Media Connections with Travis Bernard, Extra Crunch

BLASTmedia has been running this media connections series for about six months now, and we’ve yet to explore paywalls. That’s exactly why I wanted to do a Q&A with Travis Bernard, Senior Director, Membership at TechCrunch. 

I first worked with Travis back in 2016 on a Crosley turntable review. These days, he oversees the business side of Extra Crunch, TechCrunch’s subscription product. Below, he hits on: using analytics to guide editorial decisions, the value of exclusivity in news, the future of paywalled journalism and much, much more.

GRACE: You work in subscriptions and audience insights at TechCrunch — what exactly does that mean? What does your day-to-day look like? 

TRAVIS: I run the business and marketing side of TechCrunch’s membership product, Extra Crunch (part of Verizon Media). The product launched in February of 2019, and it’s targeting founders, entrepreneurs, startup teams, investors, and business school students. The primary benefits are access to a series of exclusive articles, a dedicated newsletter, no banner ads on our site, discounts on TechCrunch events, and more. The content includes weekly investor surveys, how-tos and interviews on building your company, IPO and late-stage analysis, and other exclusive articles delivered daily.

My day-to-day is about making the product better and figuring out ways to reach the right readers. It involves meeting with our product and editorial teams to ensure that we’re making the product better and meeting the needs of our readers, ideating on the product roadmap, improving design and organization of content for the community, and launching larger marketing initiatives. There’s a lot of work happening on marketing operations, be it price testing, newsletter distribution, website promotional units, social media, new country launches, activation at our events, and more. I also spend a lot of time diving into analytics, reporting, and customer feedback surveys. We’re always trying to make the product better. 

GRACE: You helped launch Extra Crunch — TechCrunch’s subscription product — about a year ago. What was the impetus for creating Extra Crunch? 

TRAVIS: About 2-3 years ago, we had a big meeting with the key players at TechCrunch to decide what was next to scale the business and meet the needs of our customers. Instead of going bigger and broader with our audience to help drive up advertising impressions and dollars, we decided to double down on a smaller subset of our audience that was interested in startups and building companies. This audience is much more valuable to us because they are highly engaged. This includes startup teams, entrepreneurs, founders, investors, and business school students. This was always the DNA of our core audience for TechCrunch, and it’s also the same types of readers that attend our events like Disrupt SF.   

Building a product that could help startup teams and investors was the goal, and from there we came up with the idea for Extra Crunch. We wanted to make sure that all of the existing content on TechCrunch remained free, so we decided to make the Extra Crunch articles differentiated and offered as an additional service. The “freemium” model made a lot of sense when we launched, and so far the product is having great success. The reception has been positive and growth continues to scale.

GRACE: What is a misconception most consumers have about subscription products from major media outlets? And, what is your response to that misconception? 

TRAVIS: I often hear that news is ubiquitous, so it’s not worth paying for a subscription to it. My response is that subscription news services aren’t for every type of news reader, but the quality of news and information you will get from a paid service will be more trusted, of higher quality, and most likely exclusive reporting. In our case, a lot of the value is the analysis and exclusivity. Many news stories might be ubiquitous, but what the story means and why it’s important is another layer. There’s also value in reading a story you can’t find anywhere else. That extra layer is why it’s worth the money.

GRACE: What was your biggest hurdle in growing Extra Crunch over the past year? 

TRAVIS: International expansion is challenging, especially in a day and age where every country has different rules and regulations with data policies and online subscription services.

It was also challenging to shift how our newsroom thought about analytics with a subscription. Many of the metrics you use for traditional audience development might not make sense in the context of a subscription product. 

GRACE: Extra Crunch is focused on serving the startup audience, providing in-depth, how-to articles for founders. How did you use data from top-performing articles on TechCrunch to drive that decision? 

TRAVIS: What generates the most traffic on TechCrunch isn’t necessarily what will generate the most membership sign-ups or reads by members. Sometimes there are overlaps, but it requires a shift in thinking for analytics. You need to start paying more attention to article conversion rates, how articles produce in the short term and long term, what current paying members are reading, what article topics members are reading, and how much time paying members are spending on articles. 

GRACE: How do the topics covered on Extra Crunch differ from the rest of TechCrunch — and why?

TRAVIS: Content on Extra Crunch falls into one of three categories: investor surveys, how-tos and interviews on company building, and analysis on IPOs and late-stage companies. 

Investor surveys allow our readers to find out where startup investors plan to write their next checks. The how-tos and interviews help startup teams build their companies better with features from experts on fundraising, growth, monetization and other key work topics. You can also learn about the best startups through our IPO analysis, late-stage deep dives, and other exclusive reporting delivered daily.

Traditional TechCrunch content seeks to explain what happened whereas Extra Crunch content seeks to explain why and how things happen. For example – you might see news on TechCrunch about a startup going public. Extra Crunch would dive into what that means for similar startups in the space. Similarly, TechCrunch would cover the funding of a new startup, whereas Extra Crunch might do an interview with the founder on how he or she built the team using remote employees or what he or she found to be the keys to monetization.  

GRACE: Assuming the paying audience is more engaged than the general public, how do you measure the success of an article on Extra Crunch? Are there different measures for Extra Crunch & the rest of TechCrunch?

TRAVIS: There are some different measures, but there are also some similarities.

Both Extra Crunch and TechCrunch care about the impact the story has. With Extra Crunch, the impact might be to a smaller subset of users but we still care about how much impact it has. If it doesn’t have impact, why write it? 

With TechCrunch, we use traditional publisher metrics like unique visitors and engagement time. With Extra Crunch, there’s an added layer of conversions, conversion rates, reads by subscribers, and engagement time for subscribers. Since the Extra Crunch product is still relatively new, we’re still evolving our approach to analytics.

GRACE: Can you speak to the importance of paywalls to the future of journalism?

TRAVIS: I think there’s room for both paywalled journalism and non-paywalled journalism. But when you are talking about niche topics, I think paywalls are the way things have to be. It’s better for the business and it’s better for the consumer.

It’s better for the consumer because their experience with the product must be great or they won’t keep paying. It’s better for the business because it forces the business to put the customer experience first and not make sacrifices with advertising or privacy or UI. It’s also better for the business because revenue is more predictable: There aren’t as many ebbs and flows with advertising impressions due to traffic shifts.  

It will be challenging for a small or niche publication to run a successful digital advertising business at scale because it won’t have that big of an audience compared to the digital behemoths. It’s tough to compete. Small and medium-sized publications can “win” by building a paid relationship with the reader and focus on improving things that meet the needs of the reader (UI, remove ads, build niche features, etc.).  

GRACE: If you could be a fly on the wall in the boardroom of any tech company, which would it be and why? 

TRAVIS: Facebook — the company grew incredibly fast over the past decade, but it has had missteps the last few years. I’m curious to see how Facebook evolves at a time when perceptions of privacy and digital addiction are changing.