Media Interview with Ryan O’Meara, MD of Total Pet Publishing
About Total Pet Publishing
Tell us a little about Total Pet Publishing…
Total Pet Publishing is a specialist digital media business focusing on providing helpful content for people with pets.
What stories are you most interested in covering?
We have a very simple blueprint with every article we publish. It has to help someone solve a problem, teach someone something they didn't know or make them laugh. If it does one, or all three, of those things we're happy.
What makes you different from the other outlets in your sector?
Very early on we decided that pet owners cannot simply be defined or communicated to on the generic basis that they own a pet. I, for example, am a 35 year old male dog owner. I am not in the same demographic as a 55 year old female dog owner from NYC. So to try and categorise all pet owners into one demographic is an error.
On this basis, we have more than 300 websites because we take a laser-focused approach to topics. We have sites that are specifically for people thinking of getting a dog. Sites for people who are living with an older dog. Even sites that can help you book a pet-friendly holiday. We try to have a specialist digital media brand for every aspect of the pet ownership life cycle. We realised from day one that it's not possible to be all things to all people, so specialise.
How do you decide the content?
We have, I almost hate to say it because it sounds so mechanical, an algorithmic approach to content. We use data and collate a lot of feedback. We use social media for testing content areas of interest. We measure, observe trends and ultimately it comes down to one thing; we want to be sure we're providing content that people actually want to read.
That doesn't mean we take a top-to-bottom approach, simply looking for topics likely to attract the largest audience (we've got an entire website dedicated to dog oral care, after all!), we like to make sure there is a reader passion for the subjects we cover. The strength of interest, rather than the volume of interest, is what works for us.
Do you produce a features list? Why? Why not?
We have a very, very loose features list. It gives certain niche areas we're focusing on at any one time and then drills down within that niche. The niche could be anything from the best dog food for small breeds to how to choose the most luxurious dog bed. At any one time our focus could swing. We're a responsive publisher. If we produce content and upon publication find out that engagement levels are low, we'll pivot to something else.
We want to have a happy audience and advanced features lists have always been a problem for me in terms of our ability to be agile.
About you and freelance journalists
Do you pay for contributions from freelance journalists?
Do you like freelance journalists to get in touch with you directly to pitch ideas? And if so, how?
In the past 12 years I can count on two hands the number of pitched ideas we've actually run with. Instead, we like people who are good writers, who understand the nature of our audience and who can work to a brief we provide.
Do you work closely with PRs or do you keep them at arm’s length?
We work with PRs, but at a relative arm's length. This is due to the way the pet industry, in particular, is split, rather than any other singular reason. Although the pet sector, by gross sales, is larger than 'cooler' industries such as music or even toys, it is divided into two types of companies – global/very large or very small.
There is very little middle ground or mid-sized companies. As a result, the PRs we tend to encounter are either working on behalf of global brands or very small companies. We tend to find that much of the PR we encounter sometimes views our audience as entirely defined by their pet ownership.
Pet owners are normal consumers who happen to own a pet, so a PR approach with headlines such as 'Poochy Pawfect Pet Purrfection' tends to make us cringe a little and shows us that the PR handling the brand is taking a cutesy approach – which can be fine in certain instances, but not all.
Our audience is sophisticated and intelligent. They want to learn about how to improve their pet's health, how to have a better-behaved pet or what a new product can actually do for them. With that said, when we do encounter PRs who understand our particular audience, we tend to see better engagement levels via a PR approach than a straight ad sell because we can create a campaign to get the message the brand and PRs want out to the best-fitting audience in a way it will be better received, and ultimately add fantastic ROIs to the PR's end-of-campaign results.
If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
Don't view pet owners as a segment entirely obsessed with pets. Pet owners are ordinary consumers. They understand product pitches and they don't want to be patronised with cutesy jargon.
How should a PR approach you about their client?
It's vital that any PR we work with understands our audience and doesn't just lump us in with 'the pet press'. Our audience likes detail, facts, data and hard information about why a particular product or service will improve their pet's life. It's also important to recognise that our audience is vocal.
If they don't like something, they'll say so. This is actually a great benefit to any forward-thinking PR. Our market research service has grown exponentially over the past two years as more and more PR agencies have discovered just how valuable the feedback of our readership can be. On this basis, when talking to us about a product pitch, PRs should be prepared to work with us on a bespoke basis.
What information/input from PRs is most useful to you?
