A fascinating feature, The virtues of Vice: how punk magazine was transformed into media giant, gives insights into how these punks bucked the commonly held belief that news media is a dying business and grew from a zine to an empire—an empire that’s growing.
“Ah, but I am not a publisher,” you say? Ah, but you are…or you should be and there are lessons that can be applied to any business.
Built on a reputation of authenticity
It’s way down toward the end of the article but Head of European News programs for Vice, Kevin Sutcliffe, nails what should be the main take-away: “Broadcasters say people trust us but that’s not true. Trust is not the battleground, authenticity is the battleground.”
Vice was founded in 1994 as a Punk zine and many of the ethics and attitudes that made it appealing then are what make it a juggernaut today. For one, they’re willing to break rules. More than that, they seem to really only adhere to the rules that benefit them. As Dave Gray says, “90 percent of the things you think are constraints exist only in your mind.” That is the essence of the Punk spirit and one that Vice retains as they’ve expanded from a small circulation publication into an estimated $2.5bn media machine.
One example is Vice’s move toward long-form journalism. “Everyone told us to make bite-sized, funny clips but we were putting 20-50-minute serious documentaries and they were by far the most popular thing we put up,” head of video content, Al Brown, told The Guardian.
So rather than following the new rules that say short-attention spans only support short copy, Vice doubled-down on long-form content and wins. Vice recognized the desire from audiences to dig deeper. After years of being told that we all have short attention spans (especially online), we’re learning that’s not necessarily true. It’s all about context. We scan when we want to quickly identify information and we linger when we want to be engrossed in the story. Like most things in life, it’s not one or the other. Vice, like many other publishers, spotted the difference and delivered to their audiences.
They also break from the idea that you must “capture” your audience to win. Rather, Vice thinks about overall audience engagement, whether that’s in one viewing or in multiple viewings seems to matter little to them.
Focus on ubiquity and the content more than the space around the content
Another widely accepted belief is that ad revenue is down compared to the early days of web publishing. There are now so many channels and digital properties out there that audiences are fragmented and nearly impossible to engage with at scale. Or, that’s what we’ve been told. Yes, there are more channels and Vice sees that as an advantage.
“With 11 digital channels ranging from Vice News to Motherboard (“covering cultural happenings in technology”), Noisey (“a music discovery channel”), a food channel called Munchies, a TV studio and film division, and a record label, as well as the tie-ups with YouTube, HBO and China Daily, Vice has a more diverse business model compared with, say, Channel 4, which offers advertisers slots around specific content at specific times.”
There are two things at play here:
- Ad revenue per se is not down, at least not universally. According to an IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report, Internet ad revenue hit a record high of $23.1 billion in the first half of 2014. That’s a 15% rise in revenue from the same time in 2013. But like all things digital, that revenue was fragmented across multiple platforms, including mobile, video and display advertising.
- Savvy publishers see that fragmentation as opportunity. Those are more touchpoints with the customer. At the same time, it’s all the more important to invest in the information people are looking for. That is to say, the content.
Now, Vice is a publisher. Creating content for profit is their business model, but even if publishing isn’t your core business you can still learn from them. The key is to understand what your audience wants at different points in their journey. You cannot treat all content the same. Marketing content serves a different purpose from service content. Be where your customers are, but remember that context is paramount.
“Three-quarters of adults watch an average of 115 hours of TV news a year compared with just 27 hours a year among 16- to 24-year-olds, according to the latest Ofcom research.” But that doesn’t mean younger audience aren’t watching video, they’re just not watching it on TV. That means not only meeting your audience’s interests, but also their consumption habits.
Innovation means risk
You cannot innovate without failure. In an atmosphere where people advocate for “failing fast” there are few companies actually willing to do so. The risk of losing and the effects on stock prices and careers are simply too much for many organizations to stomach. But that’s often because people think of change as being revolutionary instead of incremental. You don’t have to risk it all in order to make real change in how you do business.
Turning Vice to virtue
- Part of authenticity is recognizing mistakes and course-correcting.
- This punk company has grown up. They know who they are, who they want to reach, and where and how to find them.
- They don’t dictate how their content is consumed – that freedom lies with the audience. And they do consume.
- Yes, the punk mentality is still alive and well. Vice pushes the envelope, they fail, but they get better. That’s why they’re growing and going strong twenty years later.