“We’re creating content for a psychographic, not a demographic,” said Amanda Hale, CRO of The Outline, a 2-month-old news site meant to serve an “underfed” online audience.
That target psychographic is more than just what the media tends to brush off as “millennials,” said Hale.
According to founder Josh Topolsky, instead of creating content with the idea of a broad, millennial audience in mind, they try to create pieces for people who “start conversations more than they just sit back and add to them.” The goal is to discover “what matters, by building a meaningful voice with honest storytelling,” said Topolsky, whose previous online success stories include co-founding The Verge and Vox Media.
The Outline’s overall design aesthetic and philosophy is about “not getting stuck in the grooves in the industry,” he said.
If you scroll through The Outline, you’ll read articles on every kind of topic, from the pro-choice movement to a piece about a new podcast dedicated to figuring out why Richard Simmons disappeared from the limelight.
Ads show up in between stories as you scroll through the site’s smooth, “infinite” selection of articles. The difference between these ads and ads seen on most other media sites is the paucity of sponsored content. The Outline, of course, could choose to offer that at some point to its advertising partners, but the clearly labeled and highly interactive ads have sparked a conversation about how content can bring in revenue and keep readers engaged.
“Lots of people are still stuck in the idea of what a native ad has to be,” said Hale.
At launch, The Outline partnered with Cadillac, Method and Under Armour. The Outline team works with each brand partner to create specific ads using the tools they’d built for their own content management system including fact cards, draggable comparisons and a game readers can play on both mobile and desktop browsers.
“Online storytelling has evolved, but it might be worse from a brand perspective right now,” said Hale.
The Outline, according to Hale, is focused on making “more visual, post-text, bite-sized content,” and wants to extend that same feeling to their ad partners.
“Our current campaigns feel similar to what The Outline was already looking like,” said Eric Perko, the head of media for MUH-TAY-ZIK|HOF-FER, the agency that represented Method. “They’re poppy and playful, and we could see that our material would make a good match with The Outline.”
Perko and his team paid attention to Topolsky’s career trajectory, especially when his next career move became somewhat of a mystery ahead of The Outline’s December debut.
“We were confident he’d be able to launch this successfully, thanks to his track record,” said Perko. “But there’s always an inherent risk when you go with something unproven.”
To Perko, it’s important for brands to support new media companies that try something new, different and innovative because “you have to have the diligence to figure out what will be successful.”
According to The Outline, ads on its site receive a click-through rate, on average, of 25 times the industry average; the site also sees around 13 times the industry average of engagement rates on its ads. Readers of the site have even expressed their appreciation for the ad designs on Twitter.
In the Night Driver game designed for Cadillac, readers spend an average of 2.3 minutes playing the game.
“The different executions they delivered to us was an embarrassment of riches,” said Riyhana Bey, the director of brand execution and digital marketing for Cadillac. Bey explained that her team delivered a brief to The Outline, much like they would to a creative agency, to allow them to come up with their own ideas.
“The Outline represents the audience we’re trying to reach,” she said. “They’re young, sophisticated, intelligent and influential. When we first met with them, we could tell they were about to crack the code of what the future of media is.”
The Outline’s audience is diverse, split evenly between all genders, somewhat driven from urban centers, while reaching out to “smart people all over the place,” said Topolsky.
Being a launch partner for such a new property, especially one that’s experimental in nature, was the “right kind of challenge,” said Cadillac’s Bey.
“It’s exciting to be involved with a new platform and to be a first mover,” she said. “I hope more brands and partners start to lean into this space, and the new ways audiences are consuming content.”
“We’re not an ad vehicle,” said Hale, “because we’re not targeting a specific demographic with our content. But our content certainly tracks from an advertising perspective.”
“There’s a school of media companies out there who just want to generate SEO content to attract a certain demographic,” she said. “But we’re saying: if we build it, they will come.”