The importance of talking when — and only when — your members are listening
We speak to Gib Ott of the GodSaveThePoints.com about demystifying the travel industry and ensuring membership is an addition, not a subtraction.
“I loved points from a young age. When I was 12 years old, I read on a napkin on an airplane that if I joined one of these points programs, that I would earn free things — and, at 12, that was very compelling to me,” begins Gilbert 'Gib' Ott, the founder of GodSaveThePoints.com. He tells me he even made his family collect points and it paid off. Over time, he became the go-to guy on the subject: “From time to time, within the companies I worked at, people would ask me, ‘What card should I get?’ or they would come to me for travel advice.”
Gib used to work in the music business but he became “dispassionate” with his career, managing artists and dealing with the intricacies of the business. Fortunately his wife had a stable job so he was able to just start writing about the subject he had become so knowledgeable on, “without any real commercial aspirations for it”. But, one thing led to another: “People started reading, then more people started reading, and over time it did start to become a business for people wanting to know this information,” he says. “Points have always been very cryptic, and confusing, and I made every effort to try to demystify them.”
Over time, Gib realized that huge numbers of people needed this information: “I noticed that many people had the same concerns or frustrations with the industry that I did. I felt like I had a better way of explaining it than the businesses that existed at the time. And, so off we went!”
So GodSaveThePoints.com (GSTP) was born. Over the next few years, the site transitioned from side hustle to global blog, to full-blown travel website, with hotel news, financial advice, gear reviews, and a hundred other sections, including of course the ever-present information on airline miles and points.
“I’ve never focused on one niche specifically. The site has always just been a filter of my interests, because I arrogantly believed that if it was interesting to me, it might be interesting to others!” he jokes, “I'd say I curated in that way initially. And it's been fun to broaden things: to have hotel reviews, to speak about — especially for the last two years, God help me — the countries that are opening and closing.”
He explains that by not pigeonholing himself into one topic, he has the artistic freedom to be able to write about anything in travel that he thinks might be useful to others. “I might be quote, unquote, ‘famous’ for the points stuff, but there's still hundreds of thousands of people who read GSTP for other reasons,” he continues. “We've always tried to stay away from paid relationships so we can provide genuine content. We might not have as many people reading our hotel reviews as Expedia, but the people who read our reviews believe what they're reading, because it's real.”
So Gib is in that fantastic place where he has attained a level of authority for himself, far beyond the original content about points. It’s fair to say that if he thinks it's important, it truly is important. Once a creator has gotten to this stage of building a loyal audience, the natural progression is monetizing and ‘going pro’. There are a number of ways to do that, including sponsored posts, advertising, paywalling content and membership.
Gib explains he had thought a lot about each option and was particularly keen to avoid sponsored posts as much as possible unless they were about something he already endorsed: “Whenever somebody has asked me [about a sponsored post], it's always been like, ‘Look, I have to believe in what I'm talking about’. I'm never going sell something to readers. And if you're going to vet my work before it goes live, then you're going to have to pay a premium for that. I've tried to avoid that as much as possible.”
So sponsored content doesn't seem like the preferred option for Gib. “People are going to disagree with me, but I've always hated paywalled content, too,” he continues. “When it shows up on search engines, and you click it and it says, ‘Give us 10 bucks and you can read this’, it’s infuriating! I wanted to make sure not to be that.”
The addition — not subtraction — of membership
Two years ago, Gib spoke to his friend Ben who runs a company called The Code Co, a website-building agency. Ben brings the technical knowhow to Gib’s creative output: “I’m completely not tech savvy. I couldn't code a single line,” he jokes, “I couldn't make a font bold without a developer!”
Ben told Gib that memberships/subscriptions would be the future of the publishing industry. “You want to create a really strong engagement with people and when you're using social media, you're always one algorithm tweak away from losing people. Whereas with membership, the people who are a part of it become very close contacts,” Gib muses.
Ben suggested that Gib think about extra benefits he could offer with membership to GTSP, such as making the content ad-free. Ben said they could use Memberful to hide all ads and pop-ups for anyone who is logged in, and Gib thought it could work: “It’s just a better experience for the reader. Everybody still gets to read everything, but you don’t have to have Adidas shoes popping up in your face every 15 minutes!”
Gib also realized there would be scope to offer “stuff that isn't online, such as Q&As and lectures”. He says he noticed that people pay hundreds of dollars for some companies’ weekend seminars. Instead of that, GSTP could reasonably charge a similar rate for a year’s membership, and in return provide access to all their content ad-free and offer an event every month. The offline membership offering has been well received: “It's been great to connect with people to hear more deeply how they feel and what they're looking for,” he smiles, “And it’s interesting to see how many people really did want that extra level of knowledge and that one-to-one care.”
When discussing membership-style companies, Gib and I agree that Netflix is essentially an ad-free TV experience: you pay for what you want to watch and you don’t have to put up with any of the unrelated stuff. But written content is a different beast entirely. Written content, especially online written content, has really struggled to find the same value proposition as video. However, especially due to the pandemic and associated lockdowns, people have started to get a better idea of things that they find valuable and what they are willing to pay for, and that includes content.
