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Vox Media boss claims other publisher’s rush for scale is diminishing quality of their products

Jim Bankoff

Bankoff: data inform wins over data driven for interest and engagement

Jim Bankoff, chairman and CEO of Vox Media – which owns sites Vox, The Verge, ReCode and SB Nation – has warned that too many publishers are taking “knee-jerk” reactions to jumping on to new social media platforms without thinking through the user’s quality of experience while using them.

“If you don’t have quality you don’t have trust and I think we’re starting to see that in the industry right now, we’re seeing a bifurcation of those that are committed to quality experiences and those that aren’t,” he warned.

During a wide-ranging interview on Creating the Modern Media Company at SXSW, Bankoff outlined the decisions taken while building the brands within the stable, which included working with advertisers to create better experiences for their users and to speed up their websites.

He said the company went away from programmatic at a time when most others headed towards it, instead setting up an in-house team called Vox Creative to work with advertisers on their offerings to make them work better.

He said: “Advertising is part of the product experience – for us it has to perform really well not only for the ad campaign but it has to perform for the audience; the creative has to be strong, with the rendering time quick, viewable and fraud free.”

“Is your business model being solely funded by programmatic advertising?,” he added. “What you’re likely seeing is CPMs lowering, ad fraud going higher and advertising quality going lower.

“In our case we’re seeing the opposite, we’re seeing CPMs going higher, sell-through getting higher, advertising quality getting higher, sites getting faster and performance getting faster for our marketers.

“And that’s the virtuous circle we’re trying to create.”

Asked about native ads he said they had worked hard to not be “deceptive” for fear of losing audience trust, as this worked better for the advertisers.

One notable thing about Vox Media is the fact it has eight distinct under its umbrella as well as more than 300 websites dedicated to each individual professional sports team in America.

Bankoff admitted it had been a tough decision to go down that path and it had created more difficulty in explaining to marketers and agencies who they are, but he likened it to the magazine companies of old, saying they were the “only digital media company which has been able to scale multi-brand offerings”.

Pointing to the examples of Yahoo and the Huffington Post, which expanded by adding sections on things such as sport and food, he said: “If you cover more areas you dilute what that brand stands for – if it goes into more than one area.”

Asked about how Vox uses data he said their process helps them to prepare for the kind of content people are likely to be looking for, allowing them to release good content at the right time when people will be looking for it.

But, he cautioned: “I use data inform rather than data driven because I think the companies that say they’re data driven – literally hiring people to write what the data tells them – are less interesting, less engaging, less informative.

“Those that use the data to inform them and hiring talent based on their ability to drive the agenda forward rather than reflect the agenda, that’s the magic and that’s where we’re building great brands.”

He admitted the company does have ambitions beyond the US, including sites in other English-speaking countries and in other languages, but said it had been slow to get there as there was “so much opportunity right here”.

But he said Vox would always refrain from pushing for more and more clicks, saying: “You ask me what the biggest problem for the industry is and it’s people saying ‘we need to create scale’ and scale means do the bare minimum to provide the experience across multiple different platforms, lean into programmatic exchanges and I think that creates a downward spiral.”

Alex Hayes in Austin

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