For Thrillist, the thrill has just begun

Today, the site operates in over 30 markets, including a few outside the United States like London and Amsterdam, and attracts more than 15m unique visitors each month. is one of three properties owned by Thrillist Media Group (TMG); the others are ecommerce site JackThreads and tech site Supercompressor.

Not content with steady growth of core businesses, earlier this summer, TMG CEO Ben Lerer was out and about talking to potential investors. The result was a US$54m investment from German publisher Axel Springer, Oak Partners and SBNY (formerly Softbank) in late September. To appeal to investors who were interested in either content or commerce, but not both, TMG decided to split Thrillist and JackThreads as separate businesses, with Axel Springer being the lead investor for the content site.

This week, it became clear how Ben Leher, now the CEO of Thrillist and chairman of JackThreads, plans to spend some of the new capital. Building on the company’s history of continuous geographic expansion, Thrillist is now expanding its vertical coverage beyond food and drink to include health, entertainment as well as sex and dating.

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This vertical expansion will be driven by new hires: John Sellers, former senior editor at New York Magazine’s Vulture, who will run the entertainment vertical; Anthony Schneck, former managing editor of MindBodyGreen, who is the new health editor; and Nicole Caldwell, former editor in chief of Playgirl who is the new sex and dating editor. 

In another change of direction, Supercompressor is no longer a separately branded site, but is now part of The company is also following the growing trend of incorporating more and more video and has hired Bill McCandless, former vice president of video programming and production at Bleacher Report, to expand its video production efforts. 

A lookback at Thrillist’s journey 

While Thrillist is gearing up for its next chapter, let’s take a look back at its journey over the past 10 years.

In 2004, Ben Lerer and co-founder Adam Rich were living in New York City and found it challenging to find quality lifestyle information. They decided to take the leap and started Thrillist as a daily email that initially went out to 600 people. The email was supported by a basic website that allowed visitors to sign up for the newsletter and view archived content.

From the beginning, the goal was to cover topics that would be considered ‘cool’ by their audience – men living the post-college, pre-kids lifestyle. This approach is still core to their content strategy, even though they no longer focus exclusively on the lifestyle interests of men.

After prototyping their model in New York, Thrillist expanded out to other big cities, city by city. A big breakthrough was recognising that local content could be rolled up into a credible national offering. It was easy to go from the best new bars in individual cities to best new bars in the country.

Once it became clear the early low-tech email strategy was no longer sustainable, Thrillist was forced to make the transition to being a fully-fledged technology company. Speaking during a recent General Assembly LiveStream session, Thrillist co-founder and editor in chief Adam Rich said realising they had a crushing technology deficit sooner would have helped with their early growth.  

As the landscape for lifestyle content expanded, the Thrillist team realised they had developed a media funnel with content that is seen by a lot of people at the top. This content is social and shareable – something like ‘The 10 reasons your bartender hates you’. Social channels like Facebook play an important role in drawing attention to shareable content at the top of the funnel.

What makes Thrillist an interesting publisher is they can build demand and give readers increasingly relevant content. Once a reader enters the funnel to learn why bartenders hate them, Thrillist tells them what the 10 most important bars are that have opened in their area this summer.

Then, at the bottom of the funnel, Thrillist tells them about special offers that are available at these bars. While there are fewer people near the bottom, the site’s ability to provide valuable and relevant information increases because the interactions with readers are much richer.

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Thrillist has heavily embraced the idea of branded content, so much so that it has set up its own 16-person brand content team, called The CoLab, which will also benefit from the recent influx of capital. While this is not a new idea for a content site, Thrillist differentiates with a hardcore data focus which includes using months-long brand health studies and benchmarking campaign performance against competitors. The goal is to use science to give direction to creative processes that tell a brand’s story and distribute that story in a relevant way to their audience.

Examples of branded content includes custom branded articles for BestBuy, Dr Martens and Pendleton Whiskey, as well as custom content series for Jamaica, Hyundai and Chevrolet.

The integration of content and commerce via the JackThreads site has long been a core part of Thrillist’s business model. In fact, JackThreads contributed a large majority of TMG’s revenue up until it was spun off as a separate company. Having its own ecommerce business allowed Thrillist to partner with companies like Gillette, to combine content, community and commerce on last year’s ‘no sweat’ campaign. In addition to publishing Gillette branded articles that provided readers with entertaining ways to live a ‘no sweat’ life, a collection of dark-colored clothing that would defy deodorant marks were available on JackThreads. Users were also encouraged to share their #nosweat stories on social media.

Despite the fact the two companies split up, according to Lerer, they will continue to do co-marketing and share data and other insights. However, it remains to be seen how the content/commerce marriage will evolve over time.

Perhaps a fitting way to kick off the next chapter was the recent ‘Hotel Thrillist’ two-day party at the W Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ for nearly 200 people who were flown in just for the occasion. This followed Hotel Thrillist San Diego and Hotel Thrillist Phoenix. The Scottsdale event provided many co-branding opportunities for sponsors Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, Starbucks Doubleshot Energy, and Tabasco and is a clever way to expand the Thrillist brand and reward loyal readers, partners and contributors. 

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