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How The Points Guy became the industry’s best content marketing channel

  • It's not clear that content marketing efforts are effective or that millennials want a relationship beyond their financial products
  • The Points Guy offers digital investment startups a model for their own "financial education" or "financial literacy" ventures
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How The Points Guy became the industry’s best content marketing channel

Content marketing is hot in finance, but it’s a blog about airport lounge access rules and retired airliners that’s become the industry’s favorite way to go to market.

It’s called The Points Guy, a blog started by a former Morgan Stanley recruiter when he started flying all over the country looking for new talent. Fast forward seven years and the blog, known as TPG among loyalists, is read by a healthy few million a month — and has become the favorite content marketing channel for big banks.

The site is exclusively focused on credit cards, but Kelly, who is editor-in-chief at the site, offers digital investment startups a model for their own “financial education” or “financial literacy” ventures.

Kelly got the brainwave to start the site when he was traveling for Morgan Stanley. He would fly business class, or even first class, for a couple hundred bucks; people who weren’t taking complete advantage of their credit card rewards and perks were probably paying something in the thousands of dollars for the same trip. He began blogging about how he used his points. Then it took off.

At the time, the travel and points world was still underground. Soon after he began the blog, he began to realize how much free advertising he was giving banks. Banks started realizing he knew their products better than they did — and he could translate their value to customers better too, he recalled. Today, the site is an influential marketing channel for banks — they even work with The Points Guy before they launch new credit cards — and a trusted advisor to customers.

“It’s a fine balance, how we grow readers and deepen this loyal following while building relationships with the credit card companies,” Kelly said. “Points are this amazing currency where the more you educate yourself on the value of your currency, the more it increases in value.”

In the last 30 days there have been 4.7 million unique visitors to the site, compared to 3.1 million a year ago and 1.9 million in 2015, Kelly said. Its core audience is 25-to-34-year-old “HENRYs” — high earning, but not rich yet — in the U.S. Its main clients, Amex, Chase, Citi, Capital One, Barclaycard and Bank of America, comprise 99 percent of the company’s revenue. Kelly said he plans to expand its scope and coverage to the U.K., Canada and Australia next year.

The Points Guy doesn’t do a lot of paid advertising, but invests heavily in content. It now has a team of 20 writers. In 2012 Kelly sold the site to Bankrate, a financial services comparison site, but has maintained complete editorial control, he said. He insists that although he’s paid to promote cards, he only preaches what he believes. The exclusives and sign-on bonuses customers get from signing up through his site are sometimes better now than the what the bank itself offers, Kelly claims.

“We do very well financially in a world where media is under extreme stress, and we’re killing it.”

Tearsheet caught up with him to talk about being cozy with the banks while putting readers first, going from personal blog to creative agency and potential for expansion. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

For nine months you didn’t make a cent off your recommendations. Now you do. Ever get called a sellout?
You see the affiliate world now everywhere, like in fashion blogs. People, millennials especially, realize a lot of time and effort goes into researching and blogging. Most of my readers make six figures and live in cities and have great jobs, they get: if you work hard you should get paid.

How do you get paid?
On performance, unlike other advertising means where a bank might pay $5 million to run a TV ad where there’s unknown ROI but you get impression. I only get paid if someone is approved for a credit card. We don’t get paid a dime if we’re not effective in the way we market. Having exclusive offers boosts our integrity with our readers. We’re giving them instant value from a sign up bonus and teaching them how to use the points of a card.

Why do banks let you have the better offer?
My readers are influencers in their own spheres. They’re telling their friends ‘I love this card.’ So what we’ve said is: give us exclusive, amazing offers, give us the best offer and we’re going to teach people; I’m going to hire a camera crew to follow me to Mexico to show exactly how you get the $200 and perks from this credit card.

Do you compete against banks? Who’s winning?
We can break through to the audience they want in ways they can’t on their own. The credit card companies are losing money up front. Chase with their Sapphire Reserve card is basically giving people $1,500 cash to get the credit card. At the end of the day, the banks want my readers. They’re looking long term and getting customers that are engaged.

Who’s your main client?
I have two clients. First is our reader and our trust with them is paramount and can’t be purchased. The second is the credit card company, which is our main advertiser. Our readers win by getting a credit card that rewards them dramatically more than what they used to have. Credit card companies win because they’re breaking into millennials, a group that historically they have not known how to market to. Magazines and TV ads do not make a millennial go out and get a credit card.

What’s the biggest myth about millennials?
Everyone says credit cards are going to dead because millennials don’t want credit cards. False, false, false. Millennials want credit cards, they want experiences and they want to maximize every dollar they spend. They want to travel, they don’t want Rolexes.

What’s next?
Banking and loans aren’t in our immediate horizon. Would it make sense for us to expand into trip insurance? Absolutely. Regular insurance? Potentially. This is an expansion phase. If we came up with some really amazing tools that started in travel where we could help you track and use your points and give tips on how to get to the airport more quickly and check the cheapest price on Uber versus Lyft in your market.

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