Data. Facts. Above all, we need to feel confident that the content and message we are going to deliver to our audience will be something they care about. Simply saying to us 'we have a new food we're launching' is not news, as such. New foods/products are launched all the time. We need to know why this new product is better, what it can offer that others can't, and why our readers should consider trying it. To achieve that we need data and facts.
We're digital. One of the great advantages to that is we are able to respond very quickly or plan a long time in advance. In one instance we were asked by an agency to get a very detailed market research project to 10,000 pet owners inside 48 hours. We did it inside two hours, compiled the data and had it with the client the same day. We love digital media!
Describe a typical day at work: What are your editorial duties/responsibilities at the outlet (e.g. commissioning, subbing, features, interviewing)?
I have a really great job. I used to be a professional dog trainer, so an average day would include playing with puppies (and getting paid for it). Now an average day includes watching funny videos of puppies (and getting paid for it). In the morning I check the audience stats from the previous day. I always have a live web stats monitor open on my desk. We have more than 300 pet websites and I like/need to see if there are any interesting visitor trends taking place. Sometimes we can see an article that was written maybe as long as 10 years ago suddenly getting a huge spike in traffic.
I like to find out why that is happening and see if there is an opportunity to monetise it or otherwise expand. I oversee the editorial coming in and set the editorial agenda for the week. This is very fluid and, again being digital, we can be reactive. If there is something in the news about dog attacks, we can shape our editorial focus around that topic. We have more recently focused on using social media to get a greater measure of what our audience likes, loves or is obsessive about. We have more than 110k Twitter followers so when we tweet an article (not necessarily one of our own) we can get instant feedback on audience response. This then shapes our editorial policy for the short term. So, essentially, I spend my days watching trends and reacting to or expanding on them.
What interests you most about your job?
I'd like to think we've distilled our business down to a very simple publishing proposition. We find out what our audience is most interested in and provide it. The real interest for me, especially since the evolution of our business, has been in three stages, digital only to digital and print and back to digital only, is not so much the vehicle for delivering the words and pictures that people want to read, but actually making sure the words and pictures are being read by more than 12m people every year.
When I founded the company, the idea of our content having an audience that large would have seemed out of reach. Having a reader contact you to tell you how much they got out of reading something we published is always a buzz.
Where have you worked previously, and how did you end up in your current position?
When I was at school I always wanted to be a dog trainer. Never, ever did any other job enter my mind. I did poorly at school and struggled to correlate the things I was supposed to be learning with the job I KNEW I wanted to do. As it turns out, the day I left school at 16, I got a job – advertised in a local paper – as a dog trainer. I moved to various kennels learning the trade and competing with working dogs and I loved every second of it.
There came a point in my life when I knew I needed to earn enough money to be able to have a house and a car that wasn't held together by string, so I started the process of researching the pet industry with a view to setting up my own kennels. I learned about raising funding for a business but it was during that research process I realised there was a gap in the market for high-quality information for pet owners online. In 2000, at the height of the dot com bust period and immediately on the back of (the same week, in fact) Pets.com's high profile collapse, I set out to raise money for my new digital media pet business. Fortunately, I did raise the cash and 12 years later we're still here.
Do you tweet?
I tweet almost every day, several times a day from Twitter.com/K9Magazine primarily. Of all the social media platforms, Twitter is my favourite because you have an instant reaction.
What’s the best advice you have been given?
When I was a young, a completely inexperienced 21 year old who'd just been given a significant amount of money by an investor who had enough faith in me and my business plan (despite never even working inside a media company, let alone running one) I was told that management is just a series of decisions you have to make daily.
They key being; make the decisions, don't put them off, be aware that a good number of your decisions will be entirely wrong, but develop the ability to recognise when they're wrong and do what needs to be done to fix them. I try and keep that advice at the forefront of my mind every day. Good decisions are self-evident in the positive results they invariably produce. Bad decisions are harder to detect, so you have to look a little closer.
And finally, favourite pet and why?
Much like children, you're not supposed to have a favourite pet but I most certainly do. His name was Jackson, he was my first dog. I had to wait 16 years of my life before I got him and without any shadow of a doubt, he landed me my first job as a dog trainer (he was my 'CV'). Basically everything I have done, career-wise, since the day I got him has been influenced by him. Had I not got that dog I would not be running a pet publishing company and probably wouldn't have become a dog trainer either. I owe him a lot.