As Green Star Media approaches its 20th birthday, it is not only a far larger business than in its early days, but one with a very different focus. As MD Andrew Griffiths tells Jo Bowman, a change in direction allied to a firm belief in the subscriptions model, has propelled the company’s recent growth.
“Dads around the world are looking for this stuff.”
What began as the producer of investment newsletters – a natural starting point given founder Andrew Griffiths’ background as a business journalist – is
now an international publisher of specialist sports titles.
Griffiths, who played rugby and football as a schoolboy but makes no claims about his own sporting prowess, now oversees a stable of nearly a dozen
sporting and fitness magazines and newsletters. He explains the shift in focus from investment newsletters in the early 2000s: “The obvious thing was to
get out of investment because it’s so cyclical. We did really well in the dotcom era up to 2000, but in the crash afterwards, it became clear to me, I
wanted to find something more stable and in many ways it was serendipity. A friend of mine was head of rugby at a private school; we were chatting and I
said what I really wanted was to apply the model of subscription marketing to a more stable environment.
Move into sports coaching
“As a test, we said ‘why don’t we try one that’s in sports coaching?’. Initially we tried one aimed at teachers who had to teach sports they didn’t know
anything about, covering a lot of sports, like rugby, hockey and cricket. That didn’t do very well, so we focused on rugby, which is what my colleague Dan
knew about, and Rugby Coach was started in 2003. Once that had really proved itself, that was the cue to sell the investment newsletter and then move into
the much bigger area of soccer.”
Soccer Coach Weekly launched in 2007, the Footy4kids website was acquired in 2009, and Elite Soccer launched a year later, in partnership with the League
Managers Association. Since then, expansion has continued, with Basketball Coach Weekly launching in 2011. Griffiths says the appetite for coaching help
for amateurs – usually parents who volunteer to help with their own children’s teams - is huge. “It’s still a very new area that not many people have
addressed. You need teaching skills and sport-specific skills as well. Most of these dads, if they’ve played, they don’t really have any experience of
coaching, and dads around the world are looking for this stuff.”
Andrew GriffithsSubs model
Green Star’s business model is based on paid subscriptions, driven by traffic generated by free products. About 70 per cent of revenue comes from paid
subscriptions, with the remainder from ancillary products, such as book-style manuals and DVDs. The US accounts for 25 per cent of sales, and the company
is also big in other English-speaking, sports focused nations, such as New Zealand. “That’s the beauty of being able to sell in the way that we do, which
is by email,” Griffiths says. “The model is to give free content by email and then, by definition, you’ve got the ability to be able to communicate with
people regularly and up-sell to a subscription product. With pay-per-click, we’re able to get someone in the US or South Africa or 80 different countries
that have coaches interested in our products; it’s the same marketing cost to reach them as the guy up the road in Surrey.”
The ability to reach overseas readers via the internet is what makes the business work commercially; in the days before online, Griffiths says, it just
wouldn’t have added up. The UK market for each sport isn’t big enough to sustain the cost of producing editorial, and the marketing costs pre-email would
have been prohibitive. At the same time, though, digital media does give consumers the opportunity to draw on a plethora of free, competing resources.
“There is lots that’s free,” Griffiths concedes. “But what we do is convenient - we send you a weekly email and tell you your stuff’s ready.” Green Star,
he says, also filters and curates the best information, and is reliable. Having coached his own son in rugby, he knows the limitations of free resources.
“It’s quite a challenge to find something new every week from YouTube, whereas what we do is say ‘it’s all here for you’.” To add value, Green Star is also
looking at producing more videos and running webinars in which expertise is delivered live to subscribers.
The fact that the business is UK-based is seen as a plus for overseas readers, Griffiths says. “We’re regarded as the home of these sports, soccer in
particular, and coaches in the US like the idea of learning soccer coaching expertise from UK-based sources.” Elite Soccer, produced under a license
agreement with the League Managers Association and providing monthly training plans of some of the English league’s top managers, is especially strong in
Even New Zealand rugby enthusiasts are willing to learn from Brits. “You’d be surprised; the sort of people who are our typical subscribers are open-minded
and they’re always looking for new ideas. They may have a teaching role and be supplying other people with ideas, and our material’s quite handy for that.
Generally, we’re not really aiming at professional coaches, we’re not going to teach them very much, but some of the amateur ones and some of the teaching
fraternity are keen on using it as a tool.” There is no British legacy in basketball, however, and Basketball Coach Weekly has an American editor.
Elite Soccer is especially strong in the US.
While geographical hurdles are easily jumped, language barriers are a far more complex challenge, Griffiths says. One of the company’s best-selling rugby
coaching books has been released in French, but pitching other products in French, Spanish or Portuguese – which would open up huge new markets – is
difficult, he says. Green Star would not only need to translate its content but also the persuasive email marketing on which the business model relies to
drive conversion from free to premium products, and this would add significantly to costs. Licensing agreements would probably make more sense Griffiths
says, though none is yet in place.
Green Star has also found social media a challenge; the company’s brands have online communities and use Facebook and Google Plus, but these are used by
only a small proportion of consumers and bring in very little revenue. At the same time, publication on Apple’s Newsstand, which began two years ago, is
“washing its face”, but not much more. “I’m still a believer in it,” says Griffiths, “but we’re not really making any money from it – we’re just about
covering our costs and the initial growth, which was very exciting in 2013, just plateaued. I think a lot of publishers found the same thing; it’s not the
revenue stream we’d hoped it would be given the reach it’s supposed to have.”
Expansion plans are, for now, focused on launching and acquiring new products that either attract new subscribers or drive traffic to existing ones. “We
have a model where we convert people to subscribers. If we persuade 100 people to take free stuff and we can communicate with them, 5 per cent convert. In
terms of the traffic, if you keep your conversion rate the same and increase the traffic, that’s where the growth is,” Griffiths says.
In June 2014, Green Star bought Peak Performance, a research newsletter into endurance, and Sports Injury Bulletin, both from Electric Word, which said
they were no longer a core part of their business. Content from the new products can be cross-sold across existing titles, and traffic used to drive
subscriptions across the range.
“We don’t have any advertising revenue,” says Griffiths. “That’s been our strategy from the very beginning. I’m not saying we haven’t tried to sell
advertising – it comes in now and again, but it’s not part of our strategy. I’m not religiously opposed to it but I find in a small business, if you rely
on it, it’s more than likely not going to be there next year. Particularly these days, there are so many opportunities for advertisers to spend their money
on something other than the printed page or the digital page. I’m much more comfortable with our current revenue model, where I know I’m going to get 70
per cent of this year’s subscription revenue next year, virtually guaranteed.”
In May 2014, venture capital trust Chrysalis VCT took a stake in the company and provided loan finance to fund expansion. The plan is to make further
acquisitions and switch special-interest consumer titles to a subscription-oriented business model that can attract readers internationally.
“We think we’ve got a model we can apply not just to sport and sports performance but potentially to other special interest groups – people who are
interested in how-to information on their main hobby and might want to buy other things.” The subject matter could be as varied as model railways, keeping
koi carp or running a smallholding. “We’re looking at small-ish magazines. Our strength is being able to do better on subscriptions in the UK and
internationally, and not basing the model on advertising.”
The business is growing; turnover was up 13 per cent last year, and Griffiths is confident that acquisitions fuelled by the injection of funds from
Chrysalis will drive significant expansion and “quite aggressive growth” over the coming five years. “We’ll be significantly bigger than we are.”