Atlas Obscura CEO David Plotz: ‘Video is an arrow in the quiver’

Nearly eight years after its founding, Atlas Obscura has completed a Series A round of funding, grabbing $7.5 million in a round led by A&E. The travel-focused publisher, which recently dipped its toe into the competitive food category, will use the money to ramp up its video operations, but it also plans to grow its events and analytical capabilities.

The company’s CEO, David Plotz, spoke with Digiday over the phone about where that money will go, how Atlas Obscura manages its direct connections with readers and the help platforms can offer to publishers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When you announced this funding round, you mentioned this investment would allow Atlas Obscura to invest in video. Thanks to a lot of news this year, “pivoting to video” has become synonymous with desperation. Why is this different?
One of the things I want to emphasize about Atlas is we are very much subscribed to the belief that a multiplatform approach is one of Atlas’ strengths. We’re a media business, but we’re also an events business, a book publisher. Our revenue sources are very diverse. Video is an area we have not been able to invest in at all. We’ve been a very thinly funded venture, and video seems to us to be a natural source for growth.

This gives us a chance to start to build that. We are not becoming a video company. Video is becoming an arrow in the quiver. We’ll invest heavily to expand our trips. We’re going to invest on our contributors so they can contribute more content. We’re going to invest in Gastro Obscura [a food-focused vertical Atlas has in the works].

From the beginning, Atlas Obscura has focused on building direct connections, and that’s paid off. You have half a million email addresses and a bunch of ways to monetize them. How have you evolved and optimized that funnel for what to do with those direct connections?
What we don’t have as much as we want to — and it’s an area we’ll invest in — is a specific knowledge about how you get someone from someone who’s seen us on Facebook, to liking us on Facebook, to subscribing to our email, to being a regular visitor to our site, to visiting our events, to buying a book, to paying for a $3,000 trip.

We know there is a funnel that takes people roughly on that path, and that’s what we try to manage toward. But what we don’t yet have is a very specific knowledge of the yield on if we get this many people as new email subscribers, it translates into this many trips sold eight months later. That kind of CRM expertise is something we need to develop.

How do you conceive of video fitting into what you do?
We’re going to have a partnership with A&E, so they have a first look for television we want to develop. We’re also going to partner with A&E on digital content in partnership with some of their properties. For us, it’s going to be a mix of social videos. We really want to increase the audience we’re bringing in on social. That’s an area where we’ve actually done some experimenting over the past year with Facebook animations. That’s an audience-growth strategy.

The other piece of it will be probably more YouTube or Vimeo, higher-production. That’s the kind of thing we’re going to start working on with brands. They’ll focus on some of the places we’ve visited or on some of the food we’ve created.

What do you think about the state of video monetization opportunities for publishers?
I think the folks who are dependent on scale are pursuing a very different model than we would. Because of the nature of the kind of video they produce or the scale they’re operating on, they can run a scale business where they run enough pre-roll in front of it for that to be a good business. That’s not the kind of video we’re going to focus on. We’re not going to monetize off of scale. We think the kind of video that would work for a place like us is video that’s quite beautiful and interesting and, potentially, is part of a larger campaign. We think that there are kinds of videos you can do where it’s a piece of some larger engagement with a brand. It might be events, a larger ad campaign on the event. It’s not [trying to get] a ton of eyeballs on something. I think the ton-of-eyeballs model is just really difficult. It’s basically traffic arbitrage. That’s a great business for some people. It’s not a business we want to spend a lot of time on.

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