Erin McPherson, former CCO of Maker Studios, recently said “The new authority is authenticity.” We feel you, Erin. We feel you. The future of “web” monetization has much less to do with page views and overall web impressions, and everything to do with credibility, voice, and smart integrations. We’re sitting at the crossroads of a very interesting time in digital advertising, in case you haven’t heard. Money is quickly flowing away from the hollow world of the RFP friendly web impressions, and into more niche platforms with tangible engagement and sticky communities.
Digital evolution, it happens. We’ve reached peak pageviews, and now more than ever, curated content and authentic voices are needed to cut through all the monotonous white noise. The next generation of content companies will be monetizing social influence, engagement, and messaging instead of pageviews , banner ads, and video views (unless we’re talking Snapchat views). We all know that no one is getting rich off YouTube or Facebook video views.
Real world influence and highly engaged communities have become one of digital’s biggest assets. Brands will pay a premium to access them, and the key to scaling that kind of business doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have the largest audience on the web, you just need to have one that has passion for your brand. It doesn’t hurt if you’re multi-platform, and offering value that doesn’t begin and end with Instagram likes. The best kind of branded content these days feels natural, and more integrated. At The Infatuation, we’re trying to push the envelope on this kind of monetization strategy. We sit in a unique position of being an “influencer,” with a content machine and plenty of additional platforms other than Instagram to back it up (web, email, social, Snapchat, and now our messaging platform Text Rex), in addition to the ability to take things offline and into real life.
We’ve built a sticky brand that people — mainly millennials — believe represents them and are passionate about. No other publisher in the generally niche restaurant discovery space reaches this audience. Combine the specific audience with a brand-friendly sales focus, and we’re uniquely positioned to succeed as the next wave of digital advertising unfolds around us.
A little context before we dive into this a bit deeper. My business partner, Chris Stang, and I come from the music business, where we spent 12 years as marketing and PR executives at major record companies. Over a five-year period starting in April of 2009, we built what was then “Immaculate Infatuation” before we took the leap of faith and left our jobs in April 2014 to go all in and focus on our side hustle full time. Lucky for us, turns out building a brand — even one focused on restaurant discovery — is a lot like building a band. If you write great songs and focus on creating a personal connection with the community, people will come back for more.
The Infatuation is a next-gen content company. The way we look at it, we’re a product powered by content. We’re a discovery tool that helps people decide where they should eat for real life occasions — first dates, dinner with the parents, day drinking — and focuses on the overall experience at hand as opposed to where a chef went to culinary school. We focus on writing high-quality restaurant reviews and guides from the relatable perspective of a friend you trust. We have a very distinct, conversational voice that connects with people on a personal level, and we’re doing it the hard way — by creating everything ourselves.
We write all our content in-house with a small group of vetted, well trained contributors who fit The Infatuation voice. None of them have ever written about restaurants before. They’re lawyers, actors, publicists, and more lawyers. They’re not professional writers, they’re not Elite Yelpers, and they aren’t “Foodies.” They represent “The People,” as opposed to the dining industry. We call it like we see it: if something sucks we don’t hold back, and if something is amazing, well, we crank up the hype machine.
The same goes for the brands we partner with. They need to be brands we like, and that our audience will like. We’ve known from day one that we needed to figure out how to make money. Our audience has seen us work with brands from our infancy. We’ve always been diligent about making sure the brands we work with — American Express, PAIGE, Jameson, SoulCycle, Whole Foods, Seamless, Equinox, Budweiser, Uber, Facebook Messenger, The Macallan, Absolut Elyx — all align with who The Infatuation is. We turn away plenty of business if it doesn’t fit , because we know the moment we start pushing people on something that’s lame, they’ll stop trusting us. People assume we make money from restaurants, when actually, it’s the exact opposite. We have never taken money from a restaurant, ever. And, unlike others in the digital “food media” space, we never will. Taking big checks from global fast food chains, or simply accepting comped meals from local restaurants would compromise our credibility and undermine the idea of being a trusted source.
So, “what are we selling?” That’s what people want to know. We’re selling the application of our authentic brand voice to frame the initiatives of our partners in a natural way for our audience to connect with. In short, we’re selling branded content, which is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. What is a new concept however, is the way we’re utilizing our Instagram and Snapchat audiences as the main amplification platforms to deliver impressions on our content. While we may not be clocking 10 million uniques a month on the web, that hasn’t stopped us from offering effective, authentic and engaged-with content that’s proven gainful for both The Infatuation and our partner brands. Another key component for us is the ability to take things offline for localized activations, and fill rooms with key influencers and Infatuation community members in any city across the country.
Our formula: custom content ideas rooted on the web that we can support and amplify across social with assets we know our audience will like, often paired with an offline event to create a real-life moment others can experience via social. It’s been working too, yielding return business and growing profitability with many of our brand partners.
We were early Instagram adopters, quickly starting our own branded hashtag, #EEEEEATS, which has now been used almost 2.5 million times globally. We run 17 different Instagram accounts — the main @infatuation account, local accounts in 8 markets including LA and Chicago, and then @pizza (with @fuckjerry) @avocadotoast, @burger, @icecream, @coffee, @pasta, @tacos, @donuts, and @cereal — that do a combined 70 million impressions a month. Those are big numbers. So, instead of generating big time web impressions, we’re able to supplement in a different way, with a way higher CPM. Sure, you could simply buy standard ads on Instagram, but I’d argue that integrating with a trusted voice that has a dedicated audience is more effective. Right now, it’s the wild wild west. Money is moving fast and furious away from the old model of display and page views, but the agencies still can’t let go of their awful RFP’s and correlating CPM rates. It’s a busted system. Especially for cross-platform custom content. Let’s just say the true value of a Snapchat story, or an integrated product placement on Instagram, doesn’t translate well to Excel. Also, you can’t put a number on real world influence.
We’re not the only ones that are a part of this new wave of authentic branded content integrations. There’s a number of successful, influential publishers creating content with like-minded brands to their engaged community of devout followers, readers, viewers, likers, commenters and snappers (is that a thing yet?). Among us next-gen playmakers are brands like TheSkimm, who have re-defined the news space, and Man Repeller, the freshest voice in fashion. We’ve all benefitted by watching some of the big boys and girls evolve. Buzzfeed, the undisputed king of the space now have their cross-platform ad model Swarm that lets advertisers reach people across all of its massive web and social platforms, Refinery29, who are excellent branded storytellers in their own right, are now diving deeper into short film and VR, have all have grown steadfast to become content creating super engines honing in on the world-beyond-page views. And then there’s Beyonce. But we don’t have time to get into that now.
While we’re all different, we all wield an incredible amount of real-world influence, and that real world influence is what brands are smartly starting to pay up for. Banner ads and empty page views, that’s old news. It’s time to evolve, people.