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April 6, 2017, 11:04 a.m.

Q&A: How Mic used its social accounts to influence its new vertical-focused editorial strategy

“The thesis here was that we were connecting the audiences that we were growing organically within social and were doing our journalism and original storytelling around and then connecting that back to our own site.”

Last week, the millennial-focused publisher Mic unveiled a redesigned site and a new approach to organizing its coverage. It launched nine new verticals covering a range of topics from the Trump administration and body positivity to feminism and personal finance.

The company also announced it had promoted Cory Haik to the role of publisher. Haik joined Mic in 2015 from The Washington Post, and in an interview this week, Haik (along with a Mic spokeswoman listening in) explained her new role.

“It embodies a lot of the strategic work around how we reach our audiences, how we connect with our audiences, the beats and topics we cover, how we do that via video, via written work, and with native social formats,” she said. “It’s a lot of stuff, quite frankly, that to date I’ve fashioned my career around.”

Mic plans to hire about 35 staffers this year as part of its expansion effort, and Haik and I spoke about the strategy behind the new branded approach, how many of the verticals grew out of popular Mic social accounts, and what’s next for the company as it adjusts to the Trump era.

Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Lichterman: Can you tell me about the redesign and the thinking behind focusing on verticals? Why did you guys decide to focus on not just Mic but these separate brands as well?

Haik: A lot of our strategic thinking over the last year really culminated in this new relaunch. We spent a lot of time, and a lot of it very experimental, within the social sphere of where our audiences are and figuring out stories, categories, and topics that they are most passionate about and that our journalists were best to engage with them on. Instagram, in particular, we dove into over the summer and found some microcommunities within body positivity and feminism. We created some new teams to spend their time doing daily journalism on this beat within Instagram specifically: original motion graphics, photo illustrations, animations. Editors and story producers connected on these specific topics within Instagram and then really built out these communities.

We launched the Strut and we launched Slay, which are our body positivity and feminism channels, respectively. It became very clear that these were going to be really powerful new brands for us. And then how we connected that back to what we were doing on our site — it became clear that we needed to make those connection points for our audiences, because at the same time we were also building out what I would call these direct-to-consumer channels, like email. We started a newsletter called Slay, and that’s now one of our fastest growing newsletters. On the feminism side, we had an Instagram channel and we had a newsletter that was growing like wildfire, but we didn’t have a clear place within our owned-and-operated site where all of our feminism content was represented.

The thesis here was that we were connecting the audiences that we were growing organically within social and were doing our journalism and original storytelling around and then connecting that back to our own site and making those connections explicit with our audiences — so they could follow Slay, engage with Slay, read and watch our Slay journalism on whatever platform really suits them — but also to connect the dots so they know we have a very 360-approach to how we’re doing our journalism across the landscape.

Lichterman: I was reading through your post from last week introducing the redesign, and I thought it was interesting that for each vertical you highlight different social platforms and different places to read your coverage. It seems like you’re tailoring the output to each of the niches you’re trying to reach.

Haik: It’s not really a one-size-fits-all strategy. I reject that idea early and often, that there’s one way to publish journalism. Platform-agnostic is, I think, the wrong approach, and we’ve taken a very platform-specific approach. Within these verticals or channels, which is what we’re calling them, we’re doubling down on the idea that they are very platform-specific.

For example, Payoff, which is our personal finance channel, has a podcast, but it doesn’t have an Instagram channel. Maybe there’s one to be had, but in our view, it’s not one that has a very passionate community where we can do interesting storytelling around personal finance. If there’s a market there we’re interested, but I don’t really think that there is. Trying to force that on Instagram would be silly. Rather, a podcast is a better approach to engage a community on personal finance. Being very specific about how we’re approaching these channels is also part of the strategy.

Lichterman: I’m curious also then how monetization fits into it. It’s one thing to have an audience, but another to monetize it. That can be difficult when you’re publishing off-platform, and I’m curious how that fits into your strategy.

