How The Infatuation Built a Community of 3 Million Monthly Superfans Organically

Landis Smithers, Chief Creative Officer at The Standard

It’s Friday night and you’re looking for a restaurant that’s not a chain, serves good appetizers and has a solid bar scene. You can Google it, scroll through Yelp, or text the team at The Infatuation to a get real-time, personalized recommendation of where you should go. And believe it or not, it’s powered by actual staffers at The Infatuation, not bots.

Andrew Steinthal, former Warner Bros. Records VP, joined forces with his then colleague to create The Infatuation – a website to help people find the right place for the right occasion, providing recommendations based on authentic, personal experiences. With restaurant guides and content for over 35 cities, more than 3 million monthly users and now close to 80 full time staffers and offices in NY, LA and London, The Infatuation, which recently acquired Zagat, is changing the way people decide where to eat and keeping people at the forefront of tech-based personalization. And when we say superfans, we mean it. Check out their uncensored video below.

Tell us about your background and why you chose to start The Infatuation.

My business partner and co-founder, Chris Stang and I were both working in the music industry when we launched The Infatuation as a side hustle almost 10 years ago, which is crazy looking back. Because of what we did for a living, working in Marketing and PR for Warner Music Group, we became the go-to resources for family and friends about where to go eat. With the iPhone being brand new and social media just starting to emerge, we felt like there was an opportunity to share our knowledge and provide a utility to our friends and family and help people find the right place for the right eating or drinking occasion. We spent five years building the brand while still holding down our full-time jobs before leaving in April 2014 to focus on building The Infatuation full time.

 
 

What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you? How is it impacting the future of marketing?

The most exciting thing is how accessible the opportunity to make an impact is. You no longer need to tie up huge sums of money in television advertising. If you have a good idea and you’re a smart marketer, that idea can travel on its own thanks to the power of the small computers we all have in our pockets and power of social media.

What are the biggest changes in your industry and how are you staying ahead of them?

We often discuss the missteps that some brands have taken and are really careful in developing and adjusting our approach. Up until this point, we never spent money on acquisition and our growth has been all organic, making our audience 100% real. When our brand started to take off about five years ago, creating content for Facebook was a decision that a lot of media brands were investing heavily in, but that wasn’t for us. Neither was the strategy of buying followers or driving fake clicks via traffic amplifiers. We’ve balked at the myth of media scale and focused our resources on identifying ways to connect directly with our audience and continue to build a community organically. Through events, experiences and direct connection, we’re excited about the path we’re on and the growth trajectory – while it may take a bit longer to do it the right way – we feel great about what we’ve been able to accomplish as well as the road ahead.

What defining characteristic has made your brand successful?

Since the beginning, we always pay for all our meals ourselves and show up unannounced...

Credibility and trust, those are the most important characteristics of The Infatuation. Our goal has always been to add value and become a part of people’s daily lives and you can’t do that unless you speak the truth and make it known that your opinions cannot be bought or swayed. Editorially, since the beginning, we always pay for all our meals ourselves and show up unannounced, and on the brand side, we’ve only worked with brands that we feel like represent our own brand and have an authentic narrative we can get behind. We’ve said no to millions of dollars from CPG brands or chain restaurants over the years because we know they will undermine the credibility we’ve worked so hard to earn with our dedicated community. We always think community first.

What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?

Very excited about a project we’ve been working on for the last four months, a new podcast collaboration between The Infatuation, T Brand Studios, and BMW USA called The Special, which is hosted by Miss Info and just went live this week. Two publishers working together to bring new original content inspired by an innovative brand partner is not exactly common practice in this space. The BMW team over at Universal McCann should get a ton of credit for this outside the box thinking to help launch their newest Sports Activity Vehicle, the X7, and their willingness to pair up two partners and create something that neither party had done before – A.) work with another publisher on a brand partnership of this nature, or B.) make a podcast completely inspired and created for a brand.

The Special is a six-episode podcast hosted by Miss Info, focuses on cities, their people and food. In addition to the podcast, which can be listened to and subscribed for on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher, we’re also conducting our Instagram Story restaurant ride-alongs in the BMW X7 for each market featured in the show and producing and hosting a podcast launch event on BMW’s behalf in Los Angeles. This is really what we’re looking for in our brand and agency collaborations. It was very innovative on their behalf and we’re excited to play a role in such a thoughtful, well-integrated marketing program with such incredible partners.

What big learning moments have you had along your company’s course?

Text Rex is an SMS-based service powered by The Infatuation staffers to give people real-time, personalized restaurant recommendations.

Text Rex is an SMS-based service powered by The Infatuation staffers to give people real-time, personalized restaurant recommendations.

There are so many and we never stop learning. I think I could easily point to a bunch of pivotal moments in our company’s history… our acquisition of Zagat in 2018 would certainly be one. However, our strong understanding of our audience stems from the tools we’ve developed to listen to them. When we launched Text Rex, our SMS-based recommendation service, we realized something incredible. Through their asks of our staff for where to eat in any situation, our community was essentially telling us what they were looking for in our content. This moment started to inform our editorial decisions in terms of what and where to write about, both geographically and situationally. What people ask us mirrors what they type in a search engine, thus positively impacting our exposure to new audiences and helping us grow. Listening and learning about what our audience wants as we grow has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.

What one leadership trait do you think is most critical to making a Challenger Brand successful?

Building culture at your company is incredibly important. Chris and I are the kind of leaders that like to find talented people and let them learn, grow and take ownership vs. micro-manage every element of their jobs. I’d like to believe that the transparent approach we take to building a business contributes to a culture where people feel empowered and excited to work for The Infatuation, but you’d have to ask them. Our employee retention rate would support my hunch though. Oh, and we’re hiring now and encourage people to check out our postings and apply to join The Infatuation and Zagat team today.

What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?

You have to be relentless, patient, but also smart enough to identify whether or not there’s actually a product market fit or not. You don’t want to spin wheels on something that’s not there. Doing that and getting your team to think the same way is an important path to success.

For more information visit The Infatuation and their food festival EEEEEATSCON