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Dec. 9, 2019, 10:30 a.m.
Business Models

Mumbrella tried to copy its successful business model from Australia to Asia — here’s why it didn’t work

“In the six-and-a-half years we’ve run Mumbrella Asia, we’ve never had a profitable year. Traffic has grown and revenues have grown, but we’ve never come close to breaking even.”

Back in 2013, the Australian trade publication Mumbrella launched an expansion into the giant continent to its north to cover Asian media and marketing. Today, it announced that it didn’t work — it’s shutting down its operation in Singapore in a few days — and offered an admirably frank explanation of the various failed strategies that couldn’t make Mumbrella Asia profitable.

Tim Burrowes, Mumbrella’s founder and content director, explained that the company’s model in Australia relied on multiple revenue streams from advertising, event sponsorship, and ticket sales, but couldn’t replicate that model in its spinoff.

“In the six-and-a-half years we’ve run Mumbrella Asia, we’ve never had a profitable year,” Burrowes wrote. “Traffic has grown and revenues have grown, but we’ve never come close to breaking even. This year, despite the (relative) commercial success of this month’s Mumbrella360 Asia we’re on course to lose another six-figure sum on our Singapore operation.”

The first problem was advertising:

For Mumbrella Asia, we were never able to kickstart that advertising stream. The market norm wasn’t there. In Australia, five years before, we’d been successful in persuading traditional print advertisers within the trade press that it was worth investing in digital advertising to talk to our audience. But with Mumbrella Asia we never pulled off that trick.

I’ve always opposed us taking programmatic advertising. I’m convinced it doesn’t work for B2B publishers. Their audience is too concentrated and too niche for it to be valued properly by algorithms.

A few months ago, as something of a last throw of the dice, I argued that we should give programmatic a try. Surely our 2.5m page impressions a year had to be worth something?

Even if we only pulled in a CPM of $10 (a fraction of our rate card) for two ad slots per page, that might contribute $50k per year.

In truth we’d left that experiment too late. The early stages saw it return CPMs in the cents rather than dollars, and in cash terms just a couple of hundred dollars per month.

With ad revenue weak, Mumbrella increased its focus on events. In 2017, planning its annual conference Mumbrella360 Asia proved overwhelming for the single staff member organizing it in Singapore; eventually the Australia team stepped in to help.

Our biggest miss came in ticket sales.

We’d set a premium price. Our model has always been one of respecting the audience. We’ve always wanted to be an event organiser whose delegates expect to pay a premium to come away having learnt more and been sold to less.

But we were operating in a market where ticket prices are typically lower, and where sponsors therefore have higher expectations in how they can deliver sales messages to delegates.

In that first year of Mumbrella360, the quality of our program didn’t move the needle on ticket sales.

And yet, we’d promised our sponsors that Mumbrella360 would be well attended, and we needed to keep that promise. Letting down those who had gone out of their way to support us was not an option.

So as the event loomed, we gave away a lot of tickets to friends and contacts. It delivered a big, and senior audience to our sponsors, but it didn’t help our profit number.

After failing to turn a profit on the conference, Mumbrella decided to skip the event in 2018 and host it again in 2019. This year, they lowered the ticket prices but still couldn’t meet their goal.

Another factor was corporate culture. In Australia, where Mumbrella is known for its sharp and critical perspectives on the media industry, industry leaders would be quick to call them up to vent any complaints about stories. But in Asian markets, Burrowes said, “it would sometimes be months” before they realized that they’d burned a bridge by publishing a controversial piece.

Once, an editor wrote about a touchy issue in Singaporean politics: “A few weeks later, her employment pass was not renewed by the government, and we found ourselves with a few days to get her out of the country.” (Singapore ranked 151 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index this year; its government was last seen forcing Facebook to label an opposition politician’s post as fake news.)

Finally, Mumbrella, like many publishers before it, ran into trouble claiming to cover a large and diverse area — Asia! — while based in a single and regionally quite specific base in Singapore.

“First, we might call ourselves Mumbrella Asia, but events were such a key part of our business model that really we were Mumbrella Singapore,” he wrote. “Events are, in the most part, attended by a local audience. When we launched, we told ourselves we were entering a bigger market than Australia. In truth, we were going into a smaller one.”

Despite some success, like winning two Asia Pacific Publishing Awards in 2018, Mumbrella’s leadership in Asia decided to call it quits after the conference last month.

Read Burrowes’ full letter to readers here.

Photos from Mumbrella260 Asia 2019 via Mumbrella.

POSTED     Dec. 9, 2019, 10:30 a.m.
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