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Vox Pop: Vox Media chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff on platforms and ad blocking

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bankoff2Vox Media chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff is not new to the race for scale in media; as an evp at AOL, he was responsible for one of the biggest properties on the internet. But as the head of Vox Media, with eight verticals including SB Nation, The Verge and Vox.com, he believes the way to build value today is by having focused sites with loyal audiences. He talked to Digiday about defending media brands in a distributed world, how it’s solving for ad blocking and what’s holding back a profitable model for digital publishing.

There’s been a lot of news about audience growth plateauing, BuzzFeed missing its numbers, Mashable laying off people. Are we in a bubble?
The trends are still really strong in favor of moving to digital content. Within that, there are always going to be companies that are successful and not successful. If Al Jazeera goes out of business, I don’t know if that says something broader about digital content companies. I can only focus on our company. How we attract audiences is changing. We have sites that continue to grow but a lot of the growth is coming from mobile, and within big applications, notably Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, email, podcasting. It’s on us to always be ready to thrive and change.

How much of your audience is off platform?
Per Google Analytics, we have 180 million people on our platforms and the best we can tell, it’s about three to four times that off our platforms.

BuzzFeed says it doesn’t matter if people don’t view its content on its own site. Does that matter to Vox Media?
It’s not the ultimate goal. We want to engage people where they want to be engaged. We define ourselves by the tone and voice of our brands regardless of where they appear.

Audience scale’s no longer the end-all, be-all. What’s next?
Scale is table stakes. Then it’s about the context, the audience, the composition of that audience, and what does the media brand represent. Take Eater. It represents people who are affluent, intelligent, spend money dining out. These are the same types of audiences a car company is interested in associating itself with. If you have a generic brand that’s like a portal and you just keep adding on sections, like, “Here’s our food section, here’s our tech section, here’s our sports section,” you chip away at your authority.

A video of an exploding watermelon recently got millions of views. What does that say about digital media today?
We lean into programming that works across these platforms, too. But we believe it’s important to ladder up to creating a brand, something that endures and creates lasting, positive impression around a defined topic or category. Advertisers want something that has lasting quality.

It’s been hard for digital publishers to make money on quality journalism, though. When do you think that’s going to change?
It’s time for all of us premium quality publishers to separate ourselves to create a better value proposition. If anything’s holding us back, it’s a lack of separation between premium quality brand experiences and every-thing else. You see symptoms of that with audiences adopting ad blockers.

How is Vox Media trying to solve for that?
We’ve developed our own ad platform to solve for a lot of the problems associated with ad blocking. We built our own creative services unit. For advertisers that bring their own assets to the table, we make sure they load quickly, look great and are data-informed. We think ultimately it’s in best interest of this whole ecosystem to embrace premium quality advertising.

There’s a lag publishers face in trying to monetize off platform. How do you balance that with the need to reach audiences there?
We don’t have to do unnatural things like, say, get more people to our newspaper. We have to monetize, and we are. What we look for is: Is there a big and relevant audience? Second, is this a platform we can tell stories in line with our brand? And third, is there a business model or hope for one? But you have to find the right balance. You don’t want to overinvest in anything.

Today, Facebook is promoting video a lot, which means publishers are creating video. Tomorrow it may be something else. Do you worry about Facebook becoming too powerful?
I think Facebook will do what’s best for Facebook, and part of that is engaging audiences with great content on their platform. That’s why the algorithm is favoring video and premium content brands like ours. Same with Google. Our bet is not on Facebook; our bet is that people will want to consume relevant video content about technology, food, sports. We’re not saying we’re there to optimize to social algorithms. We’re out there to tell great stories.

Why hasn’t Vox Media aggressively expanded overseas as its peers have done?
We have global aspirations, but it’s hard to do localized content well. We’ve had the opportunity to translate our content online and we didn’t think that would be enough. Doing quality local content means finding people on the ground who understand the market really well. We’ve been starting to; we have sports sites that cover things abroad. But we want to do it well.

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