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June 14, 2010, 11:30 a.m.

The Awl wants to win on the web with great writing, not SEO tricks

Generally, when you think of a site launch, there’s a pretty standard checklist most people follow. Pick a niche topic that appeals to a big enough audience to merit selling ads. Devise a content strategy, whether its writers or aggregation or both. And, perhaps most important, draw up an audience strategy that factors in SEO, social media, and pageview-driving tricks. (Slideshows!) The Awl, a year-old site about current events and culture in a cheeky-but-not-quite-snarky voice, has taken a slightly different course: Create great content.

The site was founded by two Gawker editorial veterans, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, and David Cho, who worked on the business side at Radar, where the other two also had a stint. Sicha and Balk produce a stream of about two dozen posts per day (some written by outside contributors, many of them formerly of the Gawker talent stable), and they’ve grown an audience of about 400,000 unique monthly visitors. And in the next few months, they plan to expand by launching two new standalone sites.

I spoke with Cho about his strategy. (I first talked to Sicha, who said “you could kill either one of us [meaning him or Balk] and the site would be fine — but not David.” He warned journalists not to hire one of their own to run the financial side — get a “real” business person.)

Non-strategy as strategy

Cho said the site got off to a rocky start, after early investment money fell through. The trio ultimately launched on their own, embracing the idea of focusing on great writing, and scrapping SEO and pageview-generating maneuvers. The design was, and still is, barebones.

As Sicha put it in an interview with Vanity Fair last year, “I realized that we just don’t really want any stupid people reading it — which sounds mean, but they have plenty of reading material already. I want to disinvite them.” The VF interviewer said The Awl “reminds me of the Gawker of four years or so ago, when it was more targeted to quote-unquote smart people, or Manhattan media people. Before it expanded to cover more of the same old celebrity crap that the rest of the blogs cover and opened the commenter floodgates.”

“I think it’ll be an interesting experiment to see if good content can win,” Cho told me. “I’m much more of the mindset of, ‘Balk and Choire, you should do more stuff like this, because it’s what people want and it’ll get more traffic than this,’ and blah blah blah. And then eventually we do what Choire and Alex want to do, because that’s the way it should be.”

In a sense, the non-strategy is their strategy. The site has a unique aesthetic, creating a strangely cohesive mix of politics, national news, international affairs, and culture stories. (The first written account of “bros icing bros” appeared on The Awl.) [Editor’s note: The Internet has informed us that news of the meme predates The Awl’s coverage. We regret the error of not being as up to date on the state of bros fieldwork as we should. —Josh] There’s lots of aggregation-plus-comment, but also longer essays by smart writers. The mixture attracts a high-brow, educated, savvy reader and a New York-heavy audience: 25 percent of readers live in New York, with another 10 percent or so in the metro area. Both are potentially attractive audience for advertisers.

A letter from the editor

A good example of the site’s strategy is the recent resurrection of a daily newsletter written by Sicha. “I wanted to keep in touch with those original core, core readers,” Sicha told me, explaining why he decided he needed to recommit to the daily email after a few months off. (The first email back noted it had returned “by popular demand (AKA the demand of our publisher).”) The email reads like a quick note from the editor, not a typical website blast email with a roundup of links. It’s an original piece of content only dedicated readers receive.

In its first week back, the email featured a Trump Soho ad, a New York-specific buy that generated some income for The Awl. Still, Cho is realistic about the promise of the email for now. “From an advertisers perspective, I think right now we’re still very much in a kind of an incubating mode for the newsletter,” Cho told me. He said the Trump ad “sort of fell in [their] lap,” but generally he plans to sell the email ad space as a free bonus if advertisers purchase more ads on the site. (Sicha gleefully described it as “adjacency!”) Right now only about 2,500 people subscribe. They expect more readers to sign on once they make the signup a more prominent feature on the site.

In terms of handling all the negotiating and sales, Cho said they have a variety of deals with outside firms, like Federated Media. “I think we’re getting to a good place with advertising,” Cho said. “It takes time to build momentum and for people to understand what your site is. The growth of the site is very helpful.”

Up next

In the next few months, The Awl will grow into a network of sites. One planned site already has a lead writer and a topic picked out; another has a writer, but no topic yet. Cho expects to work out a topic with the writer that could work for potential advertisers he has lined up. But overall, the plan is the same as it was for The Awl. “Our plan is to rollout more sites with great writers,” Cho told me. “That was always what the site was going to be, to give talented writers a place to talk and write.”

I pressed Cho for details on the new sites to come. The one nugget I got: “We’re not going to launch a poetry site any time soon. We have a poetry section. I know how it does.”

POSTED     June 14, 2010, 11:30 a.m.
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