How This Startup Brought Media Giants to Their Knees in 2016

Editor's Note: Inc. magazine will announce its pick for Company of the Year on Tuesday, November 29. Here, we spotlight Vox Media, a contender for the title in 2016.

Jim Bankoff wanted to work at Vox Media before Vox Media even existed.

After a stint as a programming executive at AOL, Bankoff left in 2008 to join a "hobby with a lot of momentum," as he calls Vox Media's former incarnation SportsBlogs Inc. At the time, the company was operating a network of sports blogs called SB Nation. Its founders, Tyler Bleszinski, Jerome Armstrong, and Markos Moulitsas, tapped Bankoff to take over as CEO and help grow the niche publication. Within just a couple of years, Bankoff led a rebrand, which involved incorporating as Vox Media and launching a new technology site, the Verge. (Bleszinksi now serves as an adviser, while the other two founders are no longer involved with the company.)

From there, growth has never been far from the agenda at Vox Media, which now operates eight niche media brands, including Polygon for gamers, Vox for political newshounds, and Racked for fashionistas. In fact, you might even say that 2015 was the company's big year. That's when it purchased, for an undisclosed sum, the technology-industry news site Recode, which was founded by former Wall Street Journal editors Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. It also landed a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal, valuing the company at a whopping $1 billion.

Value in Videos

But this year, the company made video a major priority. And Vox Media is killing it. As of late October, it has logged 1.1 billion "watch time" minutes on YouTube--that is, viewers have spent more than one billion minutes watching content across the company's channels. That's more than double the tally from last year. The company also more than doubled its page views on all of its properties, beyond video.

"They're really kicking ass with video," says Katie Hawkins-Gaar, a digital innovation faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism training and educational school in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Again and again, the videos that you see on Vox are really outstanding." She specifically highlights The Rise of ISIS, Explained in Six Minutes and We Imagined a Woke Male Feminist President.

It also attempted media experiments in 2016. While a number of publications like The New York Times and BuzzFeed have partnered with Facebook to publish directly to the site, Vox launched an entire publication just to run on the social network. Called Circuit Breaker, the outlet caters to hardcore gadget fans. Vox also expanded an existing partnership with Snapchat to publish content from all eight of its brands through Snapchat's Discover feature.

To be sure, there's plenty of competition in digital media. Not only are legacy media companies starting to shake off their old-world shackles, digital media companies like Vice, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, Politico, and Mashable certainly qualify as stiff competition. And plenty of these brands are also experimenting with different social media platforms. BuzzFeed has even captured more investment funding than Vox, with NBCUniversal (a key Vox investor) investing an additional $200 million, bringing its total backing to $400 million.

Bold Branding

But Bankoff thinks Vox's distinct brands (and target audiences) help it stand out. "Because we are multiple brands in multiple categories, we can grow without diluting," says Bankoff. "We're more authoritative and authentic. We grow and deepen as opposed to spreading ourselves thin." Plus, the company's sites have managed to attract readers without resorting to clickbait style content, which has become so ubiquitous online.

"We had faith that an investment in quality was a good business decision," says Bankoff, referring to Vox's mission to explore people's passion points and engage in "high-quality" storytelling. So when Vox.com made a push for video in 2016, the way so many digital media sites have in order to grow audiences, the company wanted it to be substantive, Bankoff says, and reflective of its standard of storytelling.

Vox is even persnickety about ads. "The reason people use ad blockers and other things is because the advertising is just not good," says Bankoff. The media company has invested heavily to make sure that advertising and branded content isn't obtrusive and is of the same quality as the editorial content.

The proof that quality trumps quantity (a view that Bankoff firmly believes) is in Vox's results. The company is reportedly profitable, booking roughly $100 million in revenue last year. Its various sites pull in more than 170 million unique visitors and 800 million content views each month.

-Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the company's 2015 revenue. It was $100 million.


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