Niche Site Masterclass: How to Start and Grow a Thriving News Site for an Underserved Audience with Arran Rice from Simple Flying
Arran Rice is the founder and CEO of Simple Flying – a niche news site focused on aviation.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him for the Digital Media Growth podcast.
We discussed his background, the hows and whys of starting Simple Flying – and how he’s achieved such amazing growth in just one year.
If you’ve ever thought about starting your own news site and want to know how it’s done – we’re laying it all out in this article. Let’s get started.
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Who is Arran Rice?
Arran is in his early twenties, but he’s already a veteran entrepreneur. Originally from the UK, he started his first online business – a gaming niche site – when he was just eleven years old.
“That was my first real introduction to being an entrepreneur and working online. I learned a lot about publishing content in a very short amount of time”
Since that first venture, things progressed quickly. Throughout his teens, Arran built multiple publications and sold some other niche sites too.
Starting Simple Flying
Like many of us, in his early years Arran always wanted to become a pilot. There was one problem though – at the time he was scared of flying.
His path lead him toward online entrepreneurship but aviation was always in the back of his mind.
“I’ve always had a passion for aviation and flying – and that combined with my background in online publishing lead me to start Simple Flying”
A Flash of Inspiration
In April 2018 – Arran left London to see more of the world.
“Between April and June I must have flown 30 times. I was taking all these planes all over the world – to the US, Australia, the South Pacific”
Before boarding flights Arran would check reviews of the airline to see what to expect.
“What I found was there were so many small sites reviewing and talking about various airlines – but there wasn’t a definitive site”
And so the idea for Simple Flying was born.
First Steps in Building a News Niche Site
While hiding from bad weather in New Zealand, Arran wasted no time registering a domain and building a WordPress site.
One year later and Simple Flying has reached three million monthly impressions.
“When I first launched the site my number one aim was good content, I didn’t really think about acquiring users.
My idea was that if I produce good content over time then the traffic will come”
Arran hired a team of freelance writers using funds from previous ventures. For the first eight months the site was run at significant losses, because high volume quality publishing is expensive – but the traffic started to grow steadily as early as three months after the launch.
“From there it really just grew very organically. All of the traffic is from Google – around 90% – it’s our biggest source.
I really attribute that to a lot of good content that people actually want to read, and having that all in one place”
A lot of the other sites out there focused on a specific aspect of aviation, but Arran decided that he wanted to cover everything there is to know about the topic in one site.
Arran’s team publishes 15-20 articles a day, posting content relevant to specific time zones at strategic intervals.
“I don’t really look at keywords, I don’t have an SEO strategy as such. All I’m worried about – is the content good and would I want to read and enjoy the content?”
Even so, this “non strategy” has brought great results and rankings. As a result of regularly publishing solid content, Simple Flying has earned backlinks from some big publications like Forbes, BBC, Mail Online.
Their aim isn’t to get links – they’re solely content focused – but these links are a nice side effect that has helped to boost rankings a lot.
An Enthusiastic Audience
Understanding exactly who your audience is, so you can create content tailored to them, is crucially important but often overlooked.
“It’s a real mix. Firstly we have people who work in the industry – executives and airline employees.
We also have a lot of frequent flyers and aviation enthusiasts. If you look at our email list we have such a mixture of people from different businesses and aviation geeks.”
Arran’s strategy is to cover everything that is important to the industry and keep it broad – allowing him to tap into a potentially vast global audience.
It helps if you’re passionate
We’ve all heard the advice “follow your passion” – and a debate rages in career advice and self development circles about whether this is good advice or not.
It certainly worked for Arran though, when his personal love of aviation coincided with seasoned entrepreneurial eyes spotting an under-served market.
“For me with Simple Flying it was a passion thing, I had a passion for flying due to travelling a lot. I was visiting all these sites and I felt like it was underserved”
His advice for others:
“If you’re passionate about something – whether that’s travel or dogs, whatever that is. If you’re visiting these sites and you think you could do better, then I think there’s an opportunity to build an authority site. I think it could work in any niche with lots of good content”
So what does publishing lots of good content look like on a practical level?
The Simple Flying Workflow
Simple Flying publish 15-20 articles a day on weekdays, and around 10 on weekends.
They have a team of 25 – most of them freelance writers.
“We have a big Google sheet where all the potential news topics and stories go.
These topics will be assigned to freelance writers, and they’ll write them and submit for approval.
I have a full-time editor and a content manager. The editor will edit and publish the article, with the content manager responsible for assigning topics”
In the beginning, Arran hired 5 writers from peopleperhour.com.
