Q&A: Vanessa Fontanez, VP of Experiential Marketing @ Vox Media

This week, The Idea caught up with Vanessa Fontanez about Vox Media’s evolving experiential business. Subscribe here to our newsletter on the business of media for more interviews and weekly news and analysis.

Tesnim Zekeria
Oct 21 · 7 min read

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at Vox Media?

I grew up in the magazine publishing and entertainment world, and I joined Vox Media in 2016. Throughout my time, I’ve had the opportunity to build an experiential team and a brand marketing function at Vox. I’ve also been able to grow the experiential and conference business for all of our networks.

I oversee a growing team of experiential marketing strategists and experts. Our true goal is to use Vox Media editorial voices and content to build thoughtful and bold live experiences. We also focus on strategic partnerships and custom franchises, which are experiences we build from the ground up for our editorial networks. Our North Star is to elevate our brand and talent IP. Here at Vox, we call our talent “Voices of Vox Media” and it’s really important for us to create another touchpoint to feed the passion points of our curious audiences. We want them to connect on a deeper level not only with the editors, but also with the content they love and with each other. I think that bringing people together and creating community is a different and unique way for brands to extend their voice.

Some things I’ve done here — I was able to help launch Eater in London. I also created our first South by Southwest debut which was an experience called The Deep End by Vox Media.

How does your team navigate the experiential space?

Aside from showcasing talent and connecting with our audiences, our team is concerned with driving relevance in the marketplace and increasing revenue, which is a key factor across all of Vox Media’s business lines. We do that in experiential through advertising sponsorships and ticket sales.

To break that down a bit, I like to think of our areas of focus as “buckets of work.” One bucket is creating a brand statement at tentpoles such as CES, Cannes Lions, and SXSW. So, for example, the whole idea behind the “Deep End” experience came to be because we saw a white space for conversations with more depth and service. When you go to SXSW, it’s hard to navigate, grab coffee. You’re never going to make it to all the different restaurants on Eater HeatMap. Recognizing this, we wanted to create a space where we could connect our communities and have a different kind of conversation. Basically, we wanted to pair Vox Media voices like Kara Swisher and Ezra Klein with other cultural voices to teach our audiences something. We wanted them to discover something new and walk away feeling educated.

It’s also really important to us that we’re always creating experiences that feel true to our brand. Even in the music selection, we ask ourselves: how are we creating content and selecting musicians that are compatible with how the Verge or Vox covers music. We were very lucky in 2018 to feature Lizzo in The Deep End. This was literally a week before she blew up. She’s a true storyteller and that is so much a part of our culture and how we express ourselves at Vox Media, so it’s really important to our experiential business as well.

The second bucket is creating custom activations and hands-on experiences for Vox Media brands. We do this in a thoughtful way and think a lot about how we are bringing a brand to life. At The Deep End, we brought Polygon [Vox Media’s gaming website] to life with an arcade that included a mix of nostalgic and modern day games. Another example is how we took Vox’s explainer format and extended that into a live interactive experience where local business could pitch their concepts for a chance to win an explainer, produced by Vox Creative, to help launch their new business.

The third bucket is custom advertising experiences, which are a big part of our business. Beyond making sure that there’s an amazing consumer experience and that audiences are interacting with brands in authentic ways, we also make sure to bring on advertisers that feels right with everyone involved, especially the consumer.

What’s an example of a custom advertising experience that your team has worked on?

In 2018, we worked with the Verge and Curbed to build an innovative modular home with smart technology design and features that grant consumers a hands-on experience on how to reinvent their home. We called this program “The Home of the Future” and it was presented by Ford.

We — literally — built this home from the ground-up: we handpicked the neighborhood with Curbed, designed it from scratch, and worked with Verge editors to hand-select all the technology. This project was not only an experiential model, but it also included an editorial and branded content series that took the consumer along the ride. We also hosted three-days of interactive events because we wanted to get people in the house and give them an idea of what a future home could be.

