Category Archives: Internet

Vine Stardom

Besides the Uber mishegas, the other unexpected bit of fun I had in Cannes involved Vine, Twitter’s six-second video platform. Our first night on the town, I met Rob Fishman. Rob runs Niche, a talent agency that connects Vine (and other social media) stars to advertisers that recently sold to Twitter in a very nice deal for a company only 18 months old. I was only ambiently aware of Niche before meeting Rob, so it was fascinating to learn about the business, and to hear about the gaggle of Vine stars they’d brought to Cannes.

My last night in town, Trei, Jonathan, and I decided to get off the beaten path and have dinner at Côté Jardin, a French restaurant on the edge of town. We were sitting in the garden, enjoying a bottle of rosé, when Rob rolled in followed by his coterie of Vine stars. The experience didn’t turn interactive until I went to the bathroom later in the meal and, on the way back to the table, got drafted by Sara Hopkins (700k Vine followers) and Robby Ayala (3.3 million Vine followers) to appear as an extra in a Vine they were crafting.

After shooting it (in one take), Sara returned to her table where she edited and posted the Vine. Within 12 hours, it had 2 million loops (Vine parlance for views); it now tallies nearly 4 million. The results of her handiwork — and my background appearance — can be experienced above.

I haven’t been a big follower of Vine, but as I got into the content of the Vine stars over the next day, it became obvious that what I think Trei observed to me — that Vine is basically a platform for Three Stooges-type slapstick — was right on. The whole experience, especially the speed with which the idea for the Vine was conceptualized and then published, reminded me a lot of blogging. For me, it felt great to master another social platform: 4 million loops and counting, thank you very much.

Traffic Bonuses

As part of his promised return to blogging in the new year, Nick Denton said something somewhat shocking last week — that Gawker Media, which pioneered the practice of paid traffic bonuses for bloggers, will no longer dole out rewards based on traffic in 2015.

It’s about time. Or perhaps, long past time: as Nick acknowledged in his epic year-end memo, Gawker’s traffic bonuses clearly led to unintended consequences: “Editorial traffic was lifted but often by viral stories that we would rather mock. We — the freest journalists on the planet — were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.” (Great line, btw.)

So how did Gawker end up there, at the end of such a long but seemingly obvious road?

Recall that a decade back, Gawker sites were written by a single blogger paid a monthly stipend. The company, like many young companies, ran on a shoestring. And so to both find ways to pay people a bit more money if they succeeded, Gawker implemented traffic bonuses. Made a lot of sense. Then, as the sites started to grow in staffing size, and the concept of virality (then, hilariously, what we termed “spikes”) first emerged, it became clear that traffic bonuses based on each month’s traffic didn’t make sense; one big hit could warp the math. So Gawker — by this point I was working there and helping to engineer these changes — moved to a quarterly bonus system in which three-month goals were set for pageview growth, and site leads were empowered to divide any bonus amongst their teams as they saw fit if they were successful in hitting bonus over an individual quarter.

This quarterly plan corrected for short-term hiccups, rewarding longer-term growth. But giving site leads discretion on how much money to give to who caused a new set of headaches. Complete subjectivity, and money, aren’t a great mix.

So when I shifted to running Curbed full-time, I took part of the Gawker formula — the quarterly structure — but changed the reward portion such that each team member had a bonus number they could achieve, or fail to achieve, together. (This plan was of course imperfect in its own ways too, namely that a strong team member could carry a weak team member, but I figured we had other ways of sussing out weak team members.) Given the relatively small size of Curbed’s editorial teams, this worked all the way through 2013.

Vox CEO Jim Bankoff takes a different view of traffic bonuses: that they’re asinine. Well, maybe not asinine, but that they encourage the wrong kind of behavior. And, moreover, that they’re perverse in the sense that, as Jim put it, “If we’re hiring the best people, why would we expect less than their best on any given day?”

So when we joined up with Vox Media, we did away with traffic bonuses for 2014, and never looked back. Result? Traffic across the Curbed/Eater/Racked group of sites grew 4x-10x in 2014.

In fact, traffic growth across all the Vox Media properties in 2014 was strong: the company finished the year with an audience size more than double that at the start of the year, which is remarkable considering the size of the audience we’re talking about. We did that in part with aggressive goal setting. And so we’re starting 2015 with a fresh set of goals, split across three buckets: traffic, social traffic, and video. (I won’t go into the way we break these buckets down more granularly, but rest assured, it’s pretty granular.) What do the goals serve, in the absence of a paid bonus structure? The ability to make sure all parts of the company are on the same page about what we need to achieve this year to be successful, and goals to strive for, for success’s sake. With a deeply motivated group of people, that’s more than enough.

