazine about a particular approach to being a skier but for a long time and this is still true, by far their largest source of the audience were videos that were contributed by their readers. They serve to host this giant library of people who had videotaped their own ski adventures.
There was a cool digital media business called ADVrider. It is for people who ride a particular kind of motorcycle, a dual-sport motorcycle designed to go on back roads and trails to explore remote areas. Again, the vast majority of their content was videos produced and provided for free by their audience so that they could enjoy them together with their community. It is the source of great success and a lovely business model from a lot of categories.
One great example also, as a little pitch is Strava, which is now the world’s largest community of athletes. We have one of the other guest speakers at the conference, David Lorsch, who is the Chief Revenue Officer at Strava, which is purely a community of athletes. It is an opportunity to track your own segments, experiences but more importantly, to compare them with other people, share goals and encourage your friends with their athletic pursuits. It is interesting to look at it from the community perspective versus the content, even the product or commerce perspective.
I wanted to change gears a little bit and circle back to something. You have this media piece, corporate training and shop. Different skills are required to be excellent in those different areas. What has it been like from an operational perspective having the right people in the different parts of the organization and balancing the different metrics in what is a delicate and interdependent ecosystem, and the different parts of your business?
One has to say it is impossible to know if you have optimized staffing. You never know. Each time someone new is hired, there is the possibility that there are going to dramatically change your performance and how you do business because they bring special talents or special perspectives. We find it more interesting and difficult to hire people who understand the subject matter.
I can find people who have marketing experience in analogous categories, people of sales experience, people with IT skills but to do any of our jobs very well, the people we hire must understand the value of meditation practice. That becomes the more challenging aspect of hiring for us. It is finding people who both have the skills we need for the business but also understand the product that we are selling. Not everybody does. It is esoteric and we find that very challenging.
The other part that I would imagine or that I have seen in Silicon Valley where finding subscription experts and product managers is hard. They are in great demand. I imagine it is very hard to find somebody who has those skills and also is a mindfulness practitioner or has some expertise in that space. I could also imagine that it would be a source of attraction for the right people where they would say, “I can apply my skills at an organization that does something that I care about.”
When you find the right person, it is magic. They are thrilled. You are thrilled. One of the things we found in the pursuit of that is our own websites and the magazine itself. It is our best source of candidates. We advertise for employees through our own channels more successfully than any other channel.
I have two things I want to do to round this out. One of them is I want to get your lessons, and then I also have a little speed round that I wanted to close out with. First, the lessons. You have run two dozen if not more media brands. What have you learned about best practices in building a subscription-based or membership-oriented business?
I would say most fundamentally, respect your audience and to the best of your ability, share their passion. Whatever the subject matter is in this business, you are going to be more successful if you have genuine empathy for the passions and the interests of the people you are serving. I think that is a fundamental best practice. I would also mention you need to choose between reach and engagement. If you are going to be subscription-driven if most of your revenue is going to come directly from your audience, then you are an engagement-based business. You are going to most likely need to choose between reach and engagement, and then it is all in the data.
I avoided Math class all the way up to grad school. I tried not to learn anything about statistics but it is everything we do now. We have access to phenomenal amounts of data about how people connect with us and what there are interested in. It requires that we are disciplined enough to keep track of it, watch it carefully, understand how the data come together and what they mean. These are all pretty specialized skills. It is the heartbeat of any audience-driven business now.
Many people want to say, “I am not a numbers person. You do your numbers thing over there.” When you take the time to look at the numbers, they tell such powerful stories about what’s happening in the business, which is so important to the storytellers as well as to the Math people.
Very often, what you learn is anti-intuitive and you will learn things that you would never have guessed. If you took a survey, everybody hates interstitials on the website but there are incredibly effective so obviously, not everybody hates them. If you took a poll, there is not a single person who ever subscribed to a Print Magazine with an insert card because everybody hates them so much yet, for a lot of magazines, they are the single largest source of new subscriptions and always have been. There are a lot out there that you learn by asking. You need to see the numbers. It is fun and it is a great detective game as well.
I say this all the time, people do not tell the truth for all kinds of reasons. When you ask them, they do not want to hurt your feelings. They do not want to think of themselves in that way. Nobody wants to say, “I like to tell you that I watch a lot of movies with subtitles when I am not reading important novels after a hard day of work having a kickback with Netflix and chill. I am going to binge-watch Friends or something.” People have all kinds of reasons and then they do not know. They do not remember. As you said, they have never subscribed through an insert but they might have forgotten.
They must. I do not think everybody is dishonest but I think we filter our memories for what we wished were our preferences but they are not always that way. The other thing, this is somewhat controversial but I always tell editors that everybody who writes a letter to the editor is a weirdo. You can tell if you look at the statistics.There are a lot out there that you learn by asking. Click To Tweet
If you have an audience of a million people and you get even 50,000 letters a year, those are still very unusual people who are writing you the letters but the metrics are giving you a direct insight into the behavior of the audience. I would suggest that people downplay their reaction to over the transom letters to any unsolicited communication because those people are motivated unusually and pay attention to the actual audience metrics where you can get the actual group dynamic and group behavior.
The representative sample is way more useful. I want to wrap up with a few quick questions. The first subscription you ever had?
Favorite subscription, present company, productions excluded?
A time you felt like you were a real member of a group?
The Magazine Publishers of America, for a long time, had a small magazine publishers group within and it had lots of different names but we were all cirque driven and they were usually about 20 or 25 of us who were active in that group. It was the most fun, inclusive, offbeat group of entrepreneurial media people. It was great fun and I have had great comradery there so I would count that one.
Bryan Welch, thank you so much for joining us. It was a real pleasure having this conversation with you.
It was, Robbie for me too. Thank you.
That was Mindful’s, Bryan Welch. For more about Bryan and Mindful, go to Mindful.org. Thanks for your support and for reading.
- Bryan Welch on LinkedIn
- Direct-to-Consumer Summit
- Mindful Magazine
- Mother Earth News
- Motorcycle Classics
- David Lorsch on LinkedIn
- The New Yorker
- Magazine Publishers of America
- Amazon Prime
- Print Magazine
- Whole Foods
About Bryan Welch
Bryan Welch has led mission-driven enterprises in the media and a variety of other fields of conscientious business, including Mindful Communications, B the Change Media and Ogden Publications. He currently serves as CEO the media and training company, Mindful Communications, including Mindful Magazine and Mindful.org. He’s held executive positions in the media, technology, insurance and manufacturing industries.
Bryan ran Ogden Publications from its inception in 1996 until 2015. During his tenure Ogden Publications was transformed from a declining publisher of two rural-lifestyle magazines to a dynamic, growing multi-media company with 9 magazine titles and numerous websites and ancillary businesses including an insurance brokerage and a home-products manufacturer. He developed the company through organic growth, launches and acquisitions. Ogden Publications is recognized as a pioneer in developing profitable multi-media and marketing platforms.
Bryan has been a featured speaker at many major events, including the American Magazine Conference; Outdoor Retailer; the B Corporations Champion’s Retreat; Conscious Capitalism’s CEO Summit; the Green Business Conference; and Sustainable Brands. He has served on the boards of several corporations, the International Center for Ethics in Business, Magazine Publishers of America, the Social Venture Network and the Kansas Land Trust, among other nonprofits.
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