Is There Such Thing as a 'Men's Media Company' Anymore?

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The newsroom at Inverse, which aims to cover passion points for men without pandering.
The newsroom at Inverse, which aims to cover passion points for men without pandering. Credit: Jack Crosbie/Inverse
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Some of the digital media brands most associated with men are starting to either broaden their focus beyond traditional bro content or clean up their act a bit, all the better to attract readers of all genders and play nice with much-coveted advertisers.

It seems that few brands these days really want to be seen as being for men, which is notable considering that a bunch of blatantly female-focused publications -- Bustle, Broadly, Lenny Letter, Motto, among them -- have arrived over the past few years. (One notable example is Beta Male, a New York magazine popup blog that attracted some internet ire along with a solid readership.)

Thrillist Media Group, for example, is often described as being for millennial men. But the company would like to change that perception. "Over the last year or so, Thrillist has been shifting beyond being a solely male-focused media brand," a spokeswoman told Ad Age as she declined an interview request for an article about men's media.

Where the company earlier this year described its obsession "with helping guys live fun lives" and telling "guys how to best spend their time and money across the lifestyle categories they care about most," its self-description now says, in part, "We're eaters, drinkers, travelers, and doers." The word "guys" no longer appears. Earlier this year, Thrillist's homepage had a prominent button to access a "Sex & Dating" section, but now it's housed in a larger "All Sections" tab, as part of a redesign.

Charlie Fiordalis, chief digital officer for independent media agency Media Storm, framed Thrillist's shift as part of a larger industry trend. "I think media planning as a whole is evolving from demo to mindset," he said in an email. "For Thrillist, the proposition is shifting from targeting young men toward targeting people engaging with content about eating, drinking, having fun and doing (to use their language). … In Thrillist's case, the content does have to continue to evolve to meet the new promise, but I'm glad they're defining their brand more broadly."

Elite Daily has also been slowly evolving over the years. "When they started, they were very much a male-focused site," said Dave Nemetz, an early advisor to the site who co-founded Bleacher Report. "As they grew, really fueled by social growth, they obviously became much more female."

Back in 2013, then-CEO David Arabov told Business Insider that Elite Daily's readership was split between men and women. In August 2016, though, women actually made up 69.5% of the audience, according to ComScore data on U.S. multiplatform unique visitors.

According to an April 2016 study conducted by content marketing agency Fractl, women are 5% more likely than men to share content at least daily on Facebook. "A lot of publishers that really pursued a social-driven growth strategy, going after scale, ended up gravitating, catering, toward a female audience," said Mr. Nemetz, "whether it was implicitly something they did, or happenstance."

Beyond demographics

Even Woven Digital, which publishes brands like BroBible, doesn't describe itself as a dude-centric, though its audience is mostly guys. "We don't wave a flag of, 'We're all about guy content,'" said publisher Jarret Myer. The better bet, he said, is to be a more general, youth culture-focused company.

"I just don't come from the world of marketing to demographics," Mr. Myer said. "If your mission is to really touch someone's life, boiling that strategy into demos doesn't really feel like the way you're going to accomplish that."

By looking beyond just men, publications can increase the number of potential readers, and can sell that additional scale to advertisers. Media companies that were once only able to partner with brands interested in selling to men could, by broadening or de-bro-ing, potentially open themselves up to new deals. And, of course, by cleaning up a site's "frat boy" image, it might become more palatable to media buyers and clients, according to one editor. There's a risk, though, of watering down a passionate, specific audience, or trying to be something a site is not.

"I'm always skeptical when I hear about media companies shapeshift themselves to grab ad dollars," said Erika Nardini, named this summer as CEO of guy safe space Barstool Sports.

Ms. Nardini said Barstool, which has a tagline of "By The Common Man, For The Common Man," has no plans to change that focus.

Ben Kunz, senior VP-marketing and content for media buying agency Mediassociates, suggested that some male-focused companies might have realized that women control the majority of spending in the U.S. "This is likely why the influx of 'laddie' magazines in the late 1990s failed a decade later, and perhaps why Playboy has killed nudity to focus more on quality articles," he said over email.

(Playboy also had to contend with the rampant availability online of what was once its core differentiator: nudity.)

Modern men

Michael Rothman, an early Thrillist employee and the founder of the millennial-dad focused Fatherly, acknowledged the need to toe this line -- to try to reach a specific demographic without turning off other demographics. "We wanted to make the content masculine, but not overly male-skewing, because women, at least in our category, are still the primary source of content discovery for parenting content," he said.

There's also a consensus that the average male reader has evolved. "Right now, if you want to reach guys in 2016, you need to be smart and progressive," said Mr. Myer. "If your approach to building your brand is putting a naked Kim Kardashian or Margot Robbie on your cover, that feels really far from the cusp of progressive culture, and pretty played out to me."

While that comment can fairly be read as a jab at traditional men's magazines, as well as raunchier "lad mags," two editors in the space seemed to agree that today's man is a more modern one.

GQ Editor Jim Nelson said readers "have grown more sophisticated," and are now clamoring for content about fashion and interior design, for example, topics that might once have been off-limits for a men's magazine.

Michael Mraz, who oversees the digital properties of Hearst's magazines aimed at men, such as Esquire, said the magazine's audience "is still very much more men," but he argued the space has changed. "It's just a much more inclusive and interesting version of what a man is that we're reflecting now," he said.

Men's magazines, he said, used to provide a set of "rules" for guys to follow -- "You have to read these books to be a man, you have to drink this drink to be a man" -- but that's no longer the case. "There are no rules," he said. "There are just voices."

Not everyone agrees. Matt Bean, the new editor of Men's Health, the sibling of Women's Health magazine, is insistent that his magazine is squarely for guys. "Men have never needed men's magazines more than they do right now," he said. "What it means to be a man has changed so dramatically, that there's such a need for a trusted voice for men these days."

Sensing that men are underserved on digital properties, Mr. Nemetz, in August 2015, created Inverse, "a next generation digital media startup focused on the future of innovation, science, entertainment, and culture and geared towards millennial men," according to company language. Inverse, on Monday, announced that it raised a $6 million funding round.

Mr. Nemetz said the money will go toward filling out Inverse's staff, with new employees in editorial, sales, audience development, and video. Inverse, unlike a Barstool Sports, is not so explicitly for men -- the words "male" and "men" don't appear on the company's "about" page -- but it aims to cover passion points and interests without having to pander to the cartoonized idea of what men care about. In August, Inverse brought in 4.9 million U.S. multiplatform unique visitors, according to ComScore, about 60% of them male.

"We're definitely trying to modernize the space and refine the category," Mr. Nemetz said. "To reach guys, you don't have to write about booze, babes, and sports. There are a lot of more in-depth, intellient topics that guys are interested in that create opportunities for brands to get involved."

David Yi, a fashion journalist who most recently worked for Mashable and Women's Wear Daily, also plans to jump into the men's media space. On Oct. 17, he plans to introduce Very Good Light, a digital, "social first" brand that will focus on men's beauty, an area he said "a lot of the heteronormative publications" haven't adequately dealt with. "I think that the men's sphere is underserved, and people don't give men the attention they are craving right now," he said.

While he praised GQ and Esquire in particular, Mr. Yi said, "These men's publications have not evolved to meet these customers where they're at."