How VICE Navigates The Tricky Web Of Paid And Organic, Cross-Platform Content

VanguardVICE is prioritizing off-platform distribution to reach new, loyal consumers who want more than a casual fling with its content. But although VICE has a gut read on who its audience is, it’s less clear what content mix resonates best across YouTube, Snapchat Discover and other platforms.

“We have to recognize that Facebook is required for certain promotion of our posts since globally, we’re producing 5,000 pieces of content a day at VICE,” the company’s chief digital officer, Mike Germano, told AdExchanger. He joined VICE by way of its acquisition of Brooklyn agency Carrot Creative in 2013, where he was CEO.

“Deciding which of those pieces to distribute on which social channel is a massive operation.”

Germano said one of the most important metrics is determining unfollows, as it’s a good indicator of engagement, particularly on Facebook, where its main site has nearly 6 million fans.

“When someone unfollows us, that means we’ve broken their trust with how much [branded] content they’re getting in their feed,” he said. “It’s the most important metric.”

VICE uses a host of solutions, like data management platform Krux and marketing platform Unified for audience indexing and to help VICE prioritize what content to promote across Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat – and which content drove the best results.

VICE knows its indie-alternative audience loves music and over-indexes on tattoos, so tailoring edgy content to match their interests is table stakes. But there's also a tricky line to walk between volume of organic and branded content - or editorial series that happen to be sponsored. 

“If we are just selling out our audience, they will start leaving,” Germano added. "We’re not only tactical about targeting and distribution, we have to make sure our readers want to read an article or watch a video series. That's where we're really using Unified."

Publishers that offer branded content often balance what they create internally with the assets their brand clients bring to the table. For a national automaker client, for instance, that conversation could involve 10 agencies at the local/national and creative/media levels.

VICE chief Shane Smith recently cited the “war” between publishers and media planners over whom has jurisdiction over branded content initiatives, Digiday reported. In theory, publisher content studios can serve brand clients direct, and sometimes there are disputes when greenlighting the next big idea.

“All do political posturing, and all have an incentive to carve out more dollars for themselves,” said Jason Beckerman, CEO of Unified. “Publishers have to provide feedback to brands about what actually happens, but everything else is about data.”

This, he said, is why media and brand clients like VICE and American Honda need a full scope on marketing intelligence that spans O&O, third-party socially distributed content and systems like CRM (as well as a tool to “democratize” the data across various agency workflows).

catIn a way, what began as a mere social marketing tool for companies like VICE has evolved into creative asset management and, as immaterial as it sounds, screenshot tools for new channels like Snapchat.

One Eye On TV – And Sustainable Monetization

VICE’s expansion into TV with its HBO show in 2013, and then again with A&E-owned cable channel VICELAND in 2016, have opened up more native ad integrations on both digital and TV properties – with lighter overall ad loads.

Like other TV networks, VICE believes a reduction in traditional ad loads (VICELAND features eight minutes of national ad time per hour instead of 16) creates a better audience experience.

“With the launch of our TV channel, no one has more access to more platforms than VICE,” Germano said.

But VICE is also entering a period of uncertainty.

VICE’s ad chief Richard Beckman departed in late March shortly after Variety reported a 17% dip in web traffic month-over-month in February at the publisher.

ComScore attributed this to plummeting traffic from the viral publisher Distractify, one of the publisher’s monetization partners.

Distractify’s impact on VICE’s traffic spotlighted a controversial practice that many publishers subscribe to, since they’re essentially bolstering audience numbers by counting visitors to sites they don't necessarily own and operate.

This practice is particularly risky, as Distractify is a viral publisher whose traffic relies heavily on Facebook. When Facebook tweaks its algorithm to de-emphasize viral publishers on its newsfeed, however, traffic applicably plummets.

To be fair, VICE Media saw 29% growth in multiplatform traffic year over year across its full footprint of sites, in which it facilitates advertising or other partnerships.

It grew from 37.3 million monthly uniques in February 2015 to 52.7 million in February 2016, according to comScore data, and those numbers were inclusive of deduplicated desktop and mobile (browser and in-app) traffic. It did not, however, include TV or over-the-top traffic, which is a rapidly growing audience for VICE's brands.

Typically, to gauge an accurate picture of growth, you’d want to parse YoY traffic, though monthly fluctuations can be helpful to determine the impact of a new site launch, for instance, or to add additional context.

“We’re not just looking for a quick way to make money now – we’re experimenting to find ways to create value for the future,” Germano reiterated. “It comes down to how much accountability we bring to show we’re getting the right results for advertisers, while targeting the right people at the right pace to ensure they don’t get annoyed and unfollow us."

 

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