From a business perspective, it's important to look at what Mic, a political and social news site, doesn't do. Namely, that's traditional advertising.
The site, designed with politically engaged Millenilals in mind, runs precisely zero display ads and relies entirely on branded content created by an in-house team as its sole revenue stream.
"Brand loyalty is formed in a much different way than it ever has been."
"Brand loyalty is formed in a much different way than it ever has been in history," explained Brianne Garcia, Mic's director of brand products. "Millennials need to believe in the values of a brand, or to feel that the brand has the same goals and mission that they do — And the way to do that is through storytelling, and not an intrusive interstitial ad."
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Founded in 2011 as PolicyMic, Mic has since grown its readership to 15.4 million monthly unique visitors, according to Quantcast.
The site's median user is 28 years old and 80% of readers are college educated, Mic says.
Given Mic's young, social-media obsessed readership, the editorial department focuses on creating content that its audience will evangelize through sharing.
65% of readers arrive via social channels.
Whether these mostly Millenial-aged readers want to show their friends that they're up-to-date on important issues ("Massive New Leak of Documents Could Be ‘The Largest Intelligence Leak Since Snowden"), or share Mic's stories as a means of asserting their political identity ("Watch John Oliver Slam The UK Labor Party’s Pathetic Attempt to Woo Women With a Pink Bus"), 65% percent of Mic's readership arrives via social media channels.
"A lot of our articles cover issues that are widely covered in the news, but take a different angle or approach to how other media outlets are covering them," Garcia said.
"We like to say that we cover a lot of counter-narratives. What that means is when those kinds of stories are shared on social, it's what we call an identity-based share. It's something people feel outraged by, or they feel makes them look smart, or communicates to their friends that they really care about that topic," Garcia said.
Selling sensitive stories
This commitment to covering powerful world issues that readers care about extends to the site's branded content, which it first introduced this past fall. Garcia said that in working with clients, Mic presents a list of topics and issues it is already planning to cover, and then collaborates with the brands to find a fit.
The stories are then created by a dedicated branded content writer and editor, as well as by select freelancers when necessary.
Unlike other publishers, like BuzzFeed, who have shied away from creating sponsored content around serious, newsworthy issues, Mic and its brand partners have tackled these subjects head-on.
BrainMic, a branded neuroscience vertical created for General Electric, included a lengthy feature story about a suicide epidemic in Utah. Not only was the sponsor okay with putting its name on such a weighty story, it did not even ask to see a draft of the piece before it went live.
Branded content works best when the publisher is given the freedom to flex its storytelling muscles.
The branded post "There’s a Suicide Epidemic in Utah — And One Neuroscientist Thinks He Knows Why" garnered just shy of one million pageviews, with somewhere between two and three out of every five people who saw it sharing a link on social media.
Not all of Mic's advertising clients are as hands-off as GE. In some cases, either the brand or the ad agency representing the brand will ask to see a draft of the story before sending Mic a series of revisions. After one or two rounds of edits, the story will then be published.
Still, Garcia cites BrainMic's success as evidence that branded content works best when the publisher is given the freedom to flex its storytelling muscles.
Since the site has received $15 million in venture funding over the past two years, Mic does not necessarily need to be selling tons of advertising to stay afloat — at least for the time being. After rolling out its first campaigns from four different brands this past fall, the site has not run a piece of branded content in 2015.
According to Mic spokesperson Shelley Venus, mic.com is using the initial campaigns to gauge best practices for branded content moving forward and a new round of branded content will be unveiled in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Garcia mentioned that Mic has been dabbling in editorial videos, which she said could ultimately have pre-roll and bumper ads sold against them.
"We have a very long-term view when it comes to all of this, and we’re not rushing into new revenue streams that look promising," Garcia said. "We definitely do a lot of research and a lot of planning internally to make sure that we're creating the best possible experience for our readers."
Mic's branded content is sold as part of a media plan, through which brands are guaranteed a certain amount of reach and any additional traffic is considered free – "added value" in adspeak.
Branded posts are distributed as native ads in Mic's newsfeed and via its primary social channels, alongside a disclosure that the posts have been paid for by a brand.
For certain campaigns with high reach guarantees, Mic will use SimpleReach's content amplification platform to make sure it hits its targets. In other cases, the brands themselves will work with a social media agency to help promote the stories, as was the case when GE worked with VaynerMedia on the BrainMic package.
Mic uses three statistics to determine the effectiveness of its content: impressions, views, and shares.
Impressions represent the number of people who see a link to a piece of content on Mic’s website or on social media, views represent the number of people who actually clicked a link to see the story, and shares represent the number of people who showed the story to their friends via email or social media.
In the next few years, publishers will focus on improving metrics for measuring how content influences people's longterm
perceptions of a brand.
Garcia says that while brands were initially hung up on how many direct sales branded stories were creating, they have since started to understand that the real value in branded content lies in top-of-the-funnel metrics like brand lift and brand awareness.
Still, she says that in the next few years, publishers will focus intently on improving their metrics for measuring how content influences people's long-term perceptions of a brand. This way, brands will feel more secure about running sponsored content not only with Mic, but with publishers across the web.
"I think measurement is still an ongoing conversation with brands, especially with CMOs needing to show hard numbers and a return on investment," Garcia said. "Once we move in that direction, I think people will be a lot more comfortable in pursuing branded content on a larger scale."