For digital media companies, creating good verticals that breed small but valuable audiences has become essential. On that subject, here are my takeaways following a conversation with Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of Skift.com. In 20 months, Rafat’s company has become a reference in the travel intelligence business. 

There is no excuse for not trying to build a vertical digital service (web site & mobile app) for a strong media company shifting to digital. As long as you have a powerful (not to be confused with profuse) newsroom coupled with a well-structured contents system, trying a foray in a specific domain is worth considering. As an example, see Atlantic Media, one of the most innovative media brands, as it deploys a series of verticals nested in its Government Executive Media Group. These units all generate small but extremely valuable and loyal audiences — and enviable revenue per user (more on the Atlantic in a future Monday Note).

Building a vertical is a mere matter of implementation, you might say. But a look below the surface shows how such process demands much more than merely putting a small group of good writers in a digital stable, and asking them to gather news on a specific subject.

That’s why Skift.com drew my attention. In less than twenty months, manned by only 9 people crammed in an mid-town Manhattan office, Skift.com has become a strong voice and a reference in the travel industry: airlines, booking systems, hotels, tour operators – and all the the sector’s disruptors.

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I met Rafat Ali five years ago in Hyderabad, India; we were both of speaking at the same conference. Rafat was about to exit his first and remarkable startup, PaidContent.org (a terrible name he now laughs off), one of the first blogs decoding the media industry’s transformation. After building it from scratch and spending eight exhausting years producing and editing stories, Rafat sold it to the Guardian for a reported $30m – right before the 2008 crisis. (Last year, PaidContent was acquired by GigaOm).

After a short transition, Rafat was free to go. So did he. In 2010, at the age of 36, he left for a two-year series of trips to Oman, Iceland, Burma, India (where he has family), radiating from his bases in New York and London. At last out of PaidContent’s trenches, he took the time to read a hundred books during his journeys. Following @rafat on Twitter, you could feel his excitement, and also his growing interest in the travel sector.

‘You have to remember, it was 2010, the iPad had just been launched, everyone was thinking about what to build on it’, said Rafat. His first idea was to re-invent the travel guide book for the iPad. But he soon realized how crappy the whole travel industry’s information ecosystem was: ‘I was blown away.’ While the transactional part of the travel business had been completely broken apart by a massive, unprecedented disintermediation — benefiting the customer, trade information remained frozen in the past, with its sets of professional printed publications perpetuating a jargon-filled verbiage offering little or no actionable intelligence, nor useful data

Nature (and digital business) abhors vacuum, so does Rafat Ali, who decided to fill the void. When asked to define Skift in a nutshell, he said this: ‘In late 2011, we wanted to build the Bloomberg News of travel’. (When it comes to business information, this is quite a goal. Never aim low, I can’t agree more.) Rafat’s wanted to build something based on a few concepts: rely heavily on data, capitalize on the open-web, use APIs aggressively (to connect with third party data sets), aim at professionals, consultants, experts, and — last but not the least — prosumers who often know more than merchants. (Read Rafat’s post on the “Mediata” Startups).

The other key to Skift’s concept — which means shift in Danish — was tearing apart the silo culture that plagued the travel industry for decades: ‘You have airlines, airports, cruises, hotels, technology… All of these silos have collapsed in global interconnected megatrends, and we knew we could make our voice heard across all…’, explained Rafat while pointing at this graph:

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Skift.com

As far as editorial is concerned, Rafat believes journalistic content is needed to create addiction, daily use, while-data related products generate usefulness, stickiness, loyalty and, ultimately, monetization. Content-wise, at the beginning, the site was built on four “legs”: aggregation (collecting headlines); curation (with a tweet-length phrase to describe a story); licensed content (full articles brought from news providers); and originally produced articles. Today, Skift is down to two items: 40% of articles are licensed (mostly Newscred) and 60% are original content — about 15-20 short business stories (produced by a staff of three…)

Business-wise, Skift positioned itself primarily as a B2B company, then secondarily as B2B-2C. Its traffic is still modest (1m UVs/mo), but growing fast; so does its newsletter business, expected to reach 75,000 subscribers by year end. No mobile apps in sight as the mobile web works well for Skift: mobile users account for 35% of web traffic and 50% of newsletters readings.

Skift sells few but high yield ads, to the point that Rafat is about to create a tiny studio to create bespoke brand contents. (Maintaining the mandatory Chinese wall could be tricky in such a small structure.)

But Skift’s true gem is its industry dashboards and data collection system, a well-structured tree that leads to scores of statistics and rankings. Inside, you’ll learn that AirBnB — whose valuation is now higher than Hyatt — has a Skift Score (a combination of indicators) roughly twice the “bookings & tools” industry average. Or that Dutch airline KLM scores way better than the hippest Virgin Atlantic. Or that Hertz masters the social ecosystem way better than the trendy Über.

Using data analytics, Skift produces reports — short and updated twice a month (as opposed to quarterly “bibles” prone to quick obsolescence.) ‘We will focus mainly on marketing, strategy and technology to produce competitive intelligence’, said Skift’s CEO. Rafat’s intense focus on doing few things but doing them well extends to the obligatory conference business: Skift intends to do just a single event about the Future of Travel, in a similar fashion to Quartz’sThe Next Billion conference (see the #qznextbillion hashtag for a list of tweets linking to videos). In both cases, these events are built on strong editorial concepts, ‘We want to make a conference about leadership instead of a vendors-to-vendors type…’ said Rafat.

What’s next for Skift? First, an off-site staff meeting in Iceland. Actually, Rafat Ali is considering a global franchise set in Reykjavik. Less anecdotal, Skift founder wants to apply his news and contents formula beyond the travel industry to what he feels are interconnected sectors — at least in discretionary spending — namely food & beverage and retail sectors.

One final note. Looking at the state of travel information, I can’t help but discern a complete failure of traditional, legacy journalism. Too cozy with the main players and their corrupting PR machines, too filled-up with press junkets and freebies, the mainstream media coverage of this $6.5 trillion/260 million jobs sector has become mostly illegible. This leaves a large open field to new players.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com