At first, mental_floss magazine's business strategy seemed counterintuitive. Its founders, Will Pearson '01 and Mangesh Hattikudur '01, threw aside the traditional tools of the trade, eschewing direct-mail solicitations and subscription discounts intended to pump up numbers and, in turn, advertising revenue. Instead, they sought to establish and support their endeavor by winning over loyal (paying) subscribers by publishing a high-quality product without any print ads.
Eight years later, their approach seems prescient. As the economy has slumped, many corporate advertisers have tightened the purse strings, and those magazines that rely on ad revenue for their operating budgets are beginning to feel the heat. "Unfortunately, we're seeing many magazines, good magazines, struggling," says Pearson, who also sits on Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.
But not mental_floss. Since its inception as a student publication in 2001, the magazine, which seasons its need-to-know trivia with healthy dashes of wit and snark, has seen its circulation rise to 100,000. "We've seen very organic growth with the magazine," Pearson says. "These are people who have heard about it and subscribed at the full price, and they have become a very loyal readership." They have also served as a solid foundation on which Pearson and Hattikudur have begun to build a small media empire.
Late last year, the magazine put out its eighth book, The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits—a project that history-buff Pearson describes as his "baby." The book, which applies the magazine's trademark wit on a grand scale, was co-written by Steve Wiegand, author of U.S. History for Dummies, and Erik Sass '01, a freelance writer who lived in the same freshman dorm as Pearson and Hattikudur. Thanks to the magazine's loyal followers, who were notified of the upcoming release by an e-mail blast, the book cracked Amazon's top twenty before it even hit the shelves.
The mental_floss team has dedicated much of the last two years to boosting its Web presence. "What we were hearing from readers was that they would like to have fresh content on a daily basis," as well as a sense of community, Pearson says. The magazine's website, managed by Hattikudur, now features a menu-du-jour of blog posts, top-ten lists, and trivia quizzes. "If everyone is talking about Christmas coming up, we may do a fun story about the ten most bizarre holiday specials in [television] history," Pearson says. They've also recently introduced "The Amazing Fact Generator," a catalogue of random facts supplied by readers and fact-checked by magazine staffers that's accessible at the click of a button.
The effort has paid off. This past November, the site welcomed a record 4.5 million unique users and 20 million page views —especially good news given that the site, unlike the print edition, is ad-driven. Part of this success can be attributed to a conscious effort to push existing partnerships to the Web. Where he once made regular television appearances to do trivia segments, Pearson says, "we've found it much more effective to partner with the same companies online." Both cnn.com and Yahoo pull content from the mental_floss website, which reaps returns in terms of Web traffic.
The site, in turn, has allowed them to develop a booming online retail business, featuring books, games, and T-shirts with clever, albeit nerdy, sayings—"Hobbits are Tolkien Minorities," "Hyperbole is the best thing ever!"—many of which are reader-generated. As of December, sales were about 90 percent higher than the previous year. "I have no idea why one type of product would suffer and another wouldn't," Pearson says, "but apparently T-shirts are immune to the bad economy."
And then there are the books. Mental_floss recently signed a deal with HarperCollins' children's division to develop creative, entertaining learning games, a project clearly tailored to their strengths. The first products should hit shelves in 2010, priming a new generation of knowledge-hungry fans.