Presented as part of the Sustainability, Growth & Ethics panel at the Superscript 2015 conference. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.
Veken Gueyikian is the publisher and cofounder of Hyperallergic as well as the founder of Nectar Ads, the only online advertising network dedicated to visual art and design. With far-reaching professional experience—he has degrees in medicine and engineering, career experience in pharmaceutical and music marketing—Gueyikian launched his latest ventures to ensure that independent and critical voices in the arts have a forum and support.
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today about Hyperallergic. I’m typically behind the scenes doing day to day work of building the business, but I’m glad to be out here telling you a little bit about how we started and what we are working to build.
So I wanted to begin by providing a little bit of background on how and why we started. In 2009, when we were first making plans to start Hyperallergic, newspaper revenues were in free fall and it seemed like new independent blogs were being started daily while the number of major newspapers in the US was decreasing rapidly into the single digits and there was an absolute panic in the media world that professional journalism may not survive.
And around the same time, it seemed like the established art media wasn’t interested in digital publishing at all. The art magazines were funded primarily by gallery ads that didn’t translate well onto the web and most were still only interested in reaching an older, wealthier collector audience who were still not really online. And most of them had websites that just repurposed print articles and displayed small logos in their side bars. And on the web the new digital media model promised exposure to their audience but without any payment for their work. There’s still a lot of discussion about how much critics and journalists should be paid or even if they should expect to get paid at all. So back in 2009, my husband, Hrag, had been experimenting with a personal blog that I had set up for him. And almost as soon as he started publishing online he fell in love with the idea of online writing.
Blogging offered him a new way of writing, of organizing thoughts, communicating ideas and making connections. When he had previously written articles for print, there was never any response, no feed back or dialogue, and very little ongoing conversation.
So it was the middle of the recession, and both of us were frustrated by our current jobs. I was working at a corporate ad agency and itching to start something on my own and Hrag was ready to move on from his communications job and was frustrated by all the non-paying writing opportunities that were around and not really interested in writing a traditional 800-word review for market focused art magazines, and so we just decided to build a new site that we could use as a laboratory to explore our ideas. Him with new forms of writing online and me to build a business to support art writing. So like the tech and business blogs had done in the previous decade, we out our idea of what an arts publication could be. And with a few thousand dollars with a WordPress designer we built the first version of the site with the name Hyperallergic and the tag line “sensitive to art and its discontents.” We described it as a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today. We shied away from the predominant academic tone of art writing and expressed strong, clear opinions to create something that we would want to read ourselves. And it was important for us to be independent and challenge existing ideas, experiment with new forms of writing and ways to activate communities and for me in particular, new ways to create a sustainable business model for art writing.
This is what the site looks like today. We strive to champion the voices of the powerless and push for social and economic justice with a multicultural world view. We champion visual storytelling.
And we integrate social media and understand that it is an important place to share, communicate and offer insights into ideas. We publish breaking news and always integrating an arts perspective.
Which is many times then picked up by other media outlets. We publish reviews both experimental and traditional reviews that go in depth. And influential opinions that lead art world discussions on current topics.
When we started to build our audience, we organized events where we could meet our readers and where they could meet each other in real life. In the beginning when they were smaller, we had them in our office in Brooklyn, as you can see here, and as they grew bigger, we moved to other spaces like this one from last year that drew 800 people to a factory in Queens. And we also partnered with museums and other arts organizations to co-host events in their spaces.
So how did we make all this happen? We started Hyperallergic with the goal of trying to build a sustainable platform that could support high quality writing about art and culture and push the boundaries of what that could be. So having the flexibility, independence and control over every aspect of the project were really important to everything that we did. We wanted the autonomy to challenge the status quo and to resist the influence of power and money in the art world and to create a publication that was committed to paying writers for their work, that valued writing as creative act as much as the other forms of art that we were writing about, and we knew that all these things would require revenue.
And while many people in the art world have been saying for years that there’s no money in online publishing, I was married to a writer so I had a lot of motivation to figure it out.
So what does it mean to be sustainable? During the first year of the company, we looked at all sorts of revenue streams and were excited to experiment with all of them.
