Wait But Why: You do not need $100 million to create a successful online publishing brand

Wait But Why

I wrote a German version of this article which can be found here.

Any discussion about the status quo and future of journalism these days will almost guaranteed feature Buzzfeed as a central element. In my opinion, there is another, fairly new online media brand which should not be absent in these debates: Wait But Why. This is a site that probably questions more of the established rules and practices of online publishing than any other outlet.

In March 2013 I read this Fast Company profile about Wait But Why, which was the first time that I actually became aware of what’s going on there. Until that point I had stumbled upon a couple of articles published on Wait But Why, but never realized what kind of exceptional media company Wait But Why actually is.

What makes Wait But Why so special in my eyes and a total outlier in the world of digital publishing is the complete forgoing of quantitative criteria. Since March Wait But Why has only published five pieces of content. Three long form articles, among them this extensive and entertaining piece about Elon Musk, as well as two shorter texts, called “Minis”. That’s it. The radical focus on few, often comprehensive posts about highly engaging yet complex topics is part of the Wait But Why philosophy, not a consequence of lack of resources. Although the resources are limited, since all texts are contributed by the site’s co-founder Tim Urban. His colleague Andrew Finn is in charge of the business aspects, his sister Jordan Urban supports the duo with editing and comment moderation.

“New posts every sometimes” is the catchy slogan accompanying the Wait But Why logo. I love that concept. Wait But Why breaks with a paradigm that basically never was questioned by any publishing outlet. While newspapers and magazines follow their usual publication schedule, no matter whether there are enough interesting stories to tell about today, pretty much all online media companies follow the motto “the more content, the better”. The idea is that even if not all content is equally well-researched and relevant, in the end each article increases the number of page impressions and search engine visibility. Even Buzzfeed is following this formula. Its highly praised founder Jonah Peretti is eager to experiment and to question many of the industry’s conventions. But he sticks to the quantity principle nevertheless. That’s why Buzzfeed’s homepage looks the way it does.

At Wait But Why, things are done in a different manner. Tim Urban publishes a new article once he has finished one. And since some of his pieces can easily comprise many thousands words (the Elon Musk consists of roughly 6500 words), sometimes weeks can go by without a new article. But that unusual approach has not hurt the reader growth: According to Fast Company, Wait But Why reaches 1.6 million unique users a month who generate 4.6 million page impressions. The total since the site’s launch in early 2013 is 31 million unique visitors and 87 million page impressions. Wait But Why pulled that off with less than 100 published articles. More than 200.000 have liked the site on Facebook, more than 130.000 have subscribed to the email that informs them about a new text. Most articles are highly viral. According to the Wait But Why share counter, the Elon Musk text had been shared almost 20.000 times through Facebook, Twitter and email. That’s pretty phenomenal.

Obviously comparing Wait But Why to Buzzfeed is somewhat misleading. Buzzfeed says that it reaches more than 200 million people a month with its content (both on its own site as well as through native “distributed content” on social networks). However, there is a big parallel between both sites: Both reinvent publishing for the digital age with unconventional strategies and by simply ignoring the dogmas of the industry. Even if the results could not be more different from each other.

Buzzfeed is about speed, size, masses of content, costly experiments, interactivity and multimedia, a huge editorial staff, heavy advertising campaigns with million Dollar clients, as well as a constant will to try out new things. Wait But Why does everything exactly the other way round. Its characteristics are slowness, smallness, precision and focus, quality and a refusal to publish journalistic “junk food”.

Wait But Why might have become the smallest general-interest, quality-focused online publishing brand that reaches millions of people. I write “might” because there is always a chance that somewhere something similar exists. But certainly Wait But Why is among the very few that have achieved this kind of reach with in comparison a very little number of articles.

From how I see hit, a couple of strengths made this success possible: A talent to write, an intuitive understanding for what readers like and share aside from clickbait and the mostly non personal pieces published by the traditional media, a devotion to constant learning about new topics (to cover) and of course stamina. Writing a 6500 word piece without producing a super boring text that nobody enjoys reading is quite a skill and requires an incredible amount of self-discipline and self-motivation. Monetization on the other hand does not seem to be such a big challenge for Wait But Why. If you have millions of visitors but no staff, revenue from merchandising and e-books can be sufficient and bootstrapping is the way to go. There has never been an announcement about a financing round.

Based on what Urban and Finn have achieved, it is clear to me that they are exceptional at what they do. They possess a certain skill set which is rather seldom. However, I do not think that their success is impossible to replicate by others. I hope Wait But Why will be an inspiration to some. It definitely broadens the industry observer’s horizon about what is possible in digital publishing. Wait But Why proves that very few people and very little content can be enough to have a major impact. It also proves that you do not need $100 million in venture capital to create a high-reach publishing brand within a bit more than 2 years. This is the beauty of the Internet.

2 comments

  1. Just stumbling upon this neat little summary, now. Thanks for comparing the two sites so thoroughly. I think you’re right about Wait But Why inspiring other similar sites. I’d put The Great Everything up there too – it’s kind of a mix of Wait But Why (on ‘life’ topics) and Brain Pickings (on ‘culture’ topics). You might like it.
    I also see people being more detailed even in their Facebook posts now. It seems the obsession with short snappy superficiality is on the wane :)

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