We sat down with George from Howler Magazine to talk about how he launched his business with Kickstarter, why design is everything, and how they use Privy to grow their subscriptions.
Tell me about your business! What do you sell and why is it awesome?
Howler is a magazine that covers soccer here in the U.S. and abroad on a quarterly basis. We started it because we felt like soccer fans here in the U.S. were underserved by mainstream sports press and had to find their fix elsewhere, either in international magazines that had a primary audience in other places or a bunch of obscure blogs on the internet. We focus on soccer from an American perspective.
Along with the magazine, we also podcast and have a website.
What inspired you to start it?
I was working as an editor at a book publishing house and a friend of mine quit his job at the Wall Street Journal to start a video game magazine and I thought: If he could do that, we could find an audience for a soccer magazine.
We originally started the magazine as a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a great platform for ideas like ours because it allowed us to do a pre-sale, but it did have some challenges. It was an abrupt switch once the campaign was funded and ready to go to becoming a business that could provide a good experience and reach some new people. We had to figure out Shopify, MailChimp, and all those other things that businesses like ours need to survive and grow.
Do you remember your first sale?
Once we were funded on Kickstarter, we were able to bring to life the magazine that we had been working on throughout that period. We funded it in June 2012, so our first issue came out in October of that year. We had a huge launch party!
What is your business model?
Everything we do digitally is free, and we use that as a way to draw people in, let them know about us, and get them interested and excited about our coverage of American and world soccer. From there, whether it’s through email, our website, our podcast, or social media, we promote our content and have a conversation about what’s going on in the world of soccer at that moment.
It’s really tricky because not only is there a leap from free to paid, but there’s the whole problem of showing the quality of the printed product on a screen is really tough. The printed copy weighs over a pound—it’s nine inches wide by twelve inches tall—and it’s really hard to give a sense of heft, scale, and the smell of the paper, all things people say they like about the magazine.
For instance, we use a fluorescent cover, which isn’t standard, and it’s really hard to get a sense of all those things when they’re looking at an article from Howler on their phone or the computer screen. You can’t duplicate that experience.
Once we can get people to hold a copy, it’s a different experience, and people kinda “get it.” They can see how much work goes into it. Because we’re used to getting content for free and we spend less and less time spending with analog publications, it’s a bit of a throwback. But that’s why people like it. Because it’s quarterly, the stories have more shelf life than stories we throw up on the internet where it’s gone the next day. So we help people get out of the crazy media cycle and think about bigger issues, personalities, teams and competitions in a new way.
How do you go about marketing your business?
Most of what we do involves encouraging our readers to share with their friends. We find that people don’t like to throw out their copies of Howler, usually, and so they might have it out on their copy on their table.
What types of offers work best for you? What kinds of campaigns are you running on your site?
Our biggest goal is trying to convert people from casual readers into people who are invested in the magazine and the work we do and explore a little more deeply by buying an issue or a subscription. When you make an offer of a discount to someone, there’s a lot less risk involved for them if they don’t like it. I’m more inclined myself to try something that way.
One of the bars that Howler Magazine uses, above.
As soon as I found Privy, I knew we needed the functionality of what Privy does. But what was super exciting about Privy was the ability to customize how our offers look. As a soccer magazine that’s known for our design and artwork, it was really important to us. I knew it would work well with what we already have and show off some of the best aspects of our magazine.
We started with a simple welcome pop up that had an image of the new issue, a short, hopefully witty headline, a note about who we are, and a place to sign up for their email address. It was pretty simple, and we followed that up with an email with the discount code, which worked extremely well.
We started with that one pop up, but now I use Privy in a few different ways. For one thing, we use it as a pop up on our Shopify store and on our website and the execution of that looks great on both, so it’s a nice way to maintain our branding on different touchpoints.
The other thing I use it for is to embed offers within a post on WordPress or within our homepage. Privy’s embed code can operate directly with the ad manager plugin we use in WordPress because it allows me to use our own Privy pop up as a native ad on our site.
It’s actually a pretty successful use case for us in addition to the traditional pop up. It’s really useful and the branding is all the same for our publication.
What kind of results are you seeing on your campaigns?
As a small business, I was reluctant to lock up money for a year on Privy, but it was worth it as soon as the first campaign finished.
We’re approaching 1,000 email sign ups, with more than 10% of those people also becoming magazine subscribers, which is great for us. When we look at the revenue we gained from that subscription, it was totally worth it to grow our subscriber base.
How does Privy fit into the rest of your tech stack?
Email app called Moon Mail
Shopify subscriptions app called WeCharge
WordPress for our website
Megaphone for podcasting
What are some of your biggest business or marketing challenges?
For us, managing the mix of revenue from advertising and the revenue that comes directly from our readers. The traditional magazine model of the last twenty years is to give away the magazine content and selling the reader’s eyes to advertisers. The more readers, the more money from advertising. As print media (and really all media) has disintegrated, it’s been a scary time for publishers.
As a small business, we’re not able to compete for ad dollars, so we can’t follow the same business model that made publishers money in years past. But it also means we really only accountable to our readers. We don’t have to worry about what an advertiser will think about our content and that’s a really liberating reality for us.
That’s why I spend a lot of time thinking about how we present ourselves to potential readers and the ones who already know about us. I spend a lot of time making sure that the message is represents the values we have as a magazine so people know what we’re all about at the get-go. It means we can do good work and hopefully it speaks for yourself.
It’s a niche audience, so we’re not going to reach everyone, but the people we do reach will really appreciate what we do.
Advice to other entrepreneurs or other small businesses?
We wouldn’t have happened without Kickstarter. So if you’re thinking about it, do it!
My word of advice: Before you launch a Kickstarter campaign, you should back a few yourself. That way you come at your own project with a good sense of the hopes and expectations of a potential backer can be, but it shows people that you’re part of the community.
The community aspect of Kickstarter is a really important part of it that is easy to overlook. If you’re part of that community as a creator and a backer, it gives people comfort in knowing that you’re “one of us” which is more meaningful.
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