December 18, 2019
Joining us on the Marketing Mix Podcast is Michael Rothman, Co-Founder & CEO at Fatherly. In this episode, Michael discusses how to life stage market to men, why brands often play an important role in shaping progressive gender norms, and the direct value of SEO and email marketing today. In exploring some of Fatherly’s most successful campaigns, Michael discusses the Letters to Boys franchise with Gillette and the role it played in creating a positive public dialogue around what it means to be a man in today’s world.
Jeff Ragovin: Mike, it’s great to have you on the show. Last year you were named in Adage 40 under 40 - pretty epic! I’ve been following you guys for awhile now and you have been doing an amazing job at targeting dads and men. Can you tell us the story behind Fatherly?
Michael Rothman: Absolutely! For those who aren’t familiar, Fatherly a digital media company for dads. Although it is actually more broadly for parents. The audience is 50/50, male-female, which actually aligns with our macro thesis, which is that parenting is increasingly seen as a shared responsibility.
We even did a study that there’s now I think 10,000 different definitions of what family means in America today. We try to create the biggest tent. We create content on the web, on social, and we have a big email newsletter that goes out every day. We now have the #2 podcast in the country “Finding Fred,” which we’ve produced in partnership with iHeart that’s about the enduring lessons of kindness from Fred a.k.a. Mister Rogers.
I’m not a dad, so it wasn’t like I became a dad and thought, “you know what, this is where I’m at in life right now.” I previously was at a company called Thrillist, which was for young, single people. After marketing to young, single people for the better part of 10 years, that audience was no longer as young and single anymore and they had new needs and resource requirements that were different than when they had disposable income that went to bars and restaurants all the time.
There is a very clear, white space in the market. You have these desktop optimized, web 1.0 sites, like babycenter and webmd, and this vast, longtail of mommy blogs and mommy instagram and there really wasn’t anything that spoke credibly to both parents. We looked to blend journalism and first-person perspectives to help our audience come to conviction on different parenting decisions, product decisions, and try to package it in a fun, accessible way.
Jeff Ragovin: So, let’s talk about the last 3 or 4 years from launching it to where you are today. How did you market to people in this category?
Michael Rothman: We initially just focused on an email newsletter that was our MVP. My Co-Founder and myself are not technical. Having come from Thrillist and having really cut my teeth building an audience around email, it seemed like the logical place to start. Email was also a 1:1 relationship in a moment when social was still very much ascending. I always maintained a healthy degree of skepticism about social and this idea losing direct connection to your audience.
We initially partnered with the 92nd Street “Y” (MCA), which is the oldest parenting organization in New York. They had seen a surge in enrollment among dads and these new parenting workshops, and they had this issue around continuing education. Once these guys took these 8-week courses, what kind of communication would the “Y” have afterwards. We saw that as an opportunity to build this initial group of early adopters. So, we sent a dedicated email to 5,000 people that attended the workshop over the last year and we netted about 500 people. We blended another 250 friends and family, and we had this kernel of about 750 people who received the initial newsletter product. Initially, we didn’t create original content because as part of the MVP, we thought that the issue that we’re trying to solve isn’t that there not enough parenting content on the internet, it’s that there is actually a glut of parenting content. It’s very disaggregated.
We thought in order to minimize complexity for this MVP, let’s focus on packaging the 5 most interesting stories for dads and send it in an email and use that as a way to get signal as to whether the audience actually gets value and utility from this. That email was produced every week. After 6 months, we had 10,000 subscribers. Some of the articles that we had packaged were being picked up elsewhere. We started developing more conviction that there was in fact a void of original ideas in this category, so we started producing original content ourselves until after 12 months, all of it was original. At that point, we also developed a bit more of a sharp voice and POV on the category.
Jeff Ragovin: Do brands now come to you rather than you having to approach them first?
Michael Rothman: It’s a mix of both. We have now worked with 200 out of the Fortune 500 brands. The use case for a marketer is we have this audience of men through this new prism of parenthood. We’ve been able to prove, positively, that a man’s identity as a parent is more emotionally resonant than his identity as a sports fan, or his identity as being a Democrat or a Republican. This new generation of guys publicly self-identify as being dads.
