Martin Lewis claims journalism’s greatest reward

Analysis by Tim Dawson

Martin Lewis’ sale of moneysavingexpert.com for £87m is possibly the UK’s most astonishing piece of journalism as entrepreneurialism ever.

The site, was born out of a persona created for slot on a little viewed, and even less remembered satellite television channel. Its growth and subsequent success are an object lesson in how journalism can be transformed by the internet and how spectacular can be the resulting rewards.

The simplicity of Lewis’ idea is expressed in his site’s name: it provides expert advice on saving money – mainly through a geekishly detailed understanding of consumer financial products as well as ‘deal finding’. The site’s free weekly email goes to seven million subscribers, filled with a mixture of editorial articles and tips combed from the site’s forums. The main site features numerous ‘best buy’ analysis articles.

There are also price comparison tools and the forums, where readers can share their own ideas. The site contains no advertisements, as such. Revenue comes from affiliate links.

MoneySavingExpert’s main focus is consumer financial products, some of these are reputed to generate click-through fees for customers who go on to buy of as much as £100 per click. Nevertheless, a strong ethical, consumer-focussed ethos runs through the site, and a sizeable chunk of revenue is donated to charities nominated by the site’s users.

There is reported to be a strong ‘Chinese wall’ between the journalistic side of the site, and the affiliate sales side. Today the site employs around 40 staff, around half of whom are journalists. Annual income is reported to be around £16m.

The site has also been a vociferous campaigner, launching a national campaign to claim overpaid Council Tax in 2007 and encouraging consumers to reclaim payment protection premiums.

Lewis has worked in as a broadcast journalist before founding the site, and had been a financial pr before that. Both experiences clearly gave him an ideal skillset to promote himself and thereby promote his site. He writes several newspaper columns and appears regularly both as a television presenter and as a pundit.

How much the sale of the site to rival moneysupermarket.com remains to be seen – although Lewis will be retained as site editor, so at least for the time being the successful formula seems unlikely to be changed much? Whether it would be possible to emulate Lewis’ success today is hard to say. He entered a much quieter market than exists today, before price comparison websites’ filled nearly every tv advertising slot. However, his formula of identifying a need, and then fulfilling it in a visibly journalistic way is surely one that will spawn more successful sites in the future?

There is a fascinating explanation of a systematic way to do this on Paul Wolfe’s site. For any others, at least in the UK, looking for inspiration.

There is another useful resource can be found at Federated Media’s list of member sites. Federated Media sells ads on around 85 independent US sites. For anyone looking for inspiration for their own online journalistic efforts there is much there from which one can learn.

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