How PoetsandQuants.com has changed business school coverage
Before starting his own company, Byrne was executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. He was responsible for the editorial operations of BusinessWeek.com.
Byrne had rejoined the magazine in August 2005, after serving as editor-in-chief of Fast Company magazine. Prior to joining Fast Company, he worked for BusinessWeek for nearly 18 years, including holding the position of senior writer and writing a record 58 cover stories for the magazine.
In 1991, Byrne was named a National Magazine Award finalist for his BusinessWeek cover story, “Are CEOs Paid Too Much?” Several of his stories have been finalists for the prestigious Loeb Award and have been published in collections of the Best Business Stories of the Year.
C-Change Media’s other websites are Poets & Quants for Execs, Poets & Quants for Undergrads and Tipping the Scales, which covers law schools.
Byrne spoke Monday with Talking Biz News by email. What follows is an edited transcript.
What has been the most surprising thing to happen since you started your operation?
For someone who spent his entire career working for others, the biggest surprise is how much I’ve enjoyed building something on my own. It’s been liberating and humbling to build a business from scratch where just about every business decision has a financial impact. I felt this most acutely only a couple of weeks ago when I hired two new full-time people who started work last Monday — a general manager and an executive vice president of corporate sales and marketing. But it has been exciting to see the business grow and succeed and to learn from the mistakes I’ve made.
If you told me when we started that I would be sending a reporter to China to do reporting for us, I would have said you’re crazy. But last month, we sent our managing editor — Ethan Baron — to Shanghai for a week to do a number of stories on the MBA in China. And we’ve been able to do a number of investigative series on everything from the growth of MBA admissions consulting to how the H1-B visa mess has impacted international students who come to U.S. business schools.
When did you first become profitable?
We were cash flow positive within three months and profitable in the first year. I think it’s because I had the chance to run Businessweek’s online operation and had a sort of apprenticeship in digital media as a result. And then I combined that knowledge with an area of editorial coverage I knew a lot about.
I started Businessweek’s rankings of business schools way back in 1988, built out our editorial coverage of this area as management editor, including the writing of guidebooks, and then worked closely with Bob Arnold to launch BW’s online business school community in 1994 when the magazine went online with AOL.
So I had the advantage of knowing enough to be dangerous. And it’s also a content area I am passionate about. I strongly believe in higher education and think the MBA is one of the most valuable graduate degrees a smart, ambitious person could ever have. Business education is also something of a window on the world of business: it’s global, it’s being disrupted through technology, it’s highly competitive, and it’s important.
How big is your editorial staff?
We have four full-time writers and one part-timer, along with a half dozen freelancers we regularly work with. We now have two people on the business side.
What are your growth plans going forward?
Five years into it, our first website — PoetsandQuants.com — is still growing at a fast pace. Last year alone, our page views on the site increased 44 percent. We reach every corner of the globe, from small villages in India to the Vatican. We’ve had well over 51 million page views since our start with more than 300,000 uniques per month.
Our core demographic are the best and brightest MBA applicants to the best business schools in the world. Based on our analysis, we now reach on a monthly basis 85 percent of the active applicant market to the world’s top 100 business schools.
We’re now building a greater emphasis on outcomes, the kinds of jobs MBAs get, the industries in which they work, the compensation they receive, and what corporate recruiters really look for in ideal MBA candidates. This coverage serves the applicant as well as the student.
We now have four websites, a digital magazine, a print book division, and optimized websites for mobile devices. We cover business and law, but will ultimately expand into med schools and engineering schools. Our next site, however, is devoted to social entrepreneurship and will be called WeSeeGenius.com.
How much reporting do you still do vs. running the business?
I love reporting and writing. There’s rarely a day when I’m not writing or editing for the sites. Truth is, I feel a little lost when I’m not generating story ideas, reporting and interviewing, and writing stories and building charts and tables.
Forbes just got into the school-ranking business. Why is this such an attractive editorial area?
To get an MBA degree is a major life decision. Most people who want to get the degree forgo two years of income — and they are already making between $50,000 and $85,000 a year — and have to spend $120,000 in tuition. The total cost of the degree is probably the second biggest expense someone will make after the purchase of a house. So people who consider taking the jump spend a lot of time researching the degree to insure they are making the right choice.
How competitive is coverage about business schools?
Very. Besides the majors, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, The Economist, and U.S. News & World Report, all of which have dedicated staffers on this area, you also have schools producing a lot of content to directly reach an audience and you have everyone from admission consultants to GMAT prep companies pumping out stuff.
The secret of our success has to do with writing for the audience and generating unusual and creative editorial. Having been a part of the old media world for so long, I know that few journalists write for the readers. More often than not, they write for themselves and each other. They write what they are interested in—not what their readers need and want to know. That provides a big opening for us.
And obviously the content produced by schools and admission consultants is largely the regurgitation of news releases and pretty self-serving. We have a fanatical focus on being responsive to our readers. The stories are the camp fires around which we cultivate deeper conversations.
And we tell it like it is, with analysis, context and interpretation. That’s why a recent third-party poll showed that our own ranking of the best MBA programs is now more trusted than the more established rankings by the FT, Businessweek, The Economist or Forbes.
Do you see your company getting into coverage of non-education business topics?
When I was thinking about launching C-Change Media, it was really going to be a Huffington Post for business, with about a dozen specialized sites all rolling into a major, full-coverage business site. I was talking with people from Fortune and Forbes and thinking of doing a Crosby, Still Nash supergroup of business journalists running this Huff Po for business. I imagined a site on doing business in China, another on disruptive business models, and another on business education, which is where I started.
But when PoetsandQuants really took off, I pivoted away from that idea to a company based on higher education for professionals.
That said, the new site on social entrepreneurship is less about education and more about giving social entrepreneurs the tools to and inspiration to have a bigger impact on our world. But I very much doubt I would do much more that doesn’t have to do with higher ed.
Can you give me some estimates on your visitors and page views and how that traffic has grown?
Sure. We’re doing more than 300,000 monthly uniques and about 1.4 million page views a month on the main site. July was the 20th consecutive month of year-over-year record traffic. Last year was a breakout year in many ways, with traffic growing by 44 percent. Let me put it this way: In 2013, Poets&Quants had three months of 1 million plus traffic. Last year, every month was well over 1 million. Our Google referrals alone were up 57 percent last year
As big a story as the growth is, the bigger story is the quality of our audience. This is all pure organic traffic, with no tricks, stupid slideshows, or sensational coverage. The people who use the site are from the major feeder companies and universities. This is an already affluent audience of college graduates, many already with master’s degrees. They are deeply engaged in the world and with business.
You seem to get most of your revenue from advertising. Have you explored other revenue options?
Not really, though I have been thinking of introducing a metered paywall. Most of our coverage is exclusive and no one is doing the analysis of rankings and stats the way we do. So someone who is serious about going to a top business school is getting a lot of value from our coverage, value they can’t get anywhere else.
I’m fairly confident that we could start charging readers for access to our premium and proprietary content and reach a level of penetration here that vastly exceeds the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, largely because of how unique our coverage is. We’ll see.