We really wanted to lever on the idea that parenthood was increasingly a part of one’s public expression of their identity. So, marketers will work with us to reach men as dads. They’ll work with us to reach parents because we have an audience that is half male and half female. We have every variation of parent whether it’s multi-generational parents, same-sex parents. We also have marketers that work with us to reach moms because the actual content is much more brand safe. We’re talking to experts, we’re not just providing opinion on something like vaccinations. It’s a very interesting moment to be a guy of a certain age. The definition of what it means to be a responsible dude in the public sphere has changed. I think Fatherly embraces that idea of masculinity.
Jeff Ragovin: From a cultural perspective, gender roles have been changing significantly in the last 10 years. As a brand, how are you guys adapting and helping drive those positive changes?
Michael Rothman: It starts with a mission and an internal culture. Our mission is to empower men to raise great kids and lead a more fulfilling, adult life. Implicit in that mission is this dual purpose of empowering men as fathers and men as guys who now have a responsibility not just to themselves but to their significant other, to their kids, to their community.
From a culture standpoint, everyone who works at Fatherly genuinely embraces that. Any creativity that we have as an organization necessarily emanates from this sense of mission and the culture around that mission. Some of the work that we have done that stems from that. We have this one franchise called Letters To Boys where we’ve roped in artists, authors, athletes all writing letters to the boys in their life about what it means to be a good dude and why it even matters today. We were so impressed by this content that we wanted to blow up these letters and turn them into objects of art that we would hang in a gallery. We ended up partnering with Gillette, who also has a public position about promoting this new progressive idea of masculinity, and we took over a gallery in New York’s Meatpacking District where we hung all these letters to boys from everyone from Common to authors, academics, ordinary people off the street.
We turned that gallery into a physical space in which people off the street or community groups, schools could come and engage in the conversation about what it means to be a good dude. We wanted to make sure this wasn’t just purely performative, that this was truly a space that people can engage in this conversation which is around Father’s Day. What is also interesting about that program is that we’re now turning that content into a book so we can share it more broadly. None of that would be possible without having this mission and this sense of purpose that everybody at the company has.
Jeff Ragovin: Have you faced any challenges along the way when you’re marketing men and dads?
Michael Rothman: This is the most elusive demographic on the internet. Men are notoriously difficult to reach. Men as parents are even more elusive. It’s like that map problem, “I don’t need a map. I can figure it out on my own!” That’s especially the case when it comes to parenting. Guys feel like “I can just wing it” or “I can do my own research.” We’ve actually seen most of our traffic mostly near the entrances to our site are coming from search. We’ve anticipated the mid- to longtail of questions. On one level, that’s more passive marketing. We’re setting the honey traps on the internet.
Jeff Ragovin: What percentage of your traffic is driven by SEO?
Michael Rothman: 65%! Up from 7% from a year and a half ago. We leveraged organic social when the going was good. It really is a way to build upper funnel awareness. Like a lot of other publishers, we benefited from having videos that would regularly eclipse 100,000,000 views.
Jeff Ragovin: You have mom and dad’s consumer content. Your company is named Fatherly and you’re predominantly more towards men, how do you create something that appeals to moms too?
Michael Rothman: The passive marketing that we do to men is through organic search. We market to moms because for every mom that signs up to Fatherly will inevitably get 2-3 additional subscribers. It might be her significant other, her brother, her friend. The behavior that we’ve observed is that women tend to be much more voracious consumers and sharers of parenting content. We’ll actively promote Fatherly to women’s lifestyle sites, other parenting sites and will embrace it because they feel we need to engage men somehow. Fatherly is a beacon for men and it’s a trojan horse into the mom category. In terms of how we market to these different segments, what’s remarkable is that Fatherly still shows up in the same way to moms as well as to dads. The tone might be slightly masculine but it’s pretty non-gendered. What makes it different is that it’s ultimately informed by fact. We’re talking to every researcher under the sun, so we don’t have this problem that of talking to different segments in different ways.
Jeff Ragovin: Thank you for joining the Marketing Mix Podcast.
Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes