Wouter Verschelden, who was editor-in-chief the Belgian newspaper De Morgen, and a few colleagues left the legacy publishing company to launch their own start-up news Web site Newsmonkey two years ago.

A year after launch, the BuzzFeed-like news Web site reached one million unique visitors and on its way to breaking even in 2015. Verschelden, Newsmonkey’s co-founder and publisher, shared early lessons learned and what traditional publishers can learn from the company’s experience with delegates at INMA European Media Conference on Monday.

Verschelden had a stable job for De Standaard, working at the political desk, making hour-long documentaries. The job was comfortable, but not fun, he said. With 30 years ahead of him in media, he still didn’t know where the business was going. 

Together with a partner, he decided to build his own brand with €500,000 in their own investments and the help of angel investors and crowdfunders (the latter being helpful to build ambassadors for brand and social seeding). The goal was to increase number of investors, fans on Facebook, followers on Pinterest and Twitter.

And this strategy resulted in the record-breaking success in Belgium.

Newsmonkey’s core mission was to build the media brand of the future by reaching the customers of the future,Verschelden said. The strategy was to focus not on clicks but on shares.

The three components of the strategy were:

  1. Content editorial team (crowdsourcing open platform technology).

  2. Vital content: Through viral expertise, it was more natural to create the social media rollout.

  3. Native content, which is at the heart of Newsmonkey. The moment users share that content, it becomes native. They embrace it, and endorse it. The content becomes part of their social identity.

For Newsmonkey, it is also important to use the right social network. The company wants to be a viral Web site, but, at the same time it wants to do serious journalism.

Newsmonkey has a newsletter on Whatsapp, which is very easy to subscribe to. Users are sent updates twice a day (four articles). Whatsapp is not the best tool, but definitely should be considered. It helped build an audience of 2,000 users and thanks to it they see incredible CTRs.

The daily broadcasts through Whatsapp are automated, but Newsmonkey manually monitors incoming messages so employees can personally reply to questions. This allows intimate communications.

Newsmonkey makes money mostly from native ads (32%) and banner ads (23%). The company also had some successes with big advertisers such as Volkswagen, Volvo, HP, Opel, Netflix, Red Bull, and Bose.

Newsmonkey is now building its French version, with plans for a full launch in January 2016. Holland is next country Newsmonkey plans to expand to.