Smart Brevity

Why Publishers, Marketers, and Journalists Should Pay Attention to Axios

When I first heard of Axios Media, the new media venture from Mike Allen, Jim VendeHei, and Roy Schwartz, it was after a mention of The Information, a subscription-only publication priced at $399 a year and meant to deliver quality reporting, tailored events, and even perks like an exclusive Slack Channel to those looking to learn more about the inner-workings of Silicon Valley.

The source, the Digiday Podcast, was discussing how three Politico alums were planning on creating their own high-priced subscription publication with a focus on Politics, Health, Tech, Energy, Business, and the ongoing collisions between all of those subjects. As an avid reader of Politico, probably the first site I routinely utilized for political news, I was intrigued by the idea. Still, the subscription prices being thrown around seemed high (and eventually hit $10,000 a year) and I thought it likely that I would miss out on experiencing the new content.

Months later, Axios began its march to a launch. This started with a few teaser emails, then an invitation to sign-up for newsletters, one from Mike Allen focused on 10 newsworthy items, one focused on Healthcare, and one focused on Business. Happy to discover that these were free, I signed up for all of them and began to read them daily. I was struck by how well the company was executing on its promise to deliver what it called “smart brevity” with expertise, all while allowing its authors to maintain their voice. If that sounds like a mission statement, it is, but it’s also how I would genuinely describe Axios’ content.

Last week, 4 months after launch, Jim VendeHei himself was on the Digiday Podcast. Since its launch, Axios has added a few more newsletters (focusing on Energy, Tech, and Politics) and has experienced a great deal of early success. While not always a direct indication of a sustainable business, early success with an innovative model is at the least a sign you’re going in the right direction and at the most a sign that you’re doing something really special.

VandeHei spoke about why he believes Axios has been doing so well. For one, they’ve mastered a very specific publishing style. Short and to the point (they often literally use bullet points), just the right amount of context, and often a conclusion of sorts (“what it means” or “why you should care”). For another, they spent a great deal of time and effort planning for their launch. They gathered experts, visited the campuses of other media and tech companies in order to learn from them, and ensured they could launch with a strong execution.

An example of an item in Mike’s Top 10, complete with a “Why it matters” call out

VandeHei also acknowledged that Axios had two huge advantages. For one, the company was starting from scratch without a legacy model and without a need to support something that wasn’t part of their core plan. When the New York Times launches a new division, that division has to support all of the other parts of the company. While it does benefit from existing infrastructure, it carries baggage. Axios has no baggage, and it can change and adapt as it needs to in order to thrive in today’s media climate.

For another, VandeHei had the experience of starting and running a business at Politico, and he was able to leverage that into making fewer mistakes this time around. That’s been clear, he says, in the people he’s hired and the efficiency he’s implemented.

Mike Allen chatting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at an Axios event. Mike Allen’s track record and connections are a great asset to Axios.

Axios has stated that their goal is to make smart people smarter as fast as possible, ensuring those who have a deep interest in their field are being given information in a direct, effective way. Their strategy has been implemented well, and others would be wise to take note. Media companies overall are beginning to, once again, see the value in communicating to their audience via their inbox. There’s been an influx in newsletters and daily emails sent by publishers that are meant to both cultivate their audience and drive them back to the main site. That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization taking advantage of this trend better than Axios.

For one, their email communications are very focused; they hone in on one topic and stick to it. While Generate, Axios’ energy newsletter, might discuss what the White House is doing to change energy policies, it won’t go into detail about the administration’s power dynamics. You’ll find that kind of information in Mike Allen or Jonathan Swan’s newsletters. The pieces also assume a certain knowledge base, they’re meant to be read each day and they’re written that way, with only brief references to what’s happened before.

Reading one day of Generate or one day of Login, the tech newsletter, isn’t going to help you if you’re not somewhat familiar with the source material. Reading the newsletters for a few weeks in a row, though, will help you understand not only what’s happening, but why it’s happening, and what is most likely to happen next. The depth of knowledge and expertise the writers provide is expansive, and over time even readers without a strong initial understanding will feel like experts.

Finally, the newsletters find a good middle ground between simply rehashing what’s already on the website and providing a myriad of links with no context. They give you enough information to make it acceptable to skip reading the full story, but they don’t descend into sending you large sections of the website in an email.

Axios supplements its newsletters with email alerts, usually about the length of a tweet, that drive to longer stories on their main site. These are typically reserved for momentous occasions, like last week’s bombing of Syria, and because of that they maintain their effectiveness and weight. You learn what happened in the email, and you learn why and how by clicking through.

An Axios Alerts email

In addition to providing great content for its readers, Axios has provided a really clean ad product for marketers. There is virtually no difference, except a note that the content is sponsored, between how Axios editorial content looks when compared to its advertisements. Unlike the ads found around much of the web, they’re not invasive, they lie in the Axios STREAM (what Axios calls the product that is effectively its editorial newsfeed), deliver a simple message, and can be bypassed quickly and without hassle. The ads in their newsletters behave and appear in a very similar way. Not only does it make reading Axios pleasant and straightforward (one doesn’t need to mute 3 autoplay videos, cancel out of a full screen ad, and deny the publisher their email address before reading an article), it gives you a positive impression of the advertiser as well.

An article in the Axios STREAM
An advertisement for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in the Axios STREAM

The clean, efficient, smart brevity that Axios has provided in its short life as a media company is a good sign. It shows that there is hope for well-designed media companies with journalistic quality and effective advertising on the open web. Their newsletter strategy has been solid, and their reporting has been excellent. We’re a long way from being able to make any kind of permanent determination about their business model, they haven’t even launched their subscription service yet, but they’ve proven they can provide quality content without crushing users with ads or overwhelming them with context.

I’m certainly going to be paying attention to how things progress with Axios, and virtually anyone involved with journalism, digital media, and advertising would likely be wise to do the same.