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NowThis on reaching millennials through native social content

Founded just four years ago with a firm focus on online video, NowThis is a modern, millennial-focussed digital news brand that attempts to build rapport with users via social. We recently caught up with the president of NowThis, Athan Stephanopoulos, to find out a little more about how the company is building its young audience of 18-34yr olds.

Huffington Post co-founder, Kenneth Lerer, and former Huffington Post CEO, Eric Hippeau, launched NowThis in September 2012. The company is headquartered in New York and takes as its strapline, ‘We bring news to your social feed’. In other words, it’s a digital native publication all about taking content to audiences online, rather than using social platforms as marketing channels to bring users back to its own pages. In December 2015 the company reportedly raised US$16.2m in funding led by Axel Springer, and has subsequently set about expanding its online offering to include more focussed channels. 

Here, in this exclusive interview for FIPP, Athan Stephanopoulos, NowThis President, talks us through the brand strategy, the shifting digital media powerbase from publisher’s own pages to native social content, and why a firm video/mobile focus remains at the heart of the brand: 

“NowThis is one of the earliest pioneers of the distributed model,” said Stephanopoulos. “That means bringing content to users where they live in the social feed and on mobile devices, and not trying to use social as a marketing tool to get them back to your website. So it’s about natively publishing content, building authentic audiences, producing platform appropriate content, and understanding that how you do something on Facebook will differ to how you do it on Snapchat. And recognising that as you build this authentic audience there’s opportunities to meaningfully monetise that model. 

We asked Stephanopolous if publishers were still too cautious about the idea of publishing content directly to social media, or if the recent controversy surrounding Facebook Instant Articles for example, was justified. 

“It’s a little bit of both. I think that on one side, yes it’s ok to be cautious, and fearful that you’re now building an audience in an environment that you don’t own and have full control over like you do your site. But I think you have to be equally aware that the landscape and the marketplace has changed and that audiences are spending more and more time consuming content on these platforms. So they control the distribution, and you’re either going to be there to build and grow your audience there, or you won’t be. Because it’s getting harder and harder to drive traffic back to your site. And so, as those views and traffic is decreasing, you’re either going to make up for it somewhere else or you’re now, and that’s the question of what business you want to be in in the next 5-10yrs.”

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How far is NowThis a millennial-focussed brand? Does your audience skew young and if so does that require a fresh approach not only to the distribution model, but also to the form and tonality of the content itself? 

“In many ways, as you saw from the presentation, 75 per cent of our audience is under the age of 35. They’re rather young. We are covering stories on what is happening in the world today, through that lens, about what matters to young people. So when we produce content on a daily basis we’re covering issues that really matter to young people. Whether it’s the cost of education or the issues around equal rights/marriage rights, whatever the political issues might be. And this is the thing that really drives a relationship with our audience in terms of: we’re helping them spark conversation, we’re educating, we’re informing them of what’s happening in the world. But they can go out and have conversations about it with their friends - we’re playing a small part in that landscape.”

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To what extent do you think that millennials are receptive to new and existing news brands online? Is there a danger that in chasing such a wide demographic we can end up patronising/pandering to younger audiences?  

“Millennials in general are very smart, savvy individuals who know when they’re being pandered to and when they’re being talked down to. We want to talk to them in a way that is natural – like in the way that you would have a conversation with your friend. We’re in this together, and we’re learning things together, and we’re going through events in our life – both domestically and internationally – that affect all of us. And I think that tone editorially has also been what’s allowed us to tap into that relationship with our audience that’s quite real.”

And does online video, particularly geared up for mobile devices, remain a huge focus for NowThis? 

“Up until now yes, essentially everything we do is all video orientated, through the lens of video that can be 30 seconds in length to 3-5 minutes in length. We are beginning to expand the aperture of the content we’ll cover, going into longer form as well as some written text. But it has to fit the environment. We’re not going to produce long articles, we’re not going to do it in print, we’re not going to do it on a website. We might do it in a newsletter, we might do it in Instant Articles on Facebook, in the environment where text makes sense on the platforms that we deliver the content to.”

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