Vox Media: Taking on the Giants

Editor’s note: The following piece written by President and CEO, Edelman, Richard Edelman was first published on July 26th on Richard’s 6 A.M. blog. With his firm’s permission, we republish it here as a contributory, industry supportive piece.

Richard Edelman blog

Courtesy Edelman PR

I had a meeting earlier this week in Washington, D.C. with Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, whose properties include SB NationThe Verge and Polygon. I love to visit with feisty independent companies taking on the establishment; in his case it is Fox, Yahoo! and ESPN. Bankoff has had a distinguished career in the media, working on the start up of TMZ, running AOL’s* portal and then overseeing their instant messaging service.

He told me that he and his team are “inspired by the modern means of publishing—socially driven content that relies on video and mobile to accelerate conversation.” His first and most established brand is SB Nation, with 40 million unique visitors a month. Its 700 contributing editors run 300 sites that are the definitive content creators and aggregators of stories on teams in all professional sports leagues, from football to baseball to basketball to soccer. SB Nation’s goal is to have the No. 1 or No. 2 presence for every team or sports topic. There is a global site, SBNation.com, which picks up the best of the news flow from team sites while offering its own feature stories.

I met one of his site managers, Kevin, who follows the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in the UK. His keys to success include:

  • Make it easy for the community to communicate with team members
  • Offer a preview report for every game
  • Go to training sessions for a proprietary look at the squad
  • Be the means by which the fans can feel that they are at the game even if they lack the monetary means to get there
  • Have a distinctive voice that is satirical and analytical
  • Offer an open conversation thread, especially during games, when an appealing blog post can attract thousands of comments
  • Be the one place where you can get all of the information on a team from your own stories to those from other media

Bankoff relies on an advertising supported business model, with no circulation charges or paywalls. Per Comscore, SB Nation has the most affluent and educated sports fans in its category, “the more digitally savvy younger crowd.” He said that his audience is not as interested in banner ads as in bespoke paid campaigns such as one running currently for Jeep*. The creative is “A Day’s Work,” featuring former baseball great Wade Boggs, who travels the country to interview behind the scenes employees, such as those who clean the fish tank at Marlins Park in Florida. “Brands want to communicate authentically and go direct to the end user. We did an eight-part web series that incorporated the Jeep product into the story.”

I spoke with him about the potential for PR firms to bring clients to Vox Media with specific ideas that could bolster their brands. “I love the idea of enabling storytelling in real time. We can help on the production and the distribution to our 300 unique sites. Our sites are viral hotbeds; our born digital media helps to generate a lot of earned media in mainstream outlets,” he said. For example, if we had a medical client interested in sports injury, when a player goes down in the middle of a game (think about Derek Jeter during the American League Baseball Playoffs last year), the SB Nation team could do interviews with sports doctors and visuals describing the injury and path to recovery. There could be links to other sports injury stories (Redskins QB Robert Griffin’s leg injury) and curated content from other sites. The policy at Vox Media is total transparency on paid advertising versus editorial. The company believes that advertising when done well should be compelling, engaging content in its own right.

PR people should be experimenting with born digital sites such as SB Nation, Polygon and The Verge. We should be telling clients that we don’t need to design ads that look like editorial content; great content is your ad. We can utilize paid to accelerate owned and earned. We can introduce concepts to the born digital sites (imagine the White Room for the dairy industry, a pre-game place for statistics enthusiasts to trade notes) where the concept is sponsored but the discussion can be moved into mainstream media or blogs. Through intelligent community management on social sites, we can create a point of intersection with the born digital media. We can build campaigns in a native manner without relying on advertising.

*Edelman client

Richard Edelman is president and CEO of Edelman Inc..

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