Vox.com's Melissa Bell on how to Engage Audiences Through Ideas and Branding

Sep 142015

After growing from zero to 22 million unique monthly visitors in just seven months, digital news site Vox.com knows a thing or two about growing an audience.

"There’s so many ideas out there, but there’s something that makes your idea unique, and that is really what will bring audiences to it," said Melissa Bell, co-founder of Vox.com and formerly of the Washington Post, during a Media Party workshop.

The fourth annual event, organized by Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires and ICFJ Knight Fellow Mariano Blejman, gathered 70 international guests and 1,600 participants from four continents.

Bell could have talked about several issues she’s an expert at: web traffic, interactive content or data journalism. But during her workshop, attended by about 50 people, she focused on the art of working on an idea, identifying what makes it unique and launching it confidently to the world.

"If you’re looking to create something that really moves people, or that makes people think, or makes people change the way they do work, you have to believe in your idea," Bell said. "And to do that you have to figure out what you really like about yourself, and then you’ll have a great brand to deliver other people, because there will be other people that will like the same things about you."

"How to build a brand" was a somewhat stingy name for the workshop, as Bell also showed participants the importance of nurturing a project's self-esteem, the need for collaborative work ("destroy egos" was the celebrated and applauded highlight of her keynote), and the difficult but exciting process of choosing an audience.

Bell used Vox.com's interview with Barack Obama in January 2015 to exemplify each of these concepts crucial to building your brand. We present her main points:

Who is your audience?

Since the subject of the interview was the U.S. president, Bell said it would be natural to think the audience would be worldwide, "but you’ll need to narrow down from that," she said.

So as Vox.com was planning to ask questions that would appeal especially to Americans, the next obvious choice of audience would be U.S. residents. But the truth is, many people in America don’t care about what the president has to say, Bell noted. "You need to keep cutting down your audience. Every single time you think you have an audience target, cut it down a little bit further."

Eventually, the Vox.com team identified its audience using the brother of one of its staff members as a poster child: a young man interested in politics, but not particularly prone to catching an interview with the president.

What does the audience need?

First of all, something you can deliver. "In the case of our young man, his problem was that he was not aware or quite understood Obama’s newest policies," Bell said. "We wanted to give him a full picture of his administration and what he has planned for his last two years in office."

What's missing?

Sometimes what people need is actually already out there but people don’t know it.

"Look around, see what people are doing and go beyond just the media," Bell advised. "At Vox.com we did a lot of research, we read a lot of interviews, we saw what we liked in them, we also saw what wasn’t there. We found that Obama was often asked questions about what was happening in the news that week, but he was not asked questions about his policy over time."

Vox.com found out the missing piece: no media had given the president the time and space to talk a little bit more broadly about bigger subjects.

What can you do better than anyone else?

There is always something you can do better than anyone else. The secret of a successful project is to identify those strengths and use them to your advantage. In Bell's words: "Some of the things we do better than other people is explaining the news, and making visuals. Our style is playful but also really elegant. So we kept those things in mind when thinking about the interview with the president."

Is there a revenue opportunity?

Perhaps an editorial team is not the one with the best ideas for revenue generation, "but it’s still important for everyone in this industry to think about making money to support journalism," Bell said.

She explained that with the Obama interview there was not a revenue opportunity right away, but it did have a big potential: "If we show the value of what we do, perhaps in the future someone will want to sponsor a series of Vox interviews. So we saw this almost as a statement that we were capable of these kinds of interviews for future potential revenue."

To conclude, Bell shared what’s become a mantra at Vox.com when planning ambitious projects:

  • Be proud of what makes us weird
  • Go for what's beyond the news
  • Take a new visual approach
  • Add value

Watch Bell's full keynote presentation below:

This post is also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.

Main image of Melissa Bell courtesy of Hacks Hackers Buenos Aires on Flickr. Secondary image is a screenshot of Vox.com's interview with President Barack Obama.