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Tuesday Q&A: Rafat Ali on Skift, combining mobile and social, and becoming a Bloomberg for travel

Ali hopes to make Skift “the most pervasive travel information brand” through providing a unique blend of news subscription-based data products.

rafataliccThe dream of travel — hopping on a plane to exotic or unknown destinations — is a dream of possibility. Rafat Ali sees that possibility through the lens of business. Skift, Ali’s travel news and information site, is approaching its first birthday and has shown some encouraging signs of growth. One of those signs: $1.1 million in a new round of seed funding, which will allow Ali and team to double Skift’s staff from 5 to 10. (Among the company’s investors are a few names familiar to digital news types, including Martin Nisenholtz and Gordon Crovitz, who held high-level digital positions at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journals, respectively.)

Billed as a “travel intelligence” site, Skift is a hub for travel industry news and information, an orientation not unlike that of Ali’s last media venture, paidContent. But Ali wants Skift to be able to grow beyond being a travel news vertical. Skift will expand by developing a suite of data tools and mobile products that he hopes will become indispensable to people in the world of travel, as well as its own news coverage to syndicate to other media companies, he says. The plan is for the site to be supported largely through content deals and advertising, but ultimately Ali would like to grow Skift through subscription-based data tools, some of which they plan to launch soon. “Our hope is it’s of daily use, a daily addictiveness — that this world becomes a Bloomberg dashboard, if you will, for people in the travel industry,” he said.

When we spoke last week, Ali and I discussed how Skift uses data, how the site will build tools for users, and why now is a good time to focus on the travel industry. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: Since we last spoke, it seems like things have been going well for you and Skift. What do you attribute that growth and to?
Rafat Ali: Just in terms of making a mark in the industry quickly in a short time, in a little over nine months, I think the original premise of having a different take on the travel industry — however amorphous that sounds — wasn’t that amorphous to people in the industry.

I think the novelty, which should have been obvious, was that we were bringing sectors of the industry that were traditionally siloed together, with the big premise that these silos were collapsing in the travel industry, across airlines, hotels, destinations, cruises, and tech. The silos that are collapsing there because of digital are similar to what has already happened in the media, tech, and finance world. I think that resonated — the premise that the silos are collapsing, so we are the digital information brand that speaks to that, hence we’re going to bring all those sectors together and look at connecting the dots. I think that has resonated with people.

The other thing that’s resonated with people is — I had this philosophy at my former company as well — that B2B does not have to be boring. Travel, as you can imagine, is such a fascinating subject in general, so how can you make the coverage of the business of it boring? I think we’ve brought a very accessible tone. So covering the business of travel but also the creative promise of travel. I think we’ve brought those things together.

Ellis: Who would you say are your competitors at this point? Is it the industry trades?
Ali: Not just them. The largest company in the travel B2B space is a $60 million company which has been in existence for 20, 30 years. For an industry that is the world’s largest, which is travel, $60 million is a tiny amount. We don’t look at that as the benchmark. Yes, competitor, but not the benchmark of what we’re aiming for.

So there’s the trades that cover different parts of the industry, whether it’s airline magazines or sites, or hotel magazines and sites, or cruises and tours, or blogs that cover tech stuff in travel. There’s competition there, bits and pieces obviously. But we’re a layer on top of all of those. We’re curating a lot of stuff, linking to them, and bringing it all together.

The consumer news and information players are anybody and everybody — to some extent The New York Times, or people who do it on a dedicated basis like USA Today, CNN Travel, NBC News Travel. Of course The Wall Street Journal and New York Times covers the business news of travel. The wires do as well. But we’re bringing it all together.

We actually syndicate our content to CNN Travel and NBC News Travel at this point. We are syndicating inbound content from all the wires and stuff because we use NewsCred to get a lot of content for Skift. So I think we compete, but we’re also a layer on top of everybody. The whole point is for us to be the most pervasive travel information brand, which means that we have cross-dependencies on everybody and everybody has cross-dependencies on us.

Ellis: How did the syndication element come about? Was that originally planned? What is it about Skift’s content that is of value to these other places?
Ali: The great part about travel — and this is probably true for other high-profile consumer sectors; travel is a very high-profile consumer sector, especially airlines — everybody loves covering mishaps or issues or news about airlines, for example. Or things like summer travel, or fall travel trends. All these consumer players cover bits and pieces of travel. A lot of it is evergreen content, but a lot of it news as well.

We want to take lessons from what Politico has done. Their syndication, I don’t know how well it’s doing now, but at least from a strategy point of view, their strategy was that political desks at all newspapers and sites has been decimated because of people being laid off. They fill that hole for a lot of places. To some extent, in our heads, long-term that’s how we’re thinking of it. Can we become the travel news wire of the industry, or for anybody and everybody who wants news, not necessarily evergreen content. That’s what’s driving our partnerships.

Ellis: There are a lot of stories coming in on the site, but what I think is interesting is the “Skift Take,” the short summary and angle you have for each piece. How important is that?
skift-takeAli: Skift Take has worked very well from the start. That’s sort of become our flagship franchise — the point being you need to have a voice in the industry. Anything you’re launching now, how do you break through? One of the ways, one of the big factors in breaking through is are you creating your own original voice in the industry?

That doesn’t just have to be done through writing your own stories — you can only do so much with a small staff. How do you put your spin on everything then? You’re pulling in curated stories or licensed stories, and we’ve done that with Skift Take. The principle behind that is it’s a tweet-length, usually — but these days it’s going longer — of our take on every story. Not just everybody else’s — we do it for our stories as well. What we’ve seen is that people read that — literally after the headline, it’s the first thing they read.