We also had some social influencers stay overnight so that audiences could see how a home’s design can shift the way that you live and work. Last month, actually, our Vox Creative branded content studio won a Digiday award for this series.

Where does the experiential team sit in relation to Vox Creative

Vox Creative is a separate arm from Vox Media. We work very closely and are partners-in-crime, especially when it comes to building larger, multi-platform partnerships.

Can you tell me a bit more about the process behind a good experiential activation?

Any successful experiential program or layer is going to start with 1) the network and 2) the voices of the network. We’re trying to take the content that our editorial partners are creating a step further so that consumers can experience that content. We are always brainstorming and ideating everyday. We work very closely with Vox Creative and are always working with editorial to come up with concepts. When it comes to advertising partners, we all get in a room and determine the best way to execute an experience for them.

Stepping back is really important, too. This means, putting yourself in the shoes of the consumer and asking yourself if you’d have an amazing time and if you would engage with the content.

What has been your favorite activation to work on?

We did a program called “The Future of Music” with the Verge and Aloft Hotels. From an editorial content perspective, they focused on how technology and music collide. So, we worked with them to figure out how to bring this to life. It was really cool to sit in the room with them and learn about all of the new technologies that are transforming how we listen to, engage with, and make music. We launched that with them in 2018 and launched the in-real life component of it at The Deep End this past year in 2019.

This past week, we hosted a pre-podcast UpFronts a day before the official UpFronts at The Mezzanine. Audio is amazing because it’s so intimate — you see the live expressions on the faces of people who listen to these podcasts everyday and they interact with hosts like they’re a part of their inner circle which makes for amazing Q&As.

At this event, we wanted to create an environment to showcase all of our amazing talent and also make some announcements for new podcasts that are coming up. Our goal was to create a late-night type of production. We had Sean Rameswarama, the host of Today, Explained, as our late-night host for all of the programming and he brought a comedic layer to the event that was so engaging.

Ultimately, though, it’s all about the content. Sean hosted a conversation with Jane Coaston of The Weeds and Jillian Weinberger, who’s doing the next season for the Impact, where they discussed how their shows cover similar topics but in such unique ways. As they were talking in front of the live-audience, they were also listening to recordings from their separate podcasts. They also gave the audience a sneak peek of how those three different shows are playing a role in Vox’s coverage of the 2020 elections.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in the media space from an organization besides your own?

Major props to 72&Sunny. They took over floor-to-ceiling windows and created an outdoor ad that reads, “Let Creatividad In.” It would make me smile on my ferry ride home. And, when I looked it up, I discovered that there was such a deeper meaning to it. They had actually used foil emergency blankets that are given to detained migrants and used it to create art. What a way to create purpose! I think this speaks to how you can really create something that’s special when you get diverse teams and mindsets together.

Additionally, The Cut did a great job at extending it’s “How I Get It Done” series through live events, a one-day summit and The Cut on Tuesdays podcast. What an amazing way to amplify quality content and voices like Rebecca Traister and Molly Fischer alongside badass women deep diving on topics super fans, like me, want and need to hear. We all need some real talk on navigating how to get shit done.

I also enjoyed Hulu’s installation promoting the season three premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a creative and impactful way to raise awareness for inequality and get people thinking. Of the 150 statues in NYC, only five are women. Hulu built 140 mirrored statues in the Flatiron District that were previewed for one day only to showcase what a more inclusive future could look like.

The Idea

A weekly newsletter on the business of media from @AtlanticMedia, home of @TheAtlantic, @NationalJournal and @GovExec. Subscribe here: https://mailchi.mp/atlanticmedia/theidea

Tesnim Zekeria

Written by

Strategy Research Fellow @ Atlantic Media

The Idea

The Idea

A weekly newsletter on the business of media from @AtlanticMedia, home of @TheAtlantic, @NationalJournal and @GovExec. Subscribe here: https://mailchi.mp/atlanticmedia/theidea

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