Liquor.com's Scott Kritz: The Formula for Building Wildly Successful Media Brands

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You don’t need any magic to create wildly successful digital media brands. There’s a simple formula that works…  -Scott Kritz, Executive Vice President of Liquor.com

What will you be drinking in 2014 – and how will you share it? Liquor.com knows. An expert guide to all things cocktails and spirits, the site features exclusive stories from industry insiders on the finest spirits, the world’s top bars, the newest drink trends and, of course, tasty cocktail recipes.

Scott Kritz, the EVP of Audience Development at Liquor.com, knows a thing or two about growing a media business too – having cut his teeth at the laddie mag FHM and then spending time working on growth and audience development for Bleacher Report. At Liquor.com he's been part of partnerships on the media front that have helped the company grow to the largest cocktail culture media site in the world.

Liquor.com is also a new Say Media content partner so we took the occasion to check in with Scott (pictured above, left) about how you scale a media business, what readers really want, and how Liquor.com's editorial can help a brand break out or get noticed.

You mentioned that your specialty is organically growing digital media audiences qualitatively and quantitatively through smart partnerships, content strategy and growth hacks. Can you give us some examples of what you mean by each of those? You don’t need any magic to create wildly successful digital media brands. There’s a simple formula that works: great content, great design, great delivery channels and people who will vouch for you. Those “vouchers" are early-adopter readers and other respectable media brands who you pull into the fray as a partner because you have content, audience or something else they want that they don’t have—and vice versa, of course. That doesn’t change as you grow, either. When you scale to many millions, like we did at FHM, Sony’s Crackle.com and Turner’s Bleacher Report (my alma maters), the same’s always true. If you can get readers and other great media brands to tell people you’re awesome—because you are—everything else falls into place. And the next thing you know, you’re speaking to 30 million people a month.

At FHM, Bleacher Report and now Liquor.com, our secret sauce to growth has always been all about partnerships with other great digital media brands and platforms. For example, at Liquor.com we “cross-pollinate” audiences with dozens of amazing media partners and friends by distributing curated links to great, relevant content on their sites every single day. Doing this not only helps us grow our media partners’ audiences, as well as our own, but it’s also a fantastic value-add of more great content for our readers to enjoy.

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You cut your teeth on the laddie mag category with FHM and then sports media with Bleacher Report—what did you specifically learn from those experiences that we can see at work at Liquor.com? I've learned that people are excellent—"people" being our readers. They’re interested in really cool, exciting, engaging things. If you listen to them and give them what they want, they’ll love you for it and keep coming back for more. It almost sounds too simple, but it’s not. That’s what works—in any category. Luckily for us with Liquor.com, we've got some of the world’s best editors, writers and celebrity bartenders creating our award-winning content. We have a lot of room to grow into, but I think we’ve been able to cover some amazing ground in our 4 short years as a digital publisher for consumers who want to know more about cocktails, spirits, great bars, entertaining guests at home and socializing. Our work is far from done, though…

How would you describe the Liquor.com reader vs some of the other spirits sites out there? I could tell you that the Liquor.com reader is 25 to 45 years old, loves to travel, eats and drinks well, and consists of an elite group of tastemakers who healvily influence their friends’ purchasing habits—and I’d be painting a pretty clear picture for you—but that doesn’t actually speak to who they are. If you scratch deeper than the surface, you’ll find that the Liquor.com reader is actually quite amazing. To put it simply: they LOVE life. They're not just about "drinking." They’re about being social and excellent. And yeah, they do travel and spend money on luxury goods, but not because they’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. It’s because they value and respect awesomeness. I really love that about our audience!

What's your editorial philosophy for picking products? What makes the cut? Products are meaningless unless they matter to people. Here’s the deal, and it’s pretty simple: Help people with things that matter to them, make the delivery of that straightforward, beautiful and pleasing, and you'll have an excellent product. It’s trivial to say that, but non-trivial to execute it. The same philosophy applies to the spirits brands, tools, cocktail recipes and other products that we write about for Liquor.com—we help people cut through the noise and discover the very best of the best.

