As a supplement Chapter Three of “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism,” released this week, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Andrea Miller, founder and CEO of love and relationships magazine Tango, launched in 2005, about how local and niche sites can build loyal audiences. Miller’s time at the helm—which went online-only in 2007 and has been renamed YourTango—has taught Miller much about growing and holding on to an audience. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Why did you want to start YourTango?

Innocently enough, as a consumer, I happened to read a chapter of a book with my then-boyfriend, now husband, a book called Soul Mates, about love and relationships. It was so thoughtful and inspiring, I felt that if this was something that was resonating with us then it would resonate with others as well. I took stock in terms of where something like that might fit in an incredibly crowded women’s media landscape. I had the proverbial epiphany that there really wasn’t an appropriate outlet for that. And, of course, it was realizing we’re not talking about “fifty-nine ways to please your man” or “how to get the guy.” Not to knock that stuff, because it succeeds—and there’s a big market for it. But I also felt like there was a gap in the market that we could really exploit.

The vision has been to be the ESPN of love and relationships, to build the brand using content as a way to do it, to be the brand for love and relationships. In terms of voice, the goal has been to create something like Sex and the City meets Oprah. So we hit the range of notes from the real, relatable, inspirational notes, as well as the fun and sassier notes.

So when you were looking to build the website for YourTango, did you take cues from at other places like ESPN.com to figure out the format?

Definitely. And we’ve continued to. We’ve looked at all the successful sites to figure out what they’re doing that we can emulate. As an entrepreneur, that’s a given. If other people have figured out what’s working and they’re successful, you just feel like you can borrow from that pretty unapologetically.

Are there things that you’ve learned about advertising in general and what a website’s relationship with an advertiser should be since you’ve started? Is there anything that has surprised you about that?

I feel like the big one for us has been realizing that we can do branded content in a way that is beneficial to the advertiser, as well as being high-quality content that is every bit as good as non-branded content. It’s not just repurposing some company’s marketing material but, instead, really being thoughtful about it, whether it’s a movie or a product. We ask, how that movie or product can be part of the conversation and have content that’s relevant or related to it that people will actually want to read. I think our team has done a good job of figuring out how to do that.

I guess what’s a little surprising is that, in the last year or two, there even more of a demand from advertisers. That’s what they want—it’s not just us—that’s where the entire market is going. Banners are there as well, but the integrated content is really an important aspect of the media landscape that, thankfully, we do really well.

Are there any downsides to that? Do you ever get any negative feedback from readers about branded content?

We haven’t. I can say categorically that nothing has surfaced to my level and I think the reason is at least a couple-fold. One is that our content isn’t dominated by branded content. We’re posting hundreds of posts of month—if a handful of those are branded then no one feels like, “Oh my gosh, you guys have sold out.”

At the same time, what we do create with products is quality in and of itself, and we’re incredibly explicit about what’s sponsored. There’s a company that we work with called Zestra, for female arousal. They’re approach, which is interesting, is to use content as a means to get their brand out there and to engage potential customers in a conversation. They’re doing that through our site, but they’re also doing it through PR and their site as well. What was interesting for us with this client was they have a lot of research around female arousal and intimacy, so it’s not that they’re just over here saying, “Buy this product, it’s the best product ever.” Instead, they’re over here saying, “Hey, we understand the various issues surrounding women and sexuality, and we want to give you content and create a way to be more informed.” It ends up being a little bit of a softer sell. This is a real issue for our users, and the great thing is, when we partner with a company like that, that actually has research—they also have experts etc.—it ends up being truly beneficial. Nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that it’s sponsored because it’s frankly related content.

I guess also readers are starting to get used to more things like that. As you said, a lot of other websites are doing the same thing, it’s becoming part of the reading experience at this point.

Definitely. I think that’s the case, although there are certainly different ways that various media companies approach that. We’ve all seen examples where it’s really heavy-handed and you feel like it’s not so much for the reader but it’s the advertiser pushing their own message. It’s a lot like social media—you really have to be so mindful of your audience. If you just are over there pushing your agenda, people are going to tune out. You have to figure out where that balance is.

Could you tell us a little bit about the YourTango community and the way people can earn points. It’s an interesting and different way to engage readers more and improve loyalty.

We just launched with a company called Badgeville, only two weeks ago. We’ve identified around ten ways for people to earn points. They range from points for signing up to our newsletters, to reading articles, to posting questions or answering questions, contributing to the blogs, etc. We also launched with Zestra, and we’re doing a contest with them where people can get the “Z badge” if they participate in the contest, to win a trip to New York that Zestra is sponsoring. So those are the kinds of things we’re offering incentives for. And it varies: you get more points for signing up for a newsletter than for reading an article.

Has it been successful so far?

It’s really early. I couldn’t say how much more it’s improving engagement or any of that stuff. Anecdotally, looking at this unit we have on every page showing who’s participating and who’s getting points—which at first was dominated by our team—now we’re seeing all these names that we’ve never seen before. It seems like it’s starting to be taken up by our audience. The ultimate goal for us is to use it as a fun way to engage users and to help them feel rewarded by what they’re doing, and incentivized to come back and to continue to do that. We have identified a handful of “super users” through their contributions to our blogs, and commenting, and things like that, and we just felt like these are people who care and they’re spending a lot of time, so why not give them status, and help them feel like they can get credibility that they have earned by being so active? We’re pretty optimistic.

The other part of it is just the pure, fun, gaming part of it. That’s been part of the fun for me in using Foursquare—you want to unlock this badge and that badge. There is something to be said about just the fun of it.

Do you think that this is a kind of system that would work well with news sites, too?

I am a big believer in gaming mechanics in general. I think that we’re going to see more of this kind of thing, just like we’ve seen social media take off. My hunch is that a lot more companies are going to figure out that gaming mechanics are an interesting and fun way to engage and reward users. Whether it’s news or anything else, I would place a bet that this will become the next interesting frenzy around media.

Will it be as big as Twitter, as Facebook? I can’t say. But as it relates to a news outlet, all media companies want repeat visitors, we all want people to engage in the content, to comment, to ask questions. There is logic to it. For sure, there are other kinds of properties, properties like mine and properties for hobbyists, where there’s just a real sense of passion. But when you look at The Huffington Post, for example, they obviously have their super users. People are being rewarded, and I imagine that it has contributed to their success in getting certain people to come back and continue to really participate on the site. Even The New York Times wants people to Tweet and share. If you’re getting “credit” to do that, if you’re incentivized to do that, is there a better chance that you may do it? I think so.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner