The XO Group recognized that, in order to meet the changing needs of its readers, it was going to have evolve its brand beyond a traditional media company and into a full-fledged technology business.
Founded in 1996, XO Group is best known for The Knot, a website, print publication and mobile app that serves as a wedding planning resource for engaged couples. Building upon The Knot’s success, XO Group has since expanded its focus to become a destination for readers seeking insight on significant life milestones, from parenthood to homeownership: Its roster of brands includes The Bump for expectant parents, The Nest for aspiring homeowners and Gigmasters, an event service company. Driven by its growth, XO Group recently underwent a holistic overhaul, which included everything from appointing new leadership to changing its website infrastructure and the operation of its core teams.
The transition was led by CEO Mike Steib, who was appointed by in 2014 for his tech-minded sensibility, as well as his background in strategy and product development at Google and NBC. Together with the executive team, Steib has spent the last three years transitioning XO Group from an editorial group to what the company describes as a technology company, by integrating new products and apps that open new revenue streams.
The Knot — which reportedly reaches 8 out of 10 engaged couples in the U.S. and has serviced a combined total of more than 25 million couples to date — was XO Group’s first focus in the revamp. Over the course of the last two years, the company has identified ways to not just serve up advice on wedding planning, but also to connect readers directly to the resources they need in order to sign contracts with venues, florists, caterers and bands. It also includes an e-commerce feature, where users can shop directly for items like wedding favors and stationery.
“Our users think about us as the first place to go for inspiration and planning needs, but we were, in a sense, leaving them at the altar,” said Dhanusha Sivajee, XO Group’s evp of editorial and marketing. “We weren’t helping connect them with services and vendors, and that’s what really spoke to our transition over the last couple years: creating a truly two-sided marketplace.”
As a result, The Knot has an established network of 250,000 local wedding professionals across the U.S. XO Group monetizes by providing customized templates for the request-for-proposal process, in which brides and grooms-to-be inquire about company’s services. If vendors are contacted through this platform, it counts as a qualified lead. XO Group monetizes by charging vendors a subscription fee that gives them access to resources and enhances their visibility across the XO sites, including a more detailed company description, photos, videos and external reviews of services.
Sivajee said an increasing percentage of XO Group’s readers across each of its brands has moved to mobile, leading to a focus on optimizing its existing app experience, as well as developing new apps. For The Bump, XO Group recently created a The Bump Pregnancy Tracker, an app that assists women through each day of their pregnancy and uses 3D technology to estimate the size of the baby. The app has a collective five-star review on the iTunes store and 4.5 stars on Google Play, which also includes more than 11,000 reviews.
Sivajee — who came from a traditional media background, with stints at Bloomberg and AOL — said editorial is still the group’s core offering, only now it’s more driven by content marketing. In response, the edit group has started liaising with both the product and marketing teams. As such, it works to include mentions of XO Group products and vendor partners into written pieces, and focuses on optimizing discovery on social media and search engines. (For example, a writer working on a story about bridal party tips for The Knot will likely link out to suggested vendors or to the XO Group’s registry aggregator product.)
Of course, XO Group isn’t the only media company turning to commerce as a vital means of driving revenue. Take recent efforts by publishers like Bustle, which launched a partnership with Amazon that links to products within stories in exchange for cuts of the sales, or New York Media’s The Strategist, a vertical that shares sponsored product recommendations on everything from the best leggings to dorm room suggestions for the Generation Z set. Among publishers in the digital age, finding new ways to make money beyond the traditional advertising sphere is par for the course.
In essence, the XO Group hopes to use its diversified products to guide couples through life stages. This starts with a new company mindset and way of working, said Sivajee. A major priority for her has been instilling a refined sense of value and fostering collaboration across all of XO Group’s teams.
“If you can bring edit, marketing and product together to really think about the users’ needs, that’s when you win,” she said. “That’s when you’re successful. It’s a challenge, but a good challenge. You don’t see those three working together [often], but we’re bringing it all together to create one unified product experience.”
Photo courtesy of The Knot and Judy Pak Photography