These recent events “accelerated the membership idea”, says Gib. However, he was well aware he could become something he hated, if he didn’t get this right. “There are certain websites now that, if I see a link to their article, I won't click it because I know that it will be paywalled. So not only am I not clicking it, I'm now kind of ‘anti’ that brand.” Gib wanted to make sure that he could build something through subscription that didn't turn people off or alienate the readers who knew him and his content from before: “It would be like, ‘What the h*ll?! I can't get your stuff now!’” he laughs. He was adamant that readers would continue to be able to access his content but he would offer new benefits to paying customers: “It was more of an addition rather than a subtraction.”
We talk about the significant differences between membership, which relies on interaction with your audience, and the more one-way conversation associated with social media or newsletters. Gib comments that, to a certain extent, God Save the Points has been a ‘concierge’ service ever since the start, offering advice in response to people’s questions. It seems this back-and-forth interaction has translated succesfully into membership.
“One angle that's been cool has been to celebrate the people, places and things that we love with the people who love us,” Gib continues. “We like to be able to offer people exclusive opportunities. My favorite hotel in Santorini, which is a prohibitively expensive destination, is happy to offer a discount for our premium concierge-style members. We've been able to leverage that position in the market, at a place we've already vetted and told people is great. The hotel was like, ‘We're so glad you like it, why don't you send some people to us?’ and we said, ‘Okay, well, what can you do?’!”
Gib muses that it's great to tap into that presence, in a controlled way: “We're not sending our entire audience; they could potentially just go gangbusters and ruin it — although maybe the hotel would like that!” He says it's a way to selectively and consciously add value to people, in a physical way that they can touch and enjoy, and give them a multiple of their membership fee back as a discount. Gib wants to reward the support of his community: “It's about leveraging the trust and the relationships we have, to give members as much as we can.”
The future of GodSaveThePoints.com
What does 2022 hold for GSTP? Gib’s main goal is getting back to business as usual, both post-pandemic on a global scale and after his own personal changes in circumstance. He chose to reduce his workload for the last two years, for the best of reasons: “I write what's needed: if it's a seismic event in travel, then I'll write about it. But we had our first child in January 2020 and it’s been really cool to kind of just use this down period to have a good couple of years. I feel very fortunate about that.”
Gib tells me he noticed that many colleagues in the industry “just kept the grindstone going, trying to find new angles” during the pandemic, which created “a huge burnout factor”. The very insight that led Gib to launching GTSP in the first place has paid off massively when it came to stepping back from the website, too: “Nobody wants [the content] they would find interesting during normal times,” he says. “We thought, ‘Who cares?’! Nobody cares about earning 1000 bonus points right now — are you getting on a plane just to do that at times like these? No, I don't think so.”
It sounds like that same ‘If Gib thinks it’s interesting, it’s interesting’ mantra holds true in reverse, too. He explains: “I’m glad I didn’t burn myself out completely. I was just like, ‘Look, if I don't care, a lot of people aren't going to be caring right now either.’”
This mindset on membership content holds true to membership in general, too. Gib explains that during GSTP’s first year as a membership platform, the approach was to be conscious and calculated: “It wasn't about getting as many signups as we could. We basically sent one email on MailChimp to our mailing list and said, ‘Sign up or don't’! That's what the member experience has been so far; right now, it's just a matter of managing the members that we do have.”
Gib says it’s been most important to care for the people who are already in the community rather than build the numbers. But now, it's back to work and it’s time to grow. And it’s time to start answering people’s questions with renewed vigor. “People are ready to travel and they want to know what's changed,” he says, “They want to know how to navigate testing or which forms to fill in.” Gib wants to get back to giving people the information they need, “to be the helpful resource at the end of that Google search”.
Of course, when GTSP started, the questions he was answering were about air miles and points, but now the site provides whatever is most relevant in the world of travel, which of course nowadays is often connected to covid. There are more topics than ever that need demystifying: “It’s still changing so fast. It's a rapid marketplace. You know, there are lots of devaluations, there are lots of things people need to know. We’re just trying to offer the most actionable information for in-market travelers, for people who are taking the plunge and getting back out there.”
Whereas the pandemic saw GTSP take a step back to keep just “a zoomed-out big-picture lens on best practices for points, covid testing or finding the right deals”, in 2022 Gib aims to get back to the granular detail that people need. No doubt post-pandemic recovery will see a raft of new travel promotions, new incentives, and new credit cards with points. There’s a whole new generation of travel information to be sifted through, and “the people who subscribe are going to get more insight than the people who don't!” Gib smiles.
His final thought is one of hope: “If anybody's thinking about traveling again, it really is the cliche of riding a bicycle. It feels weird for the first five minutes, but then you’re just back on the cycle and life is good again,” he smiles. Gib says he hasn't spoken to anybody — even people who've gone to places that are prohibitively strict with covid testing — who hasn't found it totally worthwhile. He concludes optimistically: “I think everyone is due an escape. If you're on the fence, just do it. You'll be happy!”
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