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Was there one post or a series of posts that put Liquor.com on the map? We have a bunch, but truthfully, it was a game-changer for Liquor.com when we jumped into video and started shooting our How to Cocktail series. We won a James Beard Award for that show in 2013. In terms of prestige, that’s like winning an Oscar in the food and drink world. When we were nominated by the James Beard Foundation, my mind was totally blown. I actually blew off the awards ceremony because I never thought we’d beat Bon Appétit. Well, I got a call from our CEO and Editor-in-Chief who did go shortly after we won… I could tell you that was bittersweet, but truthfully, it was just sweet.

Besides Liquor.com, what are some of your other all-time most interesting posts or products? At FHM we tapped into social media early and leveraged Myspace as a growth and engagement channel for the brand. This was shortly after Friendster’s "fall from grace" and just before Facebook was anything substantial. Being FHM, we thought it would be pretty awesome to find the most interesting, beautiful “girl next door” on there. We launched this vote-based thing called “Digital Darlings” and we saw something like a couple dozen votes a minute for several weeks straight. It was an exercise in scaling servers. There were literally people writing scripts that would try to vote for one of the 100 girls involved every second… of every day… for several weeks. That was amazing. But at Crackle.com, we also tried to do this show called the Signature Series where this very lovable host Marc Horowitz visited cities across the country in his R.V.—in a path across highways that spelled out M-A-R-C on the U.S. map—in an attempt to show the ethos and charm of small town America. He’d show up in random cities like Nampa, Idaho, to get the locals to engage in wacky social experiments like creating the city’s first anonymous semi-nudist colony. Call me crazy, but I thought that would be a wild hit. It wasn’t. There is a science to virality, but even science fails sometimes.

How do you like to work with brands? How can Liquor.com help a brand break out or get noticed? Liquor.com is hyper-vertical, but with a very strong emphasis on lifestyle—afterall, drinking well is as much about taste as it is about status and social life. So focusing heavily on how cocktail culture intersects with great food, fashion, travel and music is really important to our audience. Because of this, what we’re able to do for advertisers is pretty special. First off, because we’re a content-driven platform with a multi-channel approach—Web, email, social, mobile, local, live events and a huge content partnership network—we are able to provide 360-degree online/offline campaigns that hit on all the elements that are important to a marketer. Moreover, when we run spirits and lifestyle-oriented campaigns it’s not like most traditional advertising: we allow it to become additional spirits content for our readers, often with cool lifestyle, food, style and travel angle tie-ins. By doing this, we’re able to generate trust, respect, interest and education for advertisers’ products with our audience. We’ve literally launched new brands on Liquor.com, and helped make them huge. As a publisher, when your advertising has actual value for your readers, it’s pretty damn rewarding—it becomes lot more than just revenue.

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How do you think about the connection between content and commerce? What do readers want? People want awesome, entertaining stuff that’s easy to consume. For content, this means great stuff that’s fun, educational and (in a good way) distracting from the daily monotony. I think many of the items and products we buy serve the same ultimate goal and purpose for us. So how do I feel about content and commerce? I think they should be best friends.

What other men's lifestyle sites would Liquor.com readers appreciate? Any soulmates? It’s actually a misconception that Liquor.com is a men’s-focused brand. We have large reaches across Web, email and social—and some of those people don’t cross over channels—though our audience is pretty evenly split between men and women everywhere. In terms of awesome men’s lifestyle sites that do a great job with content, I love AskMen, Thrillist, UrbanDaddy, Men’s Health, Details and InsideHook. There are many women’s lifestyle sites that take it to the next level, too: Brit.co, PureWow, Refinery29, Bustle and PopSugar do amazing jobs all around. There’s so many others I’m skipping over, too. There’s a lot of great stuff out there in the ether, which is why Liquor.com created DrinkWire—our expert community of a few hundred cocktails and spirits content contributors. There’s an infinite number of amazing digital content producers out there, and we want to make friends and partner with them all. Our brand is all about enjoying life and being social—that extends to our internal culture and all of our partnership philosophies.

How would you finish this sentence: When in doubt pour… a Negroni. It’s delicious and fairly simple to make. If you get stuck while trying to make one, you can always watch Liquor.com’s James Beard Award-winning “How to Cocktail: The Negroni” video!

Scott Kritz & Liquor.com love making new friends. Follow them on Twitter @ScottKritz or @Liquor.

[All photos via Liquor.com]