Haik: For us, the appeal of this cross-platform channel is that it’s of interest to our advertisers, which is also one of the reasons we built them out this way. Discover sponsors Payoff across all of these different platforms. There’s sponsorship within the podcast, the Payoff newsletter, and on the channel itself — on our site, you see that. Across all the different platforms and the mechanisms by which we’re producing our journalism, there’s also accompanying sponsorship for that brand. There’s a way to really tie it across platforms for the advertiser, which is appealing because they get a very digitally focused innovative way to integrate with the channel in a way that’s not just one node on our site.

Lichterman: I was looking at the prediction you wrote for us last year and it was all about trust and how media can adapt after the election. One quote that I thought was really interesting was: “Navigating these new mandates the audience has passed down will create pressures and opportunities to try making news differently.” Are you thinking about that at all at Mic? How are you addressing these issues around trust during this era?

Haik: My prediction has come true for myself. I don’t know if you’re familiar with our newsletter, Navigating Trump’s America, but it’d be worth your time to check out. From an editorial perspective, it’s one we’re most proud of. It’s a daily newsletter anchored by Will Drabold out of our D.C. bureau, and it’s a fantastic daily update on what’s happening with the administration, particularly as it relates to our audiences and what they’ve told us about.

It’s a qualitatively complete version of what’s happening with the administration and with Trump. It’s something that’s new for us, that investment that we’re making in writing that newsletter. It’s not an aggregation. It’s written original and specific for that newsletter, and we’ve grown that audience in a big way. That’s just one tiny piece of connecting with our audiences daily around a very important issue of Trump, the administration, and how his policies relate to their audiences, which are, quite frankly, trying to navigate what all of this change actually means for them.

We launched something a couple weeks ago called Actually, which is this live debate that we’re doing. It’s an effort to connect different points of view and not just make our columnists’ arguments so one-sided. Last week, we did it on healthcare; the week before was about the protests at Middlebury College. We then have a poll where we ask you who won the debate, and then we target that post to audiences across the spectrum. Not just red feed/blue feed, but we like to target a wide range of audiences. That’s something that six months ago I don’t think we would’ve taken up, but it’s very important to us to make sure we’re representing outside voices and then connecting back to the journalism that we’re doing to have as broad a reach as we possibly can.

The most important thing in our work is that it’s fair. The idea of objectivity is a tough one for me personally, because as a classically trained journalist, you’re taught in the ivory tower that objectivity is what you’re supposed to do — that voice-from-nowhere kind of writing that comes out of that classical training. The Internet writ large flipped that on its head a bit, as we all learned very quickly in Web 2.0 — the audience talks back and has a point of view and it’s not just what’s important in news, it’s what’s the most important and interesting thing. And so much of that is by way of point of view.

At Mic, we have certain values that our audience holds, so how can we be true to those values? The most fundamental of those would be equality. How do we bring that value to the work that we’re doing and be fair in our journalism and be fair in our assessment in policy, but also do a good job of making sure that our audience understands that our values are based on the kind of work that we’re doing? We believe fundamentally that diversity of voices on essential facts are very, very important. We don’t walk back from that in any way. We’ve leaned in in a big way to our voice in this time, but we’re committed now more than ever to the highest journalistic values: professional journalism, but in new formats.

Lichterman: You’ve spoken about using Mic’s platform for advocacy in the past. So I’m curious how you are trying to reach new audiences while also balancing those values.

Haik: The answer to that in the simplest form is transparency, which is kind of the meta story in media in a lot of ways right now. In the post that you read, I put some of that out there. But the transparency part, aside from being accurate and being fair, is the key. We tell our audiences what we know and when we know it. We tell our audiences if we have an opinion or a point of view, and we label that as such when we have an opinion or a point of view. Also if we get it wrong, we also tell our audiences we get it wrong. We have one of the best digital copy desks in America, and I feel very proud of our copy desk and the standards they’ve come up with about how we do our journalism. We’re fighting for new formats and growing new audiences, but it has to hold up to our values or we’re doing our users a disservice.

