How Thought Catalog Built A Site Millennials Actually Want To Read

on Content Trends, The Future Of Publishing, The Future of Advertising

What started as an afterthought has become a core tenet of web publication Thought Catalog’s success.

Founded in 2010 by Chris Lavergne, a writer who was struggling to get published in mainstream publications, Lavergne decided to throw up a submissions link at the last minute.

Looking to create a place for himself and his friends to write, Lavergne ended up with a lot more friends than he bargained for.

Fast forward five years and the site’s 25 million or so monthly unique visitors tend to put Thought Catalog in the top 100 most visited websites in the U.S., according to Quantcast.

One of the top 100 most visited websites.

Every month, the site receives around 6,000 writing submissions, according to Alex Magnin, the site’s chief revenue officer. A small team works through the submissions every day to provide a constant stream of new voices.

Alex Magnin - Thought Catalog CRO

“We’re not like a Gawker or Vice that has a specific editorial voice,” said Magnin, over the phone from Thought Catalog's New York offices. “We have a broad look into what’s relevant to young adults.”

While you might have trouble distinguishing Thought Catalog from a collection of LiveJournal entries at first glance, the publication has found a sizable — and specific — audience.

A sizable, and specific, audience.

Nearly three-quarters of the site’s visitors are between the ages of 13–34, Magnin explains. Over the last 12 months, the lion’s share of that traffic, 63%, has come from social media.

“Coming from Martini Media, I’d learned the power of being really great at one, specific audience,” Magnin said.

Thought Catalog team at its New York offices

A community for writers

Thought Catalog’s business is multi-faceted — there’s a book publishing division that goes along with sponsored content and digital ad sales — but it revolves around one core idea: a community for writers.

But not just any type of writing makes its way onto the site.

From 13 Things Every Woman Learns By The Time She Is 26 to 20 Potentially Annoying Things You Should Know Before Dating an Underwear Model, Thought Catalog is known for a very specific style of writing: angsty, post-college anecdotes that usually come with listicle-style headlines.

However, what stands out about Thought Catalog’s writing is what’s beyond the headline: articles that are more essay-like than Medium’s tech-heavy content, and sometimes closer to an excerpt from a novel than a startup founder’s “thought leadership.”

“Our goal has always been to serve anyone who has something compelling to say, and wants to connect with other people through reading,” Magnin said.

Millennials are a big part of Thought Catalog's audience

Like YouTube, but for writers

With its submission-friendly and youth-leaning architecture, Magnin sees the site as more YouTube than BuzzFeed: a place to become an Internet celebrity, not a viral meme maker with journalistic aspirations.

“The thing that makes Thought Catalog work is relatability — we get all these submissions, and from them, we find and help writers who turn into stars,” Magnin said. "Our writers feel like they could be your sister, your brother, your best friend, your colleague. They are relatable and accessible and authentic the way YouTube stars are."

Authenticity is key for brands looking to reach Thought Catalog's mostly Millennial audience. Millennials are known to be keen on when they're being sold to, and while the articles do no such thing, the ads – native and otherwise, strive to maintain that relatability.

Thought Catalog native ad using content cards from Sharethrough

Blurred lines? How about no lines

While an old media stalwart like the New York Times will catch heat for blurring lines between editorial and advertising, Thought Catalog has no line to speak of.

“The difference between editorial and branded content is one we consider deeply.”

“The difference between editorial and branded content is one we consider deeply,” Magnin said. “We label well, and that’s important for our readers and writers.”

Staff writers work on both sides of the fence at Thought Catalog, with a branded content director shepherding custom content deals between a small ad sales team and handful of full-time writers.

“We don’t have a separate ‘content studio’ or copywriting division,” Magnin said. “We pair our brand partners with real star staff writers, all of whom average millions of readers per month and tens of thousands of social followers.”

One of Magnin’s favorite examples is a 2014 series of sponsored posts for FX’s then-new show Fargo. Leading up to the premiere, Thought Catalog sent two of its more comedic writers to the real-life Fargo, North Dakota to scope out the scene and write about it.

“They met the locals, did some couch surfing, and had a crazy night on the town,” Magnin said. With the article racking up more than 2,000 shares, it seems like FX got its money worth.

A banner ad takeover on the homepage

Business is good

The site’s ad business is prospering too, at least if you evaluate it based on the brands that work with Thought Catalog: Spotify, Patrón, Honda, and HP are on the list, to name of a few.

“We do help our clients measure social sharing, page views, time on page, and combine those three metrics, and compare them against benchmarks, to figure out how well the piece worked,” Magnin said.

There are banners, skins and roadblocks on the site, but the publication makes an effort to not overdo it: a “clean and clutter-free” experience is called out as a core value on the site’s about page.

Banners complement native, in-feed placements, including a prominent one on the home page, which at time of writing opened up into a video card for a new Rainbow Six videogame. There’s also a content recommendation widget from Gravity and even a native-style ad unit on article pages that is actually filled as a banner ad.

“It’s significantly challenging logic we had to create,” Magnin said of the article ad unit. “We’re not putting 300x250s smack in the middle of the content, but we’re also not just discarding them to the right rail where they’re going to be ignored.”

The tech behind it all involves Wordpress to publish organic content and a combination of DoubleClick and Sharethrough to distribute sponsored content.

And while it’s not always easy to maintain, according to Magnin, the variety of offerings has enabled Thought Catalog to connect advertisers to Millennials with that hard-to-manufacture secret sauce: authenticity.