Tim Shore rejects the suggestion that blogTO engages in clickbait.
In a 2020 Reddit AMA, the outlet’s founder cited a definition once offered by The New York Times, which limits the term to headlines that misrepresent the content of an article. However, Shore said, headlines “shouldn’t disclose the full content of the article so that people feel like they can just skim through the headlines and not read anything.”
Hence a few of the ones currently found on blogTO’s homepage: “Toronto cafe known for cute brunches is closing for good”; “Toronto Just Got Weird Coffee Mugs and People Are Already Complaining”; and “A chasm that looks like a portal to hell has just opened up in downtown Toronto.”
In January, Shore sold the site to Moses Znaimer’s ZoomerMedia for $15 million.
On this week’s CANADALAND, Shore sits down with host Jesse Brown to explain the lucrative business of volume-based, click-hunting web publishing:
This is a condensed and edited version of the conversation between Canadaland founder/editor Jesse Brown and blogTO founder/editor Tim Shore.
Jesse Brown: How the hell is your business worth $15 million? For example, what is blogTO’s annual income?
Tim Shore: So, I mean, I can’t get into finance, obviously, because ZoomerMedia is a public company, so I’m not free to really talk about it anymore. What I can tell you is that prior to the acquisition – at least I hope I can say this – blogTO was a profitable business, growing in revenue and viewership, year on year.
Chestnut: Tell me how you make money.
Bank: So the biggest misconception – and there are plenty of them about blogTO – is that content is paid for. If you go to the website, no content is paid. Everything is editorial. People kind of assume that if we write about a local business, restaurant, whatever, they paid us for it. This is not the case. Certainly, if we were to do something that is sponsored – and we do a lot of sponsored stuff on social media – everything is marked and clearly flagged as sponsored content.
Chestnut: People think the articles on blogTO are all paid because you like everything. “Toronto gets a Big Sean pop-up store.” “Toronto gets a Bill Murray day.” “Toronto is having a brunch festival.” “Toronto gets a cheap pie day.” “Toronto is getting a gourmet samosa food truck.” “Toronto is getting a Hawaiian poke restaurant.” “Toronto is getting a funnel cake restaurant.” “Toronto gets a Friends Central Perk cafe.” Toronto always has something great.
Bank: Well, they’re not always great, but they get something done.
Chestnut: Advertisers have never liked hard news: death and misery and social problems. That’s why newspapers had travel sections, food sections, automobile sections. It was a safe place for publicity. When I look at blogTO and dozens of sites – you’re part of an industry that has sprung up – the general tone is cheerful and feels like a celebration of Toronto. And I think it’s a very advertiser-friendly format.
Bank: But you should also appreciate that content that is either strongly positive, or perhaps the opposite, is more algorithm friendly. So you’re going to see more of it in your social feeds.
Chestnut: It’s not just what advertisers want, it’s what people respond to.
Bank: That’s what people react to.
Chestnut: You’re trying to entice people to click on the headline with the exact combination of words that will get the most clicks and accurately reflects what they’ll get on the other end of that click.
Bank: I think that’s fair.
Chestnut: And you’re damn specific about it. Do you do A/B testing?
Bank: We do a lot of testing. We are very analytical. Analytics unfortunately drives a lot of our editorial decisions, as well as how we package content.
Chestnut: Why is this unfortunate?
Bank: Well, because I think there are stories that we haven’t found a way to engage readers with, that we don’t pursue because the analytics are really poor.
Chestnut: What kind of stories are these?
Bank: I mean, like writing about local theater productions, for example. We would like to do more. People don’t read it.
Chestnut: It seems to me that the blogTO story is one where you were locked into this competition on par with the Torontoist, and then you sort of took the lead. And I feel like they said, “Let’s really focus on civic journalism.” And that’s how they screwed up.
Bank: I do not know if it’s how they tried, but yeah, we had a different content strategy than Torontoist. I think the notion of local journalism, when people talk about local media, they make the mistake of always referring to civic journalism, to town hall, to political debates. It’s a very small fraction of what people who live in a city care about. And in fact, many people are not interested in it. They want to know what is happening in their neighborhood. They want to know what this weird thing is, you know, that somebody’s building on the street. They want to know where to eat and what events to go to. There is a huge range of content that people in a city care about. And the idea that it’s all about City Hall is totally, you know, a lie.
