‘The Obama interview was a huge moment for us’

Elisabeth Oberndorfer speaks to James Allen, VP of communications and strategy at Mic, ahead of the Digital Innovators’ Summit, taking place from 20-22 March 2016 in Berlin, Germany*.

Mic targets Millennials and is focused on serious, high quality news rather than entertainment. How did you initially start with building an audience and reach? 

We started with search and then moved into social as the platforms emerged over the last few years. Now we’re focused on a diversified range of distribution channels – from Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to apps, search, newsletters, and syndication. 

You’re in charge of strategy for Mic. Can you elaborate what your strategy is and how you want to grow in the next few years?

Mic wants to help young people make sense of the world they live in with coverage about the topics that will define the future. Our strategy is simple: we are reporting and producing interesting, informative text and video stories that reflect the sensibility of our generation. We intuitively understand our audience and we use that expertise to monetise – by creating campaigns for brands that want to engage with a highly coveted demographic. 

Mic now reaches more than half of all college-educated millennials in the US and more than 30m people a month. Our brand partners understand the value of our audience and pay us for both the creation and distribution of custom content. We are able to reinvest those profits into the business, which allows us to pay for more staff, more ambitious journalism projects, better products and technology, and everything else that goes into the creation of a successful, sustainable media business. 

You scored an interview with Barack Obama. How does a media startup get that type of recognition by the White House? Can you talk about how the interview came about?

The Obama interview was a huge moment for us. We had been talking with the White House about the potential for a sit down to allow the President to talk directly to young people about the Iran deal and how it impacts them. We’ve proven that we can engage young people on serious and substantive topics, and we wanted to make sure this interview reflected our sensibility. As the voice of college-educated millennials around the globe, we crowdsourced nuanced, personal video questions from young people around the world, including Israel and Iran.

The interview was certainly a win for us as we build our brand and earn the trust of our readers. It was very satisfying to see all of the hard work we’ve put into the company over the last four years come to life in the form of an interview with the President of the United States. The best part about it was hearing from so many people who watched the interview and said that it was the first time they truly understood the contours of the deal and why it matters. That’s the essence of what we’re doing everyday: informing our generation about important stories that will shape the future and empowering them to make an impact.

Publishers are facing a lot of challenges right now with difficulties of monetising content and the rise of ad-blockers. What’s your approach on these issues, how are you trying to monetise your reach and content? 

Adblockers are not a huge concern for us right now since about 75 per cent of our traffic is mobile and only 2 per cent of our mobile visitors use ad blockers. We are monetising through branded content, editorial sponsorships, custom magazine-style native units, and custom products like the BrainMic campaign we created for General Electric. 

At DIS, you will talk amongst engaging the millennial audience. Do you have a team specifically dedicated to this area? What does audience engagement on a day-to-day basis look like for Mic?

We have a programming team with about a dozen people focused on audience engagement and growth. There are specialists devoted to exclusively Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or Snapchat, along with data analysts and product associates who work across editorial and engineering to ensure that we’re thinking about stories and frameworks that will succeed, while building products and a user experience that will delight our users, encourage them to share our content, and ensure they are coming back to Mic frequently. 

Comments remain a huge part of our audience engagement on Facebook, but we moved away from comments on the site at the end of 2014 because the vast majority of them were unproductive and too many of them were threatening or completely inappropriate. We’ve noticed that if you have to write a comment with your name and profile photo next to your text, it changes the dynamic a bit. It doesn’t mean Facebook commenters are polite, but it makes it much more difficult to use language that’s vulgar or violent. 

*Hear more from Mic at the Digital Innovators’ Summit, taking place from 20-22 March 2016 in Berlin, Germany.

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