Meantime, what now for Gawker? Denton, again: “Stories that generate attention will be noted and rewarded, but only those that Tommy Craggs and his colleagues deem worthy of that attention. A layer of subjective editorial judgment will return. Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.” Putting aside the hilarity of that last line, I wonder about the “noted and rewarded” bit. If that’s a return to bonuses for work being decided on a totally subjective basis — well, that’ll be a lot of fun for all involved.

Me, I’m glad to be out of the traffic bonus game, no matter how happy that makes those vindicated Newspaper Men.

Going Vertical

Last week, Rafat Ali wrote a great blog post titled Why It’s Time for a Vertical Media Collective. He explains:

For all the hype that media loves to shower on itself, vertical media companies, outlets and startups are the invisible middle child that everyone ignores. Even media reporters writing at vertical media outlets ignore it, while using those platforms to talk about the same five BuzzVoxViceQuartz538Gawker & the ilk.

I have written previously about my love for verticals — after all I have built my life in them — and companies and sites I admire that are taking a vertical focus and building long-lasting loyalties way beyond the flavor-of-the-day types.

Verticals, the real ones, are focused on subject matters where professionals build careers in, or enthusiasts spent their lives in being obsessed about. By definition, these are specific niches, but businesses being built on top of these don’t have to be.

As someone who spent a decade building and growing the vertical media stacks of Curbed, Eater, and Racked, I couldn’t agree more. In his post, Rafat rattles off a bunch of vertical media companies that he loves. Here are some of mine, in no particular order: Pando (Sarah Lacy’s Silicon Valley events and media company); Apartment Therapy (Max Ryan’s interiors site); Food52 (Amanda Hesser’s impressive recipe-cum-commerce hub); MediaRedef (Jason Hirschorn’s growing curated email newsletter empire); and Skift (Rafat’s own travel intelligence and events concern).

Each of these sites does what a strong vertical media company should do: deliver an insane depth of knowledge about its world, and, in many cases, creates ways for people who live in the penumbra of that world to meet up in real life and/or transact commerce in a very specialized way (such as with Food52′s Provisions store, which feels like shopping alongside Amanda Hesser herself).

Separate from Rafat’s post, I’ve been thinking about verticalized media as it relates to Vox Media. Despite Rafat lumping Vox in with a bunch of other horizontal media plays at the start of his post, I think one of the core advantages of a model like Vox’s (or Gawker Media’s) as compared to, say, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, or Mashable, is that our verticals can stay mostly verticalized, whereas more horizontal media companies need to expand their purview significantly in order to increase audience. Refinery 29, one of the leading fashion websites, has been doing this aggressively over the past few years, branching out into food and drink and movies and TV coverage, among numerous other subverticals. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to give a rabid audience more of what they want, and R29 has a pretty good filter for this sort of thing. But I also think a brand like R29 risks losing its authority in its original vertical when the site that was once the best place about one thing becomes yet another site about everything.

An interesting Digiday story that came out this morning about The Verge illustrates this same tension inside Vox Media:

The Verge may have been founded as a competitor to tech sites like CNet and Engadget, but it’s now eyeing newer, bigger targets: lifestyle publishers like Rolling Stone and Vice. Since its launch in 2011, the Vox Media tech site has extended its editorial coverage beyond technology to culture, science and even general news. This has all been in the hopes of building its audience beyond gadget enthusiasts and attracting more lifestyle-oriented advertisers.

In its most recent move, the site hired Grantland culture editor Emily Yoshida to build out the its coverage of movies, television and music. The Verge is also putting the finishing touches on an automotive and transportation section, which will push its coverage boundaries even further.

Listening to Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel explain it, the purview of The Verge isn’t so much “technology” as it is “the future.” Which helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it. Nilay and the team are aware of this risk, and I believe they’ll manage it successfully. (I also could not be more excited about The Verge’s addition of Emily Yoshida to its team; she’s going to kill it.) But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.

Meantime, Rafat’s planning to assemble a bunch of folks obsessed with vertical media — including me — next month in New York City. He’s calling the undertaking the Verticals Collective, and hey, you know it’s serious because he’s even got a website for it up and running. If any of what I’ve written about here touches a nerve, join us. I expect the conversation will be illuminating — and oh so very vertical.

Dan Lyons: “The real kicker was when I ran into Owen Thomas of Valleywag after the panel and he told me where he and the uber-geeks were having dinner tonight after all of their glorious collaborative filtering and scouring of their trusted online networks—the Union Oyster House.”

Mark Cuban, bringing the awesome at TechCrunch 50 conference: “Maybe I’m missing something, but that just sounded like the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life… Let me give you a suggestion, don’t make it a mass application, make it a corporate application. Then all you have to do is find one kindred messed up soul in an organization and you can sell them anything.”