Three big ideas on adapting — and thriving — through change

The Case:

In 2009, frustrated by the lack and limitation of online art publications, husband-and husband-team Veken Gueyikian and Hrag Vartanian founded Hyperallergic, a digital publication “for playful, serious, and radical perspectives on art in society.” The site, which began as a side project for both men, took several years to achieve financial stability. Five years in, Hyperallergic experienced its first break-even year. And now, the publication is doing better than ever. Gueyikian, Hyperallergic’s publisher, shared that 2021 was their most profitable year by far.

The Stats: 

  • Number of readers with recurring donations: 3,520
  • Increase in ad revenue between 2020 and 2021: 50%
  • Average viewable CPM over past 30 days: $49.67

The Backstory: 

Co-founders Veken Gueyikian and Hrag Vartanian know a lot about the ups and downs of running an online business.

They launched Hyperallergic, a digital art publication, in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession. For the first five years, running the site was a side hustle, a labor of love that they poured time and energy into while working other jobs to help pay the bills.

By 2016, with a growing reader base and ad revenue, the duo was able to pay themselves small salaries, around $24,000, Gueyikian recalls. He credits Facebook, which, during this time publicly vowed to promote “trustworthy” news, as one factor fueling Hyperallergic’s growth. For three years, their audience doubled every year.

“We rode the Facebook wave for a while,” Gueyikian said. And then that wave crashed. 

Between 2018 and 2019, as Facebook stopped heavily promoting news pages, Hyperallergic’s revenue and audience growth stalled as expenses rose. Gueyikian and Vartanian looked for opportunities to rely less on traffic from social media, but “were burned out.”

Then, things got worse. On March 11, 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Within a week, all of Hyperallergic’s advertisers canceled. “We were faced with no revenue,” Gueyikian said. “There were zero prospects.”

Once again, Gueyikian and Vartanian were forced to pivot. This time, they decided to launch a membership program — inviting readers to support Hyperallergic with a recurring member contribution or one-time donation.

The program was successful and, later that year, Hyperallergic joined the Newspack platform. By the end of 2020, the co-founders achieved a level of financial stability that allowed them to finally pay themselves what Gueyikian considers “a normal salary.” 

“It’s a little strange,” he said, laughing. “It feels good.”

The Takeaways: 

How did Hyperallergic do it? Gueyikian offered three tips that have contributed to their financial success.

1. Keep calm, carry on

Gueyikian said that he and Vartanian had been thinking about launching a Hyperallergic membership program “for years,” but had never done it because they were so busy.

Then, in mid-March 2020, COVID-19 hit the U.S., and everything came to a halt — including their advertising revenue. Within days, all of Hyperallergic’s advertisers either canceled their campaigns or put them on hold. 

It was finally time to launch the membership program they’d been dreaming of. Gueyikian said he worked on building the tech to support the program “night and day” for two weeks. They announced the effort on March 30. 

The Hyperallergic co-founders introduced a voluntary payment model with some perks, like members-only newsletters as well as special offers and discounts on the Hyperallergic Store. Within the first year, they raised approximately $400,000 from 5,000 members.

“Our audience supported us at a time when we needed them,” Gueyikian said. “It really saved us.”

2. Be selective

Before long, Hyperallergic’s advertisers returned. Today, their advertising revenue is higher than ever, which Gueyikian attributes to print ads shifting to digital. “There’s less interest in print from everyone,” he said. “The pandemic really shifted everyone’s attention.”

Hyperallergic works directly with art advertisers on premium campaigns. They don’t do any remnant or reduced-fee advertising, or use automated technology for programmatic advertising. “We try to use just a few large, well-designed ads per page. They’re really impactful,” Gueyikian said. 

According to Gueyikian, Hyperallergic charges advertisers “relatively high CPMs,” or the price of 1,000 impressions an advertisement receives — ”anywhere from $50-$80.” 

With the help of tools like Newspack’s ad inserter and advertising labels, Gueyikian has been able to move Hyperallergic ads from article headers, footers and sidebars “directly into the post, in a much more natural way.” He’s also created a custom ad size “that works really well for advertisers,” adding that their average viewable click-through rate is around 50%.

In terms of advertising clients and the ads themselves, Gueyikian said that he’s “pretty selective.” Fittingly, Hyperallergic’s art-focused ads are visually stunning. For the most part, Gueyikian explained, their rates, when compared with generic programmatic ads, help  “self-select the right clients who really want to reach our targeted audience in the right context.”  

Sometimes, though, Gueyikian will turn advertisers away if they don’t align with Hyperallergic’s vision and mission. “Even with a large budget, if it’s not the right fit, it won’t work.”

3. Expect the unexpected 

Between increased ad revenue and the membership program, Hyperallergic experienced its best financial month in March 2022. It’s a big jump from where they were two years prior, when all of their advertisers disappeared in a week.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Gueyikian said. “It’s a little bit of a roller coaster.”

Gueyikian said that he and co-founder Vartanian are being cautious about how to spend their new income. “In the past, when we’ve grown revenue, we’ve always reinvested it back into the company and in growing the team to fuel growth,” he said. “But that was assuming steady revenue growth as well.”

Now, after witnessing many moments that required pivots and a major global pandemic, the co-founders are saving some of their newfound funds to weather the next storm, instead of immediately reinvesting them.

“We are taking this post-pandemic phase to shore up our resources,” Gueyikian said. “We are trying to become a little more resilient financially and by building structures that can serve us long term.”

Hyperallergic recently added two new employees to its staff: one writer and one ad-ops specialist. They’re also aiming to hire two editors in the fall.

“We’re all working so hard,” Gueyikian said, referring to the past few years. “We don’t want to burn out.”

If anything, Gueyikian knows that things will change in the future. But he’s feeling optimistic about having the opportunity to plan for those changes—by setting aside money and creating a more well-rounded staff. 

“It’s nice to be able to think long-term and do the work in a more proactive way, planning for the inevitable bumps along the road.”