Mic-check – A Look Inside PolicyMic’s Social Strategy

Two years ago a couple of old high school friends, Jake Horowitz and Chris Altcheck, bemoaned the lack of credible millennial voices in mainstream media. So they made themselves the online equivalent of a stage, an amplifier and, crucially, a microphone.

Two years ago a couple of old high school friends, Jake Horowitz and Chris Altcheck, bemoaned the lack of credible millennial voices in mainstream media. So they made themselves the online equivalent of a stage, an amplifier and, crucially, a microphone.

“We felt there was no place online for smart young people to have conversations about real issues in an engaging way,” says Horowitz. The two friends created PolicyMic – a current affairs site aimed at millennials that currently attracts between six and seven million unique views per month.

Their goal was simple (and ambitious): to bridge the gap between the high quality content of The New York Times and the visually engaging, virally shared content of BuzzFeed and Gawker. “People think that in order to reach our demographic you need cat videos or celebrity news,” Horowitz says. “That’s not true at all. Young people just don’t have a platform to talk about topics in detail.”

Ahead of PolicyMic’s upcoming re-launch, we found out more about why social interaction is so important to the site.

Social interaction

Writing for PolicyMic isn’t as simple as submitting a story to a commissioning editor – writers have to earn the respect of the community. They start by commenting on articles. If another reader likes their comment, they reward it with a ‘mic’ (equivalent to a Facebook ‘like’). The more ‘mics’ a writer receives, the higher their word count becomes on comments, until they are eventually invited to write for the site.

“From very early on we wanted to promote multiple perspectives on articles,” Horowitz explains. “Traditionally comments are just at the bottom of the page and are largely ignored because they are very low quality. Debate is so important to us that we try to give an incentive to say something smart in the comments.”

The website now has more than 2,000 ‘pundits’ who are able to write articles, with a further 50,000 members who are free to comment on any story. The average age of this audience is 26 years old.

The social media playbook

With such a young audience, viral content is central to PolicyMic’s strategy. Interaction through social channels isn’t incidental; it is actively sought after. A team of editors assesses the biggest news stories of the upcoming week and works with a viral team to predict what the most popular perspectives and keywords will be. A playbook is then presented to one of PolicyMic’s writers, suggesting how to frame the article.

“This structure allows us to scale while keeping a very high quality,” Horowitz says. “The goal is not to be known a volume publisher that publishes 1,000 articles a day, but to keep the quality really high.”

Three months ago, PolicyMic added a new dimension to the strategy by recruiting a ‘social scientist’ who examines the behavioral science principles behind what and why people want to share stories socially. “She looks at upcoming events in our editorial calendar and gives them a framing that could be popular and well shared,” Horowitz explains. “The result has been really dramatic.”

Indeed, during the last three months PolicyMic has seen social traffic rise from 12 percent to 40 percent of overall traffic.

What’s next?

Crowdsourced columnists, social scientists and viral playbooks: where next for PolicyMic?

Horowitz says they have enlisted the support of Jacob Lewis, former Managing Editor of the New Yorker, to ensure that they maintain their editorial voice. As their web impressions and workforce continue to grow, they plan to create more multimedia content and expand into new areas – such as video game coverage.

Horowitz summarizes their (once again ambitious) goal for the future: “We are trying to build a modern digitally native news site for young people that is as big as any other site you have heard of.”

Image by Cherkas.

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