Thoughts From BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and NowThis, Part 1: Building a Brand in a Democratized Digital World

Uniqueness, authenticity, and the ability to read audiences are major keys to digital success

Building a respected media brand is an increasingly difficult challenge in the modern digital space. Unlike in the world of television, where, traditionally, there are only so many channels on the dial, there’s a limitless battlefield in which virtually any person or media company can plant a flag and join the conversation. So how does one establish a reputable brand as identifiable as a legacy name as it made itself in the era of cable TV?

Sarah Frank, NowThis

Sarah Frank, Editor, NowThis

One of the simplest ways is to do something unique. BuzzFeed has established a fun, youthful voice that has attracted massive audiences, but, when the company started a hard-news division about five years ago, the team involved was tasked with the challenge of giving that brand editorial credibility.

“You have to find an opportunity and find a place where you can do something different from what other people are doing,” says Henry Goldman, who heads video for BuzzFeed News and helped start a video team for Buzzfeed in 2012. “You find new ways of reporting or new ways of optimizing content for a platform where there’s a real hunger from audiences. Then crush it. BuzzFeed has done that multiple times on multiple platforms. The challenge is that you have to keep doing this.”

NowThis, a successful video- and social-based digital news operation has gained clout over the years by targeting a young audience. In its case, timing played a big role. NowThis developed a recognizable status when Facebook started to seriously push video on its platform. NowThis developed a calling card of sorts when its strategy of producing text-on-screen videos with little audio or voiceover that happened to fit the new medium exceptionally well.

Henry Goldman, BuzzFeed News

Henry Goldman, BuzzFeed News

“[It’s] seizing an opportunity,” says Sarah Frank, editor of NowThis. “When Facebook video started to take off, we realized that we had figured out the optimization; the thing that made it easier to consume video. From there, we realized that, if we didn’t put some personality, perspective, and POV behind this, it’s the most repeatable thing. We used to get really offended when we would see [publishers] use text-on-screen. But it’s not the medium; it’s the personality, it’s the point-of-view. For us, right now, that’s stories that are important to young people. Anyone can put text on-screen; it’s all about where you are coming from.”

A big challenge that traditional media companies have when approaching the digital world that, perhaps, digital-first outlets have had an advantage in, is thinking about brand identity differently. Success in digital does not always mean having to bring the viewer to your own site, channel, or platform.

Choire Sicha, executive director, partner development, Vox Media, observes, “People will guiltily say all the time something like ‘I love Vox … on Facebook.’ No, that’s good! We are publishing there, and people know it’s there. That’s because of brand-identity work and great design work. Our readers know they are reading even if they are nowhere near the website, which is great.”

Choire Sicha, Vox Media

Choire Sicha, Vox Media

Sicha, who oversees relationships with partners like Facebook and Google and runs Vox’s SnapChat studio, acknowledges that doing that across multiple platforms can be very difficult but that publishers need to demand more from platforms to make better decisions for their companies.

“There are two things we are always asking for: better and better metrics and analytics and better and better monetization and ad-technology opportunities,” he says. “Those are the least sexy topics, but they are the most important if you want to have sustainable, successful journalism that survives this era. In the meantime, we are asking them, ‘Hey, can we make this Instant Article or AMP page or Apple News page look more awesome and feel more like us?’ ‘Can I give my video makers and journalists opportunities to do things that look really cool and thrilling?’ That’s what we always push for.”

Insights from BuzzFeed News, Vox Media, and NowThis were shared on stage during a panel discussion at Social Media Week NYC.


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