How the new darlings of the US publishing scene build an audience

Axios Cheddar

Jim VandeHei from Axios (left) and Jon Steinberg from Cheddar (Collage: OMR)

They are two of the most talked about projects in digital publishing: Axios and Cheddar. The former a new news agency covering politics and finance run by Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei; the latter a self-styled “CNBC for millennials” founded by ex-Buzzfeed COO Jon Steinberg. OMR takes a closer look at them both to shed light on their lofty objectives—and uncovers just what crafty and opportunistic means they’ll go to to reach them.

The place to start to understand how Axios sees themselves and what they hope to achieve is with a look at its mission statement, dubbed ‘The Axios Manifesto:’ “Many [websites] now make money selling fake headlines, fake controversies and even fake news. [T]hey design their products to maximize short-term buzz or revenue—not deliver the best experience possible. Readers and advertisers […] are an afterthought.”

Axios and the paradigm shift

According to the manifesto, Axios wants nothing less than to “make reading, watching and listening as clean and reader-friendly as possible.” In actuality, they want to create substantive and meaningful content worthy of their name (Axios is ancient Greek for worthy). It’s a battle against the click-bait articles that dominate platforms and rarely offer anything in the way of informed nuance or “smart content.” At Axios, it is all about streamlining this smart content and packaging it in a way to “free people up to spend time on content truly WORTHY of their time, on our platform or elsewhere.”

Pursuing such grand goals doesn’t seem too far beyond the realm of possibility when you consider Axios founder Jim VandeHei’s career and what he’s achieved. A small-town boy from middle America Wisconsin, VandeHei graduates from a local newspaper to the nation’s capital, eventually making it to the top as a political reporter in the cut-throat DC media landscape with stops at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. In 2006, he left the Post to found Politico with his colleague John Harris. In just a few years, he steers the start-up into one of the largest and influential purely digital publishers in the US.

“Get smart fast”

With Axios, VandeHei is pressing reset once again—albeit while staying the political ring. Whereas VandeHei’s old project was known more for its long-form content, Axios adjusts to the “evolving habits for consuming news and information.” Texts are packaged as briefings or memos between 150 and 550 words. In Axios parlance it’s called “Smart Brevity.” Text segments like “why it matters” or “be smart” (in order to be able to smartly engage in conversation about the topic) provide structure and highlight the article’s worth. Thus readers are able to consume the information quickly—“Get smart fast” is a company credo after all. 

Axios launched in January with several daily newsletters, each of which was put together by a specific journalist and sent out via their respective, personal email addresses. Also a founder is former Politico member Mike Allen, whose playbook newsletter was christened the “principal early-morning document for an elite set of political and news-media thrivers and strivers” by the New York Times. A week and a half later, Axios launches, beginning with a brief interview with Donald Trump. Leaning on a heavy dose of the Trump administration and some high-profile scoops, Axios begins making a name for itself.

Can Axios establish its own newsfeed?

If you visit the Axios website, you’ll find a never-ending stream of articles. Clicking longer articles expands the hidden content in the feed. Axios intentionally employs a layout reminiscent of Twitter and the Economist, which packages the content so that it’s easily consumable on mobile devices. VandeHei has even gone as far as saying that he never looked at the site on desktop initially.

Axios generates revenue through native ads in its newsletters, where each format is presented by a company (current advertising partners include Boeing, BP, Koch Industries, mattress start-up Leesa and investment bank Morgan Stanley). Per newsletter, there is typically only a single ad.

Axios Cheddar

A BP ad in Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter

The “Crap Trap” of digital media

Offering free content for the first six months to a year is a good way of making your product known and to “get them addicted,” said VandeHei in the Digiday podcast. In the future, he could envision a high-end subscription model for USD 10,000, he told Recode. That, however, would be a completely new product that could be directed at companies.

VandeHei has a very clear opinion about how to effectively build an audience and reach. Back when was still at Politico, he warned the publishing industry about the “media crap trap” in a guest article for The Information: “mass-producing trashy clickbait so they can claim huge audiences and often higher valuations.” But soon everyone followed suit “doing the same tricks and getting the same spikes—and the simple law of supply and demand drove down the value of their inventory.” In the afore-mentioned Digiday podcast, he said that the bet numerous publishers made, on numbers and page views alone, was the wrong one. And now the jig is up.

Mostly organic traffic

Axios has stated that it is not interested in building massive reach, but prefers to “reach the universe of serious news readers, anyone who on a daily basis consumes serious news. We think that’s roughly 15 to 20 percent of the adult population,” VandeHei told Nieman Lab shortly before launch.

As far as generating traffic is concerned, Axios focuses on a smaller target audience, as he recently told journalists. However, he did say that “we really try to do the bulk of our audience acquisition organically. Because if you get it organically, you’re much more likely to get a higher return rate of people coming to your site or a higher clickthrough rate on your newsletter.”

Semi-automated reach?

But if emails sent to OMR are any indication, Axios is not content just letting readers come to them on their own. In late January—not even two weeks after launching—we received an email from “Neal over at Axios” who contacted us “because we’ve recently published a piece that may resonate with your readers. Neal also included the link to the piece to make our job easier.

Axios Cheddar

The first email from Axios to OMR.

While Neal may be a very personable guy, that email is not a personalized correspondence, but an attempt at generating traffic via a semi-automated mail delivery system. If you look at the bottom, you can plainly see “Assisted by Rebel Discovery.” And “Rebel Discovery” is a tool from Rebelmouse—software employed by Axios for its content management system. A quick bit of background: Rebelmouse was founded by Huffington Post CTO Paul Berry and the two companies, Axios and Rebelmouse, have the same backers in Lerer Hippeau Ventures.

