Why Vox Media makes content just for social media

Facebook may not be sharing native video revenue with publishers yet. But when it does, Vox Media wants to be ready.

The publisher has been ramping up its efforts to create content that’s designed to live only on social media platforms, with a particular focus on Facebook.

Facebook has demonstrated all too well its power to drive traffic to publishers, to the point that some depend on the social network for 50 percent of their referrals. It has lately applied that power to video, rewarding publishers that have posted clips to its video player, which plays video automatically when it appears in someone’s news feed.

That hasn’t escaped Vox Media. Last year, the publisher formalized its efforts to create social-only content across its seven verticals. Early efforts have focused on SB Nation, The Verge and Vox, its news site. By standardizing its approach, the company has seen year-over-year social reach (defined by number of unique people reached organically by posts) increase in 2014 from 200 to 450 percent, depending on the vertical, said Jonathan Hunt, Vox Media’s global vp of marketing and partnerships. Most of that increase was due to Facebook.

SB Nation has had success posting key game moments as Vines or GIFs. But it’s Facebook, with its enormous user base, that offers SB Nation the biggest megaphone. This Jan. 21 native video on DeflateGate, for example, got more than 100,000 shares.

Elsewhere, Eater used Facebook, Instagram and Vine to tease its top 38 restaurants list. The Verge used social-only content to cover news and behind-the-scenes happenings from CES. News vertical Vox used Facebook to drive people to its content on the Ebola scare.

Post by Vox.

“In general, we do see higher sharing rates from the native-only posts,” said Chris Thorman, Vox Media’s director of audience development. “They don’t have to click off; there’s no barrier to engage.”

Vox has ambitious plans to grow into a digital media juggernaut. In late November, it raised a monster $46.5 million in venture capital to fuel an ambitious expansion strategy that CEO Jim Bankoff believes will result in the “Time Inc of the 21st century.” Like rival BuzzFeed, that means growing huge audiences, both on its site and off. BuzzFeed, which closed a $50 million funding round just three months before Vox’s, also has a distributed media unit focused on social platforms.

Because Vox Media covers such a wide variety of content, ranging from food to sports to tech, each vertical is in charge of its own social content. But to formalize the process and share best practices across the verticals, Thorman created a group last year that works with each vertical at the start of the story production process.

When it comes to social-only content, one tactic that has worked well is coverage of big events, whether it be the Verge covering CES, the Vox-branded news vertical and the State of the Union or SB Nation and the Super Bowl. As a rule of thumb, publishers start to see engagement on Facebook decline after 30 posts a day. But at CES, The Verge posted Facebook-only content 100 times a day without seeing any falloff in engagement as measured by views, likes, comments and click-throughs.

“What we’ve seen across the board is, when we’re covering a national event, we are able to up the volume of posts without seeing much of a diminishing return,” Hunt said.

Facebook’s growing power to turn the audience spigot on (and off, if it desires) makes some publishers nervous, especially when publishers aren’t making any money from their exclusively social content. But it’s hard to say no to the traffic boost.

For now, Vox Media, like other publishers, say their primary goal of engineering content exclusively for social platforms is to reach people who might not already be visiting their sites.

He and others are awaiting the day, however, when Facebook sells ads around the videos and shares the revenue with publishers, as it did in a recent test of ads that ran after NFL videos.

“The great thing about Facebook leaning in to the new video strategy is that publishers on average are seeing a lot more views and a lot more engagement with that video content,” Hunt said. “This could theoretically be a pretty massive revenue stream with publishers when and if they do enable monetization around this inventory.”