Chestnut: Is it just a volume business, for example, more traffic, more money?
Bank: We try to monetize the audience. Eyeballs. So it’s a game where you have to generate traffic. Last year we generated 350 million page views. It’s about 30 million per month. So we try to monetize each of these pages. Regardless of CPMs [i.e., the ad rates, measured as a cost per 1,000 impressions], it’s all about volume. The more impressions you can generate, the more revenue you will generate.
Chestnut: What would be a good CPM for blogTO content?
Bank: I think if you’re making $16 or more, it’s decent.
Chestnut: So for every 1,000 people who see something, the advertiser will pay you $16. I used to blog for Maclean’s, and we’d do a happy little dance if a post reached 10,000 views. How many people does a great article on blogTO reach?
Bank: Our top performing posts on a weekly basis will number in the hundreds of thousands.
Chestnut: Every week.
Bank: Every week. Yeah. These will be our best articles. And I would say that internally, anything below 20,000 is generally not considered a success.
Chestnut: It’s like a long-term science experiment, asking, “What do people want to read?” There is actually an answer to this question. And since you launched the site in 2004, you’ve basically refined and refined…
Chestnut: You know what Toronto wants to read.
Bank: And so, you know, if people are wondering why we’re still writing about Drake, stop reading Drake articles. We write about him because whenever we write about him, it usually works out well.
Chestnut: Have you ever created content knowing that you are lining up a certain sponsor?
Bank: Local publications have now realized that there are certain topics that advertisers like to talk about. And many of them are seasonal. You know, when summer comes around, there’s a whole advertising base that wants to be around content related to the patio or the road trips you can take.
But I want to make sure your audience understands the difference between selling an ad package to an advertiser on, say, real estate content, versus something that would be considered editorial or branded paid content. Over the years we have received a massive influx of requests for this type of content which we have simply rejected outright. In many cases, these advertisers have simply gone to one of our competitors and bought it because they are selling it. So, about a few months ago, we tested the waters by making a small selection of these, primarily for cannabis advertisers.
Chestnut: I’ve always thought, and I think a lot of people think, that website ads are how you make money. Is it true?
Bank: We make money from the website. But in fact, it is not our main source of income. It was, at the time. But, you know, media has evolved, blogTO has evolved, and our audience has evolved.
Chestnut: So what is your main source of income?
Bank: These days, if you don’t follow blogTO on social media and see all of the original content we create on various social media platforms, you really aren’t seeing the whole story. I know people really like to focus on the stories we create, but we have a social media and video team that’s in town every day, creating original content for Instagram and TikTok. We are active on Twitter. We are about to launch two new shows on Snap. Of course, we are on Facebook. There are a lot of things we do on social media that people need to pay attention to.
Chestnut: How do these ads work?
Bank: The interesting thing about social media is that the platforms have been widely developed with sponsored placements built in, and so the audience using these social platforms are used to seeing these sponsored posts. And as a user, if you scroll through your Instagram feed, you’ll see photos and videos clearly marked as sponsored. So we have a very large following on many social media platforms. We were able to successfully monetize this through ongoing sponsored posts for various brands and advertisers.
Chestnut: How is Moses Znaimer?
Bank: We are really looking forward to the relationship. I mean, the thing about Moses is he’s such an iconic figure in the Canadian media landscape [having co-founded Citytv, MuchMusic, etc.]and he’s so passionate about local journalism and local media, which is why we think he’s such a good fit.
Chestnut: And it made you a millionaire.
Bank: Well, you know, it’s… it’s interesting, you know… it’s actually, I would say… I hope… What am I trying to say here?
Chestnut: I do not know. You should just say “Thank you”.
Bank: Yeah. Thank you, Moses. I mean, it’s hard to fathom these days what a site or brand like blogTO could be worth: if they underpaid, overpaid, if both parties got good value. If we do what we plan to do and continue to grow the brand, it should be worth a lot more one day – in which case 15 million will seem like a pretty cheap price.
Screenshot of Shore at ZoomerMedia’s ZoomerPlex ZNews coverage of its acquisition of blogTO.