Ellis: The site seems very interested in social. With Skift Social, how do you think that provides value? How helpful is it to know how The Wynn uses its social media presence?
Ali: On the business side, social is sort of the first iteration in a larger data service. We launched with social for a very specific reason. We could have launched with any other kind of data beside social. We focused specifically on social because everyone is thinking about social right now and everyone loves to give opinions about social. They also give feedback on social mediums to us. So it sort of serves all purposes of us trying to test out a thesis and then creating a service around it, then getting feedback to keep building on it. That was the thinking behind starting with social.

Another reason we started with social is because the APIs are open. As we go into other kinds of metrics that matter to brands in the travel industry it may or may not be this easy, or this open. Social services, in terms of API availability, are quite good. Except for Pinterest, which still doesn’t have an API, which boggles my mind.

That was the reason we started with social. The idea is essentially we’re looking at everything at Skift as competitive intelligence. News is one part of that matrix of competitive intelligence. The data services we’re building fall into that competitive intelligence matrix. As part of that, can we be the aggregator of all third-party data in the industry. Social is the first lens we’re using to look at it.

In and of itself, it’s interesting and useful. But useful once, twice, thrice a month. How do we make sure it’s of daily use to people who subscribe? For now it’s free, of course. And we did it free so that we can get feedback. That’s the product we are building on top of this, or using lessons from on this. Our hope is it’s of daily use, a daily addictiveness — that this world becomes a Bloomberg dashboard, if you will, for people in the travel industry.

Ellis: What more data or information do you need to build that out if the idea is to become the Bloomberg of travel data as you say?
Ali: At this point we have in our heads what we need to build. It’s just a matter of do we have the resources to do it with five people and angel funding? We did not have that because of the small resources, and now that’s why we raised the money.

These funds that are quite well known have invested not just based on our traction and the media part — which is great, because investors run away from anything media or content-related, or at least shy away. You have to give them a larger vision of what you’re trying to build, which is media plus data. We also know, logically, this is how we’ll scale, not just based on the media part.

We raised the money based on that. We’re hiring two developers — those are the first few hires after we raised this money. We’re five people, and now we’re doubling our staff, another five people. We already have one head of data, that joined after we last spoke. Dan [Nguyen], he’s the one who does Skift Social, but he needs a lot more help, so we’re hiring two new developers.

We’re bringing in not a CTO, but a technologist at large. He’s a very well-known figure in publishing tech. Hopefully we’ll announce him in a couple weeks or something. That will make a material difference in how people look at us from a tech point of view. We just hired a woman as our social media/audience development person — she starts the end of this month — to make a more concerted effort in social as well as other things. In travel, a lot of these bulletin boards still work quite a bit, so can we seed them? Anytime one of our stories get posted in one of these forums, we get a lot of traffic, so we want to do that in a more organized fashion.

We’re hiring a head of sales. That’s another top priority, because we’re already larger than most industry news sites. We’re at the stage where we can start advertising. So we’re speaking to a few people — hopefully in the next two weeks we’ll finalize one of them.

Ellis: In a recent presentation you gave about Skift there was a line I wanted to get you to expand on: “Media is an insight layer on top of data.” What did you mean by that?
Ali: For us, it’s the understanding that you can connect the dots across the data to build something meaningful that’s actionable to users. That’s what media is — or at least what one function of media is. We can collect all the data we want, we can build charts and tools for people. But then what? Who’s gonna connect what this airline is doing, or what five airlines are doing that’s interesting, with a certain kind of data? Maybe it’s a trend. But who knows unless there’s somebody to connect those dots? That’s where the media comes in.

To some extent, we’re using the media funnel we’re building, which is Skift.com, the news information part of it, as a way to push people to subscribe to our data services. So it is a marketing funnel.

But it’s not purely just a marketing funnel. We’re going to monetize the media part as well. But then media serves as marketing in other ways. We can do 10 stories based on data we’re collecting, that will be in and of itself interesting and illuminating. That will potentially push people to subscribe to the data services as well.

Ellis: You guys have said that 25 percent of Skift’s traffic is coming from mobile, and I really like the mobile site you have. How does mobile fit into Skift’s growth going forward? How important is that experience?
Ali: You have to look at mobile plus social together. A lot of social sharing happens in mobile, or should happen if you build it the right way. A lot of the apps, Twitter and Facebook primarily and Linkedin as well, a lot of sharing happens through those apps on your phone. So we have to make sure the site is optimized the right way and the ubiquitous sharing buttons you see on the mobile site are there for that reason.

The vendor who helped us build the mobile site, they have metrics on a lot of the players in the industry, and 20-25 percent is standard and they predict it’s going to go up across the industry to 30-35 percent of total pageviews for media-driven sites like ours. We can’t ignore it, it’s a big part of it. We are going to sell mobile ad products as part of the larger ad services we build.

On the news/information part, we may have an app for the news part of it. But I still question the value of the news apps for vertical sites, as opposed to just mobile sites that work well. But as we build the data services, both mobile and tablet together become very important. Those dashboards we’re building, Skift Social, isn’t necessarily well optimized at this point, but going ahead as we build those services it’s going to have to be. The data services have to be mobile — the alerting functions in those services, the ability to follow people, the newsfeeds, will all have to be mobile in one way or another. So that becomes a huge part of what we’re doing. That’s how we look at mobile.

But for now, on the media part, mobile and social really work well together. We would not be where we are this quickly without social. At all. Social is a huge part of why we made the mark so quickly. If they’re backward in online, the competitors, imagine how horrible they are in social. Just the fact that you are there, beyond just automatic headlines, is just a huge change in the industry. Part of owning stories, owning the day as they say, happens in social. And you have to back that up — you just can’t be tweeting, tweeting, tweeting without creating your own original stuff on the site that you can point to.

Image of Rafat Ali by Brian Solis used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Guest

    Typo in first line – “hoping”

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Nah, we mean “hopping” on a plane.