From the outside-in, MediaTakeOut.com looks a little different than most urban entertainment blogs. But Fred Mwangaguhunga, the website’s founder, says the site was originally created to (and still is) primarily run as a business that fills a void in the online media marketspace.
“It’s not an extension of personality, it’s not a hobby, it’s not some way of expressing myself,” Mwangaguhunga says. “It was always set up as a piece of entertainment for the public.”
Prior to starting MediaTakeOut, Mwangaguhunga ran an online-based laundry business. A limited marketing budget led him to spend all his advertising dollars on blogs, which were cheap at the time. While keeping track of how his own advertisements were performing, Mwangaguhunga noted how quickly traffic and ads were growing within the larger blogosphere without drawing much interest or competition from larger media conglomerates. After selling the laundry business, Mwangaguhunga decided to start his own blog.
Mwangaguhunga originally started MediatTakeOut as a general interest site that covered a little bit of everything in entertainment. He didn’t know exactly how big it was going to get or where it was going to go from there, but depended on marketing data to guide him. He differentiated his operation on the back-end, opting for a customized content management and analytics system that allowed him to track user behavior in more detail than the typical WordPress integration and allow him to scale the business to accommodate growth. The results made MediaTakeOut what it is today.
“On the back-end we could see what stories people liked the most and we would give them more of what they wanted,” says Mwangaguhunga. “For whatever reason the African-American stories were just doing better than the other stories. And so we just provided more and more and more until about a month in we realized let’s just go all the way and make it an urban website, and that’s what we did. We are always actively using that to guide the direction of the site.”
Mwangaguhunga says that MediaTakeOut also separates itself from its competitors by developing a reputation for breaking stories rather than simply telling them or passing them along. Maintaining the standard has required that he manage his operation more like a small newspaper than a typical blog. Mwangaguhunga begins his day at 2am every morning and has a meeting with his staff of four between 3am and 4am to discuss what’s going to be on the site, each of who are required to produce between one and two stories everyday, seven days a week. Despite a relatively expensive cost structure for a start-up blog including; staff, data storage and servers, a proprietary content management system, and custom reporting, MediaTakeOut became a profitable operation after only six months and has remained profitable since. Mwangaguhunga says he owes much of that to previous experience and education, including working for a start-up telecommunications company and obtaining a law degree and MBA from Columbia.
Although Mwangaguhunga’s style of management has allowed MediaTakeOut to eclipse its direct competitors in terms of traffic, he admits that the site earns nowhere near as much in terms of revenue as websites with similar traffic, and even falls behind a number of smaller sites. Mwangaguhunga credits this to a decision he made from the the time the site was launched to keep editorial content completely separate from advertising.
The strategy has provided mixed results. Mwangaguhunga says MediaTakeOut probably lost a lot of advertising dollars to other sites early on. In hindsight, he believes it was still the right decision. However, as a result of his decision to focus on content above all else, MediaTakeOut has become the default source for urban entertainment news among African-Americans, which he believes is what is most important in the long run.
“If you are going to bend your content to the advertiser’s whim, in the short run you are going to get more advertising. In the long run I don’t think that’s the case. The advertisers want nothing more than eyeballs.” “Your main goal as a publisher is to bring eyeballs to the table. In the long run, the more eyeballs you have the more they tend to want them.”
One of the easiest ways to hinder long term viability, says Mwangaguhunga, is to reduce potential future growth and value by doing something that would bring in cash today. He believes that too many online media entities, particularly those transitioning from the print world, tend to do just that by introducing what he refers to as “exotic” revenue models that charge online audiences for content.
“What you’re starting to get are these awkward ways of making it feasible, at least theoretically feasible to do, ” says Mwangaguhunga. “When I hear people coming up with revenue models that would reduce the number of users and somehow increase the number of revenues, those are never attractive models to me. If the other urban entertainment companies decided to charge for their content I’d be very happy for that to happen because MediaTakeOut, as long as I’m here, is going to be free.”
Mwangaguhunga believes that in such an environment, there are two things he needs to focus on to grow his business. The first is consistent innovation in management, marketing, and content delivery.
Mwangaguhunga stresses the importance of getting as deep an understanding as possible for the tone and pulse of the audience, using simple logic to determine if an idea makes sense specifically for the website in question, launching tests and getting feedback on whether or not it works. Mwangaguhunga claims that trying out things before they are in vogue has prevented him from spending time on things that provide little to no value to MediaTakeOut or its audience. He says that the recent boom in social networking components in blogs and online magazines, something Media Takeout tested and abandoned in 2007, is a prime example.
“Whereas everybody is putting social networking components to their websites, MTO tested it in three or four different ways two years ago and recognized that it doesn’t work,” says Mwangaguhunga. “Since then, we see that every new site that comes out has this component. And you never see it work on any site.”
Even more important than innovation to Mwangaguhunga is consistently growing market share by continuing to study and cater to his readers’ interests and leveraging the MediaTakeOut brand through other channels. MediaTakeOut’s first foray into a media channel outside of the internet will be a television program to be launched in the near future. He says it will be the first of a number of steps in putting MediaTakeOut’s popularity on par with the most popular general interest entertainment news outlets.
“I believe that there is a real opportunity for MediaTakeOut to be larger than anyone can imagine right now,” says Mwangaguhunga. “And every step that I take is in that direction.”