SF Innovation Mission Spotlight: NerdWallet

On June 18-20, LMA is leading a regional Innovation Mission in San Francisco that will zoom in on how progressive digital publishers are building loyal audiences and diverse revenue streams. One signature stop is at NerdWallet, a leading personal finance website that helps consumers make informed financial decisions. The company has built a unique business model that includes sponsored products, ecommerce, and content licensing – including with local media partners.

We caught up with Maggie Leung, NerdWallet’s VP of Content, to learn more about the company, and hear what Innovation Mission attendees can expect on the visit.

Q: You certainly know local media well, having held leadership positions at several newspapers. Why did the opportunity at NerdWallet – and in the personal finance vertical – excite you? We’re seeing a lot of growth in content verticals – what are a couple of big lessons or learnings for local media thinking about building vertical content and audiences?

A: I’ve followed business, economics and personal finance since J school. I figured I should know how the world works. Also, I realized that handling your money well (no matter how little you have) gives you flexibility and choices, helps you avoid ending up at the mercy of others. I lacked role models, so I learned about personal finance from newspapers and books. That was empowering. Years later, I saw the potential for NerdWallet to empower countless people. That still gets me super excited. And as someone who follows business news, I knew which industries make money.

Many of us became journalists to help people, to improve the world. That intent is great. In journalism, I learned that trying to serve users or produce content without strong business thinking doesn’t end well. I’ve been super lucky to work with terrific business people at NerdWallet. They helped me learn to think strategically about market opportunities, and to gauge the likelihood of success before we stake significant money. And to know when to call it quits and learn what we can from failing, or when to avoid playing small ball. When you apply that kind of thinking to ideas and initiatives, it depersonalizes them, so you can act logically and avoid letting egos or politics drive decisions.

If you don’t have great BizOps (business operations) people, I’d strongly suggest hiring them. The great ones are crazy valuable. They’ve helped fundamentally change how I gauge opportunities.

The best way to successfully build vertical content and audiences is the same as it’s always been for local media: Figure out who your audience is and what they want to consume. Then figure out where they are and deliver it to them.

Q: There’s a lot of discussion in local media about owning audience, and the relative value of different traffic sources. NerdWallet has invested heavily in SEO as a foundation. Walk us through that decision, and how you’ve utilized search to drive both high-volume and high-quality traffic?

A: We were an unknown startup. SEO was the most effective way of getting in front of users at high volume and at relatively low cost. The cost is still considerable when you produce high-quality content as we do, but it’s low relative to advertising or marketing, for example.

I didn’t take this approach on my own. A lot of talent is behind what we’ve built at NerdWallet. That includes colleagues who blazed our early path, before I joined. They hired me to take content where they couldn’t, because I came from a strong journalism background.

SEO gives us an opportunity to help consumers with real problems. If they are entering a question into Google, they are motivated to find an answer. If we can provide the best version of that answer, we can build trust with an audience that needs our help. SEO isn’t the only way we do this, but it’s the most effective way so far.

All of our teams work together – content, analytics, business, product, engineering and design. NerdWallet is a success because of all our efforts. Some of my coworkers might not put it this way, because they don’t come from journalism, but they all believe in editorial integrity. That’s because they believe in putting the consumer first. A good number of my business colleagues took pay cuts to join because they believe in our mission. At NerdWallet, our journalists don’t grumble about “the business side,” as in newsrooms. We’re building a business together. If we don’t make money, we can’t afford to help anyone. That’s why we’ve been transparent in our advertiser disclosure and stance on editorial integrity, both of which appear all over our site.

Q: I read an article where you talked about how you scaled your content team, and something that jumped out was the idea of viewing content producers as an “investment,” – a source of value – not an expense. This is a different mental model for a lot of media companies. Can you elaborate on this, and how it’s influenced how you’ve built the team?

A: Every role on our content team pays for itself in the value each generates. There are about 80 of us on content now. But we approached it that way early on, because we couldn’t afford headcount otherwise. (We spent years as a bootstrapped business, meaning we had to earn what we spent.) We don’t hold our writers or editors accountable for revenue, of course, because that would clearly violate editorial integrity. But we can calculate the value each adds to our business because we track the value of ranking well in SEO, for example. We know where users come in, what they consume and whether they’re able to make personal finance decisions because of the content we produce. We consider value in their having made a decision – even if the decision is to spend nothing – because we know that trust can lead users back to us in the long run. We think long term. That’s why we invest in quality content and we invest in training and developing our writers and editors.

They’re all domain experts; they cover beats in depth. Like our taxes writer focuses on nothing but taxes. The writer we hired to cover autos came with 16 years of experience at Edmunds. We have writers whom we’ve paid to study and test to become certified financial planners. We value expertise. We value journalism chops. We value longevity.

Q: What is the business model? Is most of your revenue coming from product recommendations and/or affiliate buying? What are other promising opportunities that you envision for NerdWallet?

A: We’re clear about this in our advertiser disclosure on our site: We make money from affiliate relationships. We are equally clear about our editorial integrity. We don’t allow monetization to affect how we cover stories or what we recommend (most of our recommendations don’t produce any revenue for us). Because we’re out to build a trusted brand that outlasts us, we see violating editorial integrity as the equivalent of consuming poison.

Editorial integrity is in NerdWallet’s DNA. NerdWallet’s founders decided that long before I arrived. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have joined. I wasn’t looking to leave journalism to become a marketer, all due respect to my marketing colleagues. (They work on a team separate from our content team. I report to our CEO, unlike at many outlets, where content rolls up into marketing.)

As for promising opportunities, we’re still exploring them. Most of those ideas will die quick deaths so we can get to better ones. We’re not ready to share ideas publicly.

Q: There are opportunities for local media companies to partner with NerdWallet and leverage your deep expertise in the personal finance vertical. Tell us more about how this works.

A: We’re actively signing up media partners that want to run our content at no cost. We’re also exploring the possibility of sharing our revenue with media companies so we can more quickly spread word that NerdWallet is a trustworthy source of personal finance content. We spend a lot of money hiring terrific journalists to cut through complexity and to make personal finance accessible. We want to help as many consumers as possible. This is who shapes our content: www.nerdwallet.com/blog/editor-bios/. Our gatekeeping exceeds that in top newsrooms. I know, because I used to work in them. We imported the best practices of journalism because we believe in those values. That’s why NerdWallet hired me instead of a marketer. And that’s why I hired a team full of top-notch journalists.

Learn more about the SF regional Innovation Mission here.