We knew advertising would be a part of the mix, but we were also interested in exploring subscriptions, events, books, apps and many other ideas that we were throwing around at the time. One thing, though, we were never really interested in was trying to make money directly by selling artwork, or by taking an investment that would inevitably steer us towards the market where most of the money in the art world is made and we chose a for-profit model because we felt it aligned best with our goals of being an independent sustainable company that could earn revenue directly from our audience instead of what we did or did not publish. And to be sustainable, we knew we needed to continue growing by earning the loyalty and satisfaction of our readers, our sponsors and all of our partners.
So we started with advertising and which seems like the easiest to experiment with. And soon we added other types of revenue as we went along. When we started we really thought a lot about what it meant to be an ad-supported publication, specifically in visual art. Could we make online advertising more transparent and work for both readers and art organizations? How could we insulate our editorial from sponsor influence? Could we use advertising to create positive change in the art community or support organizations we believed in? And could we work with sponsors that shared or mission to grow the audience for art?
At the same time, we also knew that expecting charity from sponsors who would buy ads merely to support writing was never going to be sustainable, nor would it be scalable.
And this approach to advertising was very difficult at first. Most of the arts organizations that we were working with at the time in 2010 had never advertised online before. I had to spend a lot of time educating and talking through them about the process, teaching them about impressions and CPMs and click-through rates. And how to create campaign packages with fixed budgets that ran on a monthly schedule so it would match up with their print magazine, both the concept of what an ad is an their budgets.
But it seemed to work and more and more sponsors began to move their advertising online.
Online advertising can often be ugly, annoying, and sometimes even offensive. It’s often considered an interruption. So we thought we could do better and we thought we would need to do better if we were going to avoid the race to the bottom that plagued online advertising at the time. So we try our best to serve as a space that is relevant, respectful and beautiful. We want advertisers to find their ads. We avoid ads that target only the wealthiest part of the art world and we work with art sponsors to run campaigns that address their marketing goals. We really try and understand what they need and how we can help by reaching out and interacting and engaging with our audience.
We work with museums and nonprofits to increase awareness and engagement of an exhibition, a performance, an event, or a conference. We rally support for nonprofits that are looking to raise their profile. We inform artists, writers, or creators about opportunities like residencies, exhibitions, contests, or grants, and motivate them to improve their skills or expand their horizons through education.
And also help professional services build their audiences and reach potential clients. And even work with major brands looking specifically to reach our audience and raise awareness of an art focused project.
At the same time when we were building a community with sponsors, we really felt it was important to build a community, a broader community of—sorry, in addition to building a community of readers and sponsors, we wanted to extend our reach by supporting a broader community of independent voices in the arts and so about a year after we started Hyperallergic, we joined forces with like-minded sites like Rhizome and art F city. We provide sales support to smaller publishers who typically couldn’t afford to do it on their own and we help contribute to their funding of other operations.
So this is what we did. So we work with building four different communities and how it works is we knew we had to provide value to each individual community individually, and together. For the system to work. We started with one writer and a small audience and sold our first ads for $300 a week. We reinvested that money into more writers, continued to grow our audience which in turn created more demand from sponsors who wanted to reach audience and more funding for writers. And we’ve been working through this cycle for the last five years, slowly but surely constantly growing.
And it’s working. This year we have 9 full-time employees of Hyperallergic, 6 of them are writers and editors and we are, working with 11 art publishers who reach over 4 million people per month and many more on social media. We have published over 500 writers on Hyperallergic since we started and continue to increase our freelance rates every year. We’ve built a community of over 500 sponsors that readers welcome and love to hear from but that has no influence over our editorial. And as one of the most important ways that we measure our success, in the last year we’ve paid out to almost $300,000 to Nectar Ads, affiliated publications, and $75,000 to freelance writers and hope to support them even more as we continue to grow. As you can see here, it’s been a long, steady climb over the first five years, but we are confident and excited that this trend will continue and will keep working every day to build a stronger and stronger company that can be a home to readers, writers, publishers and sponsors. Thank you.
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