I Can Has Cheezburger’s Lesson for Media: Ads Are Just the Beginning

The I Can Has Cheezburger empire, with its LOLcats and blogs filled with “fail” pictures, doesn’t tend to get a lot of respect from traditional media entities. Sure, the family of humor sites gets a lot of traffic, and the company has been profitable from the beginning — as a profile this weekend in the New York Times pointed out — but apart from lessons in how to seize on the latest hot Internet meme and pimp it out on a hastily constructed website, what could it possibly have to teach other media outlets? Even online media tend to view Cheezburger as a limited success story.

But it’s not as limited as it first appears. Indeed, for me, the most interesting part of the profile in the Times came when Todd Sawicki, the chief revenue officer for the network, started talking about how the company makes money. Yes, advertising is a big driver for the series of 50-plus websites. Even more interesting, according to Sawicki:

Only 1 percent of what gets submitted goes on the Web site…the rest we can turn into T-shirts, books and other content that the audience loves.

Obviously, the kind of content that gets produced by I Can Has Cheezburger lends itself more to T-shirts than news content might, but how many media outlets spend time thinking about licensing fees or partnerships, or selling merchandise? Some newspapers and magazines have book divisions, but they’re rarely a key part of their business. One of the few media entities that makes a substantial amount of revenue from merchandise is the Telegraph, which sells everything from gardening equipment to clothing.

The biggest lesson that I Can Has Cheezburger can teach isn’t that cats are funny — it’s that to be successful producing any kind of content online, it helps to think about as many different ways of using, re-using and extending that content to reach potential fans, rather than hoping that ads alone are going to bail you out.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): What We Can Learn From the Guardian’s Open Platform

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of I Can Has Cheezburger