There’s a lot of writing talent on there, but recently writers have come more organically.
“What I’ve found now is a lot of journalists who write for other sites will email Simple Flying and ask to write for us.
A lot of the people who are writing for us now came to us organically.
We gave them a test article to see how they perform and whether they suit our style – and if they were good they were offered a longer term freelance contract”
Running a Remote Team
The Simple Flying team is 100% remote, and based all over the world. This model is increasingly popular with digital startups and successful niche sites – the number of remote workers in the US is projected to reach 36.2 million by 2025. But what are the biggest challenges?
“I would say that the number one challenge is obviously communication. But we’re all on slack so we can chat to each other whenever we want, so that’s not a problem”
The challenge arises more from the international aspect.
“Say there’s an issue that’s discovered by one of our team members in Australia in the daytime and I’m not awake and the editor’s not awake so there is some downtime.
I guess that can happen with any company though – say a problem occurs overnight and there’s nobody in the office working on it…… that’s a problem that can happen to anyone”
Things can also get a little expensive if everyone wants to meet in the same location…..
“A few of us attended the Paris Airshow last month – which involved flying us out from various countries to meet there.
That was expensive, but I guess it would be the same if you wanted to fly a team somewhere from the same location”
Arran has no plans to change from a fully remote team or to establish a permanent central location. He personally would rather travel and live in different locations while building his business, and encourages his team to do the same.
“The editor has lived around the world with her kids for four years, our content manager is moving to Germany soon – I want people to feel very flexible and I don’t like the idea of set hours in an office”
Simple Flying have a great looking YouTube channel.
They started the project last October, but put it on hold until a couple of months ago because of the expense of video production and uncertainty about ROI.
Since then, their audience has grown a lot on the main site. It’s easier to grow the YouTube Channel now because they can embed videos in the articles, so Arran decided to revisit video.
For production, they have a small team in South Africa including a voice-over artist and an editor. The videos are quite simple to produce, as they’re based off content from the site.
“It makes Simple Flying hit another avenue which we otherwise wouldn’t have an audience on…… It’s an extension of the brand….. ”
The videos tie into the strategy of trying to hit the user from every angle – making sure the brand has a visible presence across channels. Simple Flying also do this with their social media presence and native apps.
Making Great Content Pay
When you take a look at the site, the advertising is low-key and not intrusive – but it’s mostly funded by ads.
“I always want the content to be free to read and that will never change – so I’d say right now 70-80% of the revenue comes from advertising.
We don’t have a crazy amount of banners and none of it is intrusive – I want people to keep coming back and grow a long-term audience”
They also have a few affiliate deals, notably in the credit card space, which is a growing strategy for the site.
They recommend credit cards to frequent flyers and get a small commission on conversions.
“I don’t want the site to get too commercial, or to suddenly have loads of credit card content.
I want to keep that low, and have it as a passive income for the site while we focus on news content”
There are lots of monetization options available for successful niche sites and new brands. The important thing is building that engaged audience first with excellent content.
Building native mobile apps from a niche site
60-75% of their traffic is mobile, and as the traffic grew Arran saw the fit for an app.
“I really saw the apps as a way to get an audience on mobile who would come back daily – it’s an extension of the site to get people into the brand”
Arran has seen great results from the apps so far.
“I’ve seen return visit rates go up since launching the apps – people will get notifications on their phone and end up going on the site or vice versa.
The daily active users are growing nicely and the uninstall rates are really low. Once I’ve got someone on the app they’ll stay on the app and keep consuming our content – which is what we want”
Quality native apps are a great tool – and help with every aspect of growing a publishing brand.
Since building native apps yourself can be very time and resource intensive – Arran chose to build the Simple Flying apps with us at MobiLoud.
The Future of Simple Flying
The biggest project that Arran has in the pipeline is building a community around the Simple Flying brand.
The kind of loyal and engaged audience that you can build around a high quality niche site is perfect for creating a community from.
“It’s in the early stages of development. It’ll be for the frequent commenters on the site – a forum where they can discuss topics in greater depth”
They’re also looking to build more geo-specific content sections on the site.
“We’re going to really hone in on the UK aviation scene… The African aviation scene….. We’re going to produce more niche content for each geo”
As far as other acquisitions go, it depends on what’s out there and what opportunities come up. They’re keeping an eye out for any other aviation sites that seem like they could be a natural fit.
Arran’s story and perspective on building a niche site is packed full of inspiration and food for thought.
Simple Flying was recently named as one of the top aviation blogs in the world by Feedspot. Their aim is to become the world’s go-to site for aviation news – and they’re on track to do so.
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