Two of the highest profile millennial news sites in the US have launched updates. Vox refreshed their homepage, while Mic executed a full relaunch, with a raft of new verticals and a $21m series C round of funding.
It’s well worth looking at what they say they are trying to achieve and more importantly what informed their strategies.
Venture-funded businesses like Vox and Mic must focus on growth to justify their valuations and also to attract additional funding, which means that they need to be focused on their highest growth opportunities.
These updates speak where they think they will find that growth and the priorities they have set to achieve it.
Doubling down the bet on audio and video
Visual content has proven very popular not only with the millennial audiences of Vox and Mic but also with their advertisers. And last year, Edison Research found that 38 percent of podcast consumers are 18- to 34-year-olds.
While much has been made about Vox’s relaunched homepage being “inspired” by newspapers, they say their goal is simply to present more content to their homepage visitors – a goal of redesigns through almost every iteration of Yahoo.But they also wanted to deliver a better audio and video experience, according to Yesenia Perez-Cruz, the design director for the Vox Product team, who added, “we are highlighting video and podcast coverage to demonstrate how Vox expanded coverage beyond written words.”
Mic is taking the move to multimedia even further. They not only announced a major relaunch but also $21 m in a series C round of funding to support the launch of premium video, according to the Wall Street Journal. (For context, Vox is already on its series F round with a $200 m investment led by NBCUniversal in August 2015, according to Crunchbase.)
Chris Altchek, the co-founder and CEO of Mic, told the Journal that while news services have been out of favour with investors that news is increasingly important in terms of “video and TV”. But in a not too subtle dig at legacy companies, he pointed out that broadcasters’ audiences are aging. Feel the burn.
Altchek believes that Mic is in an ideal position to produce video that attracts a valuable younger audience, and advertisers are willing to pay much more for video than text. And Mic’s newly named publisher Cory Haik told Harvard’s Nieman Report that they delivered 400 m video views in March.
Data driven product development
Digital media companies have sophisticated product processes, and it all begins with an obsessive focus on data.
Vox’s data and analytics team looked at how users were using their homepages and engaged in an extensive survey, which received 1,700 responses, to find out how their users found and consumed news, wrote Perez-Cruz and Sanette Tanaka, a product designer at Vox.
The research found “our homepage audience typically consists of return visitors who are looking for fresh content since their last visit”, they wrote. And assuming that most of those return visitors were coming from mobile, they created a “content river [that] is much denser and makes better use of limited real estate on small screens”.
But within that river of content, they also wanted to communicate more clearly what content was new, what content was important and the different types of content they produced – maps, video, audio and longer, more in-depth content.
Mic looked at data on their site but just as importantly on social platforms. Throwing some shade on traditional publishers, Haik said:
“In many traditional media companies, newsrooms make their decisions on which stories to cover based on what they think their audiences might want. In our case, we started with the audiences and communities within social platforms.”
Based on the insights gleaned by their users’ social activity, Haik explained that Mic was launching a range of new verticals covering a wide range of topics including entertainment, feminism, personal finance, Trump’s America and “beauty, broadly defined”. Haik said the new channels and content strategy are “(are) powered by our audience’s passion points, and we’ve built our new channels around them, with new voices, visual formats and areas of focus.”
But I am left asking myself: When does a channel become a sub-brand? Mic seems to be moving towards Vox’s model of a network of brands while still being unified under a single site.
Distributed content as an invitation to a direct relationship
On the surface, this focus on social platform activity seems a logical evolution of the distributed content strategy that many media companies have been pursuing in the past several years as they looked to scale as quickly as possible.
But Mic is looking at social distribution as the awareness or exposure stage of a marketing funnel as they also build “direct-to-consumer” content and strategies, such as newsletters and push notifications. “We are thinking about a lot of ways of connecting our very viral moments to our direct to consumer products,” Haik said.
Mic has found that if a video has a half million views that it reaches an audience that is very likely to subscribe to subscribe to a newsletter by the columnist who did the video, she said. And Facebook, particularly, has been a good driver to their Navigating Trump’s America newsletter:
“Whenever there is a big story about Trump and we promote our newsletter, we can get hundreds to thousands of email subscribers. That’s a pretty great funnel.”
“One size does not fit all”
Multi-channel strategies are too often little more than channel stuffing – trying to cram the same, undifferentiated content into as many channels as possible. It doesn’t work. It has never worked, and smart digital companies are not making the same mistakes as legacy companies. Haik said:
“Platform-agnostic is, I think, the wrong approach, and we’ve taken a very platform-specific approach,”
Mic is being very deliberate in the channels that they choose to focus on for each of their new verticals. Instagram might be very good for their new beauty channel but it’s not necessarily a good fit for Payoff, their personal finance channel. They didn’t find a passionate personal finance community on Instagram, and “trying to force that on Instagram would be silly,” she said. Instead a podcast felt like a better fit for Payoff.
Another example of this very finely tuned approach is a deep-dive newsletter on the Trump administration. The newsletter is original content written specifically for the newsletter, she said, adding, “we’ve grown that audience in a big way.”
Use every opportunity to monetise
Of course, scale for its own sake is so 2015, and engagement detached from business goals could become the next blind alley for media. The big, meaty existential question for media companies is how to effectively monetise attention. Haik sees the value in cross-channel sponsorship – across all of the channels of an individual vertical. She gave the example of Discover, the US credit card company. They sponsor the Payoff podcast, the newsletter and the channel, she said.
They hope that the this tightly integrated digital approach will appeal to big ticket advertisers.
A relaunch or a major refresh always gives us a point to mark a change in strategy, but don’t expect these sites to stand still. Their audiences are constantly moving, and smart companies know they will have to move in step. As Haik said, Mic prides itself as always being in beta.