Making tech human: The Memo's Alex Wood on why there's more value in a smaller audience

 
Will Railton
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I feel we’re going against the grain of other publishers at the moment, says Wood

"Apple announcements aren’t exciting anymore,” says Alex Wood, the journalist and entrepreneur behind tech website The Memo.

Not only is the tech titan failing to launch products and software which are more eye-catching than those which preceded them, Wood thinks that consumers are tired of technology being presented to them as an endless chronicling of operating system updates by the tech media, without explanation of how these will impact their personal and working lives.

In a crowded industry, with the likes of Wired, TechCrunch and Ars Technica to compete with, it is difficult for challengers to establish themselves. But the Memo’s success has exceeded Wood’s expectations, notching up 500,000 unique monthly users, thanks to a combination of canny positioning, native advertising and a focus on fostering a community of loyal consumers.

Positioning

“I feel we’re going against the grain of other publishers at the moment,” says Wood. Rather than chase every new tech development and churn out product reviews, the Memo puts out just six articles a day, on average, and takes a different theme every month and explores how technology is changing its landscape.

“There are loads of startups in the food delivery space. What does that mean for more traditional retailers? Does that mean we’re not going to go to the supermarket anymore? Are we just going to get the HelloFresh’s of this world to deliver us their ration boxes?”

Wood thinks it unwise to compete with scale publications. “We play on Apple News and Facebook, but one of our core products which I was keen on from the beginning is a daily newsletter.

“The value at the heart of any publication is its community. We’ve seen so many of the larger organisations base their business model on mass scale, in the faith that, provided that they get 100m unique users each month, all the figures will add up for Google Ads. We’ve decided to have a smaller audience which we can know a lot better, and is much easier to sell against.”

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The Memo asks only for the email of its newsletter subscribers, and uses software from GoSquared which scrapes Twitter, LinkedIn and other publicly available data on the social web. “We can use that information to tell brands that we have over 1,000 chief executives and managing directors in our subscriber base, which is a more appealing sell.”

Monetisation

Wood respects the idea that editorial and sales must remain separate. “But too few journalists are commercially aware,” he says. “It’s not a lifestyle business.” It is perhaps this pragmatism which has allowed him to seek ways for advertising to intrude as little as possible on the user’s experience.

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The Memo’s website is free to access, but Wood puts an emphasis on hosting events to foster a sense of community within a smaller audience. Before now, he says, events held by tech publications have always had a corporate focus. “We want to do an event where you can bring your family, try virtual reality headsets and speak to film-makers. That is much more relatable than simply presenting the latest headset from HTC.”

Although the site carries banner ads, Wood is trying to make the Memo’s advertising as native as possible. Every third story in the newsletter is sponsored content, and Wood plans to partner with firms like PwC, which would use the Memo to publish notes around innovation, startups and other areas of business and management, in a way which boosts their profile with the public.

The firm is also partnered with Reuters Insider, a platform which takes video from publishers to place alongside its wire copy stories. “It’s a way for us to access an interesting audience, and Reuters gets more rich content alongside its articles.”

Read more: As social media gets better at monetising, what can marketers expect?

Expansion

Quite by accident, says Wood, the Memo has attracted a large US following, which now accounts for 25 per cent of its traffic, and Wood is now in the middle of a fundraising round to start operations in New York. “We’ll be repeating tactics we used here in the UK. TV and radio appearances are a big one. Every time we’ve been on CNN, for example, we’ve seen an uplift in traffic.”

Why New York, not Silicon Valley? “Silicon Valley is not a normal consumer base,” he says. “It has bonkers, world-changing ideas, but New York is closer to London. You get a collision of technology with expertise from different fields like design, marketing and other industries.”

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