By Joon-Nie Lau

Ten years, 10,000 paying members and now with a staff strength of 30, The Spinoff currently sees half its revenue coming from membership, while the other half comes from branded content.

At WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Asia conference in Kuala Lumpur in April, Greive, who grew up devouring teen music magazines from the United Kingdom, recounted how he started The Spinoff as a TV blog in 2014 when it became obvious that the internet was going to eat up everyone’s attention and Netflix had just entered the scene. 

Plugging the gap

Looking around, he noticed that no publications seemed to take advantage of the possibilities, dynamism, humour and tone of the internet.

Conventional mainstream media companies were putting newspaper stories online, but there was no modern digital news brand serving Millennials and Gen Zs. Hence The Spinoff took a non-traditional route and hired talented magazine writers instead of news journalists, up-and-coming comedians and actors, and sharp, funny social media writers.

This eclectic mix of creatives also gave rise to a bold culture of experimentation.

The team borrowed ideas from technology companies – cycling hard through products to power up successful ideas and quickly abandon poor performing ones.

They also took from the advertising world the idea of having The Spinoff as a master brand wrapping around a house of products or sub-brands within various content forms across audio, video, events and newsletters.

The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive, at right, on stage in Kuala Lumpur at Digital Media Asia in late April.

Building the right revenue model

By Greive’s own admission, “We were more tactical than strategic,” he told the 250-strong audience at the opening plenary which was about audience-first, digital-first news organisations.

“We knew what our brand was, always, but were comfortable being very responsive to events, rather than feeling married to a particular approach,” he elaborated.

With his finger always on the pulse of his audience and commercial partners, this meant finding a different model to drive the business forward. The Spinoff did this by pioneering branded content in New Zealand. Their first client was big New Zealand streaming platform Lightbox in 2014.

“We didn’t have to raise money,” said Greive. After reinvesting their first revenue from Lightbox back into The Spinoff, Greive and his team continued building the business from there.

While there were times when the company’s bank account was down to just a few weeks of wages, the team was resolute in their ability to harness the same skills that they were using to make news and popular content so appealing and apply them to brand storytelling.

Prioritising well-produced content over CPMs or display advertising (which is measured by CPMs) set The Spinoff apart from other digital publications, which went for volume over quality.

The team behind The Spinoff.

‘A spinoff from The Spinoff’

Five years into the journey in 2019, The Spinoff launched another first for a New Zealand media brand: The Spinoff Members – framing it as a donation scheme where people who could afford it should pay to keep the paywall down for everyone. Within nine months, 3,000 members had joined. This number tripled in the first few weeks during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

The 2020 pandemic also presented The Spinoff with its largest commercial opportunity: a series of animations released under Creative Commons caught the attention of the World Health Organisation in Geneva, which became a major client, and this attracted other public health agencies to follow suit.

In 2021, it launched Daylight Creative as a multi-disciplinary creative studio, dubbed “a spinoff from The Spinoff.”

With a team of 25, it is nearly as big as its parent and specialises in modern editorial forms – bright, accessible longform and shortform writing, podcasts, social video and tiles, data visualisation, documentary, illustration and animation.

About the author, Joon-Nie Lau is Executive Producer/Managing Partner of Factual TV (Singapore) LLP and a Vice-President of the Singapore Press Club.

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