We’re also doing some experiments. We did a whole series called Other Facebook where we took a fake news story of the moment, debunk it, and then do the etymology of how the story evolved and where it originated from. A know-your-meme approach, but with fake news, to understand how it got to where it did. We did some reporting around it, and then we targeted back to the audiences from which we actually found it. So we weren’t just telling our own current audiences or preaching to the choir — we were trying to target that story debunking it back to the original audiences that were passing it around as if it were real news and also being very transparent about what we were doing. We weren’t being preachy or shouty about it, but being clear that this is how we were doing our journalism. Maybe that’s a squishy answer, but I really think that transparency is the key.

We spend a lot of time talking to our users. We recently conducted some focus groups around the country and talked to upwards of 2,500 people. It was amazing. There was a real throughline there for us: “We trust Mic, and we would trust it even more if you were even more transparent. We appreciate the transparency that you bring.” They want to understand the process by which we do our journalism. They want to know how many sources we used and what our fact-checking process was. All of which was, as a journalist at my root, that’s music to my ears. That’s exciting, and I think there are a lot of product opportunities to build that into our work.

The next phase of Mic, what will be next on the redesign, is figuring out how we can showcase some of that transparency. We’re going to be working on something called the Transparency Project, which is maybe a pretty boring name, for Q2 and Q3 at Mic, which is about how do we show how many sources we have in this story? How do we show that we fact-checked this? Is there a more visual way to do that? Do we include editor bylines on stories? How can our videos have more transparency? It’s clear on the written side who the reporter was and linking back to original sourcing. On video, that’s much harder to do. It’s a design and product challenge for us to sort through.

Lichterman: To follow up on one thing you just mentioned: It sounds like you’re using Facebook or other platforms to target audiences who wouldn’t be reading Mic otherwise. What’s their response to that been?

Haik: We are. Audience engagement is our specialty at Mic, so it’s fun to be able to use that to connect with audiences outside of our traditional network. We’re using Facebook, using Twitter, using Instagram to connect and target specific audiences. They are actually very good at helping you figure out which segments you’re trying to reach and there are a lot of good targeting tools.

The response has been kind of what you would expect. They didn’t engage with it as much as they would. It’s not red meat. We’re not trying to bait people — it’s written as straight news. But there have been some responses like, “Huh! That’s interesting,” and that’s good enough for us. We’ve gotten some feedback that people appreciate that we do it. It’s kind of a win all around, and it’s a good way to reach out outside of our network.

Lichterman: You mentioned the Transparency Project, and I know there are still a few of the verticals yet to launch, but what else are you thinking about moving forward?

Haik: The Transparency Project is a big fun project on the horizon. Also continuing to build out our direct relationships with our audiences. It’s not a very sexy name, but a direct-to-consumer relationship: emails, push alerts — I know you’ve written about our iOS app, and we’ve talked about that before — the products that our audiences can directly engage with us on are important to us as we continue to grow these channels that they all have ways that our audiences can connect to them by way of subscribing in some form or fashion. Obviously, we’re engaged in social, but we want them to have some direct line to Mic itself.

The third is video. We did 400 million video views last month. As a publisher, the ability to reach that many people is a privilege, and we’re excited about that. One of our reporters did a written op-ed that did okay, and then he did the same op-ed in video format and it reached half a million people in just a couple of hours. It’s amazing that you can connect with that many people in our journalism. The possibilities there, I think we just sort of scratched the surface. A lot more experimentation with some of our reporters, video, and how we continue to build it out beyond how it’s working now. If we talked again in six months, we’d have a lot of exciting things to tell you on the video side. We’re bullish on that in general.

Lichterman: You have those big audiences that originated on social platforms — how do you think about trying to convert them to having more direct relationships with Mic on your platforms?