“Outreach” at the click of a button

“Rebel Discovery” enables publishers to locate and contact the operators of social media profiles or Websites who have substantial organic reach in order to request that they share content relevant for their fans and readers. This Rebelmouse video explains how the software enables content creators to locate relevant distribution partners, and even reads out email addresses.

If, however, Rebel Discovery users wish to slowly build a rapport with a potential partner, they can ping potential suitors by liking recent posts. For a more aggressive approach, publishers can hijack the attention of readers of a rival publisher simply by posting a link in the comments section of similarly themed content.

Flattery for clicks

In the weeks and months that followed the initial email, Axios contacted us six more times by email, most recently just a few days ago. The email copies were each modified slightly, ostensibly to flatter recipients (“We really love the stuff you share and think you might love what we do”). The mail subjects typically refer directly to the article we shared on Facebook, which figures to boost opening rates. No matter the approach, the goal is the same: begging for shares.

Axios Cheddar

The most recent Axios email to OMR.

How effective are such strategies? If you look at tweets that have referred back to Axios articles and have registered significant engagement, it’s becomes obvious that Axios has already made a name for itself in the US political sphere and acquired a large readership including many disseminators.

The Polit-erati reads (and shares) Axios

Axios readers (and tweeters) are a who’s who of the US political elite: Former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, best-selling author and director of the political institute at the University of Chicago, has nearly a million followers on Twitter and recently tweeted an Axios article, which was retweeted and liked 575 and 1,718 times respectively. Topher Spiro, VP of the Center for American Progress, a major NGO, has 70,100 Twitter followers and also tweeted out an Axios article, which generated a subsequent engagement of 2,227 retweets and 2,373 likes. Eric Garland, political advisor and Twitter celeb with 158,000 followers: 1,118 retweets and 2,531 likes for the Axios article he tweeted. Then there are also a range of tweets with similar engagement figures from TV legal analysts, the press speaker for Obama’s NGO “Organizing for Action” and a political correspondent from the Huffington Post.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty if some of these tweets are the result of using Rebelmouse or just the result of Axios’ reputation in political journalism. For its part, Rebelmouse implies in a case study that its software assisted Axios is building up a reach of 40 million page views and to reduce the bounce rate to 15%. Regardless of how it came about, the costs incurred for the measure figure to be marginal and almost entirely limited to the minor usage fee levied by Rebelmouse.

Digital finance TV for the next generation

A year before Axios was founded, Jon Steinberg’s new publishing startup Cheddar launched. Steinberg was the long-time COO at Buzzfeed before spending 18 months as the North America chief of the Daily Mail. “Our bet is that the linear format—cable news—gets rebooted for people under 60,” says Steinberg.

Cheddar focuses on publishing financial news as video content. The medium broadcasts live for several hours a day and online from the New York Stock Exchange. The on-air set-up is reminiscent of standard formats on CNN or Bloomberg: two reporters conducting interviews with company reps or external experts on a given company, plus a live ticker on the stock exchange and any of the day’s breaking news.

Comcast invests in Cheddar

Steinberg told Business Insider that the main revenue channel in the future will be the licensing of content to operators of streaming platforms like Netflix and Comcast. At present, however, there have been no such confirmed deals. Nevertheless, in a second round of investing, Comcast stepped up and invested USD 10 million in Cheddar.

Until TV has completed the switch to digital, Cheddar is employing an additional subscription model to generate revenue, with current packages available for 3 dollars a month or 30 a year—pretty inexpensive for a financial medium.

With Facebook, there goes the neighborhood

Just like VandeHei with Axios, Jon Steinberg is targeting a smaller, select audience and forgoing typical viral levers commonly used to build reach. In the Digiday podcast, Steinberg tells people to beware of Facebook. He says that while Cheddar uses the platform for distribution, the platform is not a company focus. Twitter, for example, is a more relevant source of traffic.

“I believe in neighborhooding,” he said. “If our content is on Facebook and put next to things exploding and people in bathing suits, we’re not going to win. We’re providing serious business news. If we’re put on a dial next to Bloomberg and CNN, we’re going to win there. It’s like putting produce in the snack aisle. It’s not going to work.”

Fun-gadget videos funnel traffic to Cheddar

But if you check out the video content published on Cheddar’s Facebook page, it becomes evident that Cheddar is not completely immune from indulging in the sweet promise of reach in Facebook’s “snack aisle.” In fact, among the page’s most successful videos feature gadgets, machines or “fun” subject matter. The video formats are very similar to the bite-sized content morsels found on Mashable or Business-Insider offshoot Insider.

One such example is the “Sumo Tube,” with 7.5 million views and 120,000 shares it’s easily the most popular video.  The video description even contains an affiliate link to the product’s Amazon page (click stats, however, are hidden).

Be One With the Tube

This tube suit turns your body into a boat.Be a boat:

Posted by Cheddar on Friday, July 21, 2017

YouTube content channel as a cheap content source

The video content itself is pulled straight from the manufacturer’s YouTube channel. In fact, Cheddar has pieced together several videos for Facebook, optimizing them for its preferred portrait format and adding a music track. Compared to the price tag for the live content Cheddar produces, these content pieces figure to be very cheap. Cherrypicking content from a manufacturer’s YouTube channel seems to be standard company policy as the second most popular video indicates (4.7 million views for a video featuring a pressure washer).

But it’s not just on YouTube, where Cheddar regurgitates manufacture content: Examples abound on Twitter, too, like this video on a new kind of military-grade helmet. The images? Provided by the manufacturer themselves. 

Even the most-popular Cheddar tweet, which, in fact, uses own content entirely, doesn’t have anything to do with financial news (at least not directly). 92 retweets and 175 likes for a snippet on a possible reboot of Sister Sister, a once-popular TV series in the US.