When William Del Pilar and Ryan Bonini co-founded fantasy football news site KFFL in 1996, they offered both subscriptions and ad sales practically from day one. Del Pilar says, "In order to make our marriages survive, we had to have revenues. We purposely started with subscriptions as well as ads to make money."
But, they had to stand out in a field littered with deep-pocketed competitors, including ESPN.com and SportsLine.com. What are a couple of bootstrappers to do?
First they created strong editorial. During the football season 50-60 stories come over the wires every day. Bonini (who took over editorial while Del Pilar focused on marketing) winnowed these down to six-seven stories of note, and then published digested concise versions of each on a free-access KFFL page called, "Hot Off the Wire."
Instead of publishing entire interviews, he whipped up bullet-pointed capsule versions that fans appreciated. In fact, within a couple of years professional athletes, trainers and coaches were calling and emailing him with insider tips because they themselves were so addicted to getting the boiled down news-that-matters at Hot Off the Wire.
Del Pilar says, "Sometimes magic happens. Without expecting to, we evolved into a respected news site. We get the traffic because we just present it better. Whatever Sportsline or ESPN does, we take it one line better. If you want to know who's hurt, who’s not hurt, who's playing, you turn to us."
In fact the Hot Off the Wire section -- which is simply a page of text-only stories interspersed with mainly text-only ads (both house ads for subscriptions and paid ads) -- became so popular that Del Pilar eventually started citing it in his marketing campaigns, "We challenged, 'Hey if you can find it done better, tell us and we'll give you a free subscription!'"
He also markets the site with ads, featuring fan testimonials, in competing newsletters. Competitors are willing to carry these ads because Del Pilar is equally willing to carry theirs, and he's made a concerted effort to be helpful to and friends with everyone in his niche. "I call competitors and we share tips -- oh that magazine didn't do much for us, etc. Networking helps us out. Helps us build to be able to deals with Yahoos."
And in fact, Yahoo now licenses KFFL content for its own fantasy football section.
Del Pilar grows the site's ad sales revenues by continually helping advertisers do better with their site and ezine ads. He explains, "We're not afraid to pick up the phone and say 'Your banner is horrible' or 'Your text ad needs to be different, let's try this.'" This service means some advertisers have been faithful to the site for literally years.
KFFL's paid content offerings include a weekly Fantasy Football Newsletter, the Daily Injury Report, and the opportunity to get their questions answered by an expert on KFFL message boards. (Del Pilar notes that the majority of questions visitors post to the message boards are already answered elsewhere on the site. "They just don't want to look for it." Three experts man the boards every day to answer these questions.) About 30 part-timers in total contribute editorial, the majority of whom work for free simply for the love of it.
The two newsletters and boards access, are sold in a variety of subscription offers, including ala cart and as an all-inclusive package. Pricing depends on the date. Early in the football season you'll pay full price. Later you'll pay a partial price.
Initially KFFL's subscription pricing structure for the complete package was just $13 per year, but then they ran a survey and discovered they'd misjudged their demographic. Del Pilar says, "Our visitors made $50k and above, and were 35-plus age white collar workers. It was shocking! We thought, 'Heck man, these people don't look at prices. So we literally doubled our prices that year, and kept our mouths shut."
KFFL has been profitable since 1997, and 2001 was the Company's best year yet. About 50% of revenues are from subscriptions, 45% from ad sales and 5% from content licensing.
90% of the site's visitors go to the Hot Off the Wire site area. This content is so popular that over the past year KFFL's unique user base increased by 17%, while their page views increased by 38%.
Del Pilar and Bonini plow all profits back into the Company. Each year they set a specific investment goal. One year they invested in marketing to drive traffic, one year they improved the content management system, and one year they purchased a better online ad management system. Plus they give their key editorial and message boards volunteers tokens of their appreciation - from a gift certificate for a nice meal out with the wife, to, for one critical volunteer, a brand new computer.
Although Del Pilar and Bonini still frequently work 80-hour weeks and neither will be wildly rich anytime soon, they really enjoy running KFFL. Del Pilar says, "We love what we're doing. The love of the job isn't wearing on me."
Note: Interested in subscription-based online or ezine sports content? Check out these two past MarketingSherpa stories:
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