Haik: You always want to be mindful that you’re not beating someone over the head with “subscribe, subscribe, subscribe.” But you still want to do it to some degree. It’d be silly not to. But if your video reaches 500,000 people, the degree to which some of them will convert to a newsletter subscriber of that columnist is pretty high. They’re interested. We are thinking about a lot of ways of connecting our very viral moments to our direct to consumer products. It’s working. Facebook has been a very good lever for us to grow our Navigating Trump’s America newsletter. Whenever there is a big story about Trump and we promote our newsletter, we can get hundreds to thousands of email subscribers. That’s a pretty great funnel. It can be tedious, because you have to pay attention to those moments, and it can be manual, but we put a lot of effort into figuring out how we can capture and convert those audiences to our channels when we can off of social in particular.

Look, we do a lot of talking to our audiences specifically with the audiences and focus groups I talked about. Listening to them — those are our power users, people who come directly to Mic.com, use our app, or follow us on Facebook and aren’t just seeing us because it was in their feed from someone else’s share. Those people are very meaningful. When they have something to say, we follow up and we ask them. Being mindful of those two things and build that virtual connection and also with some of the more viral moments to make sure there’s an opportunity for people to connect with us directly is key.

Lichterman: Going back to the channels for a minute: I’m curious how you balance their individual identities versus the overall identity of Mic. How do you want readers to think about them within the overall structure of the publication?

Haik: Mic really is the network of all these other brands. Mic itself is actually a channel as well — that’s really our core news channel. I definitely think there are these places where our audiences overlap for some of these channels and places where they don’t at all. This body-positivity channel is very specific — it’s a celebration of different body sizes and styles. That’s an important topic that’s very prescient right now, it’s in the conversation right now, but also it’s a pretty specific kind of channel and a certain kind of journalism and storytelling. I don’t know that there’s a ton of crossover between Strut and something like Navigating Trump’s America. There might be. People are interested in politics, obviously, and can be interested in fashion, but we would be perfectly happy if someone just followed our Instagram channel or followed our Facebook page for Strut. We’d view that as a success. We’re figuring out how we bolster these channels on their own, but we do want people to know that they are part of the Mic family. They’re all supported by the endorser brand of Mic.

Lichterman: Something like Navigating Trump’s America feels very of the moment. Do you expect these channels to evolve, titles to change, or new channels to pop up? How do you expect them to evolve moving forward?

Haik: They definitely will evolve. That’s the fun part of being publisher. They will all evolve. The one thing I know for sure is that we will continually ideate and iterate. Mic has this mantra of “always in beta,” and that’s more real than ever. I absolutely love that about this place. We fully embrace the strategy that you think about the platforms, you produce work for the platforms, you work with your audiences, and you produce the best journalism that you can. Then a new platform will emerge and you’ll think about new audiences you can build and how you can connect with. You’ll see them grow certainly. As new platforms emerge, we’ll uncover new ideas about how we do storytelling there. That’s one thing for certain.

Video is a big wide open space that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg with what we’re doing. There are even bigger possibilities in the world of OTT and streaming that we can tap into each of the channels as well. And I think there’s the potential for us to launch more. There’s a couple I mentioned in the post which aren’t live yet — Out of Office, which is our travel channel, and Multiplayer, which is our gaming channel, and they’re launching very, very soon. If there are other big opportunities that make sense across platforms and that make sense editorially, we will continue to grow.

Lichterman: The last thing I wanted to ask is that I know other publishers have tried to take this standalone vertical approach, and some have had more success than others. I’m wondering how you’re measuring success with this project and are there specific targets you’re looking at to determine what success is?

Haik: That’s always an important thing for us to think about on the front end at Mic. We actually have very specific success metrics for each of these, and they’re by platform. Again, they’re not one-size fits all. What we want the Payoff podcast to grow to is different than what we want the newsletter to grow to on Slay, but they are specific to those audiences. We spend a lot of time thinking about that. It’s not just a quantitative number, but also a qualitative mark around what we want that point of view, audience acceptance and understanding of that channel to be. We like to have ambitious goals, so they all have pretty aggressive and ambitious goals — not just for continuing to grow but for being remarkable in the editorial areas that they’re covering. Success is the continued growth, but also that they break out in some way. We just launched these channels, but we would like them to be front of mind for things like feminism and Trump and politics and policy for our audience.

POSTED     April 6, 2017, 11:04 a.m.
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