El Meme Builds Profitable Online Community by Making Content King

Sep 22015

If you’re interested in exploring what Argentine millennials find funny, moving or captivating, visiting elmeme.me is a good place to start.

On the website, creative Argentines who register for a free account can post their political opinions, GIF lists or favorite throwback music videos. With more than 6,429 users, El Meme is a growing “community of content producers,” says its co-founder Santiago Sarceda.

A digital media experiment created in 2013, El Meme is an open platform for anyone to showcase their work. There’s a set of community guidelines for users to follow, and occasionally El Meme’s editors will write to users with advice on how to improve their pieces. For the most part though, people can post freely.

Some of the users happen to be Argentines passionate about filmmaking, so they review movies and write about television. Others are foodies, so they post recipes and recommend restaurants in Argentina. And then, there are the users who are journalists and bloggers, who sometimes write about the news.

So, if El Meme hosts content written by journalists and has editors, is it a news site? Yes and no.

“[El Meme is] not only a journalism site,” Sarceda said. “We present El Meme as a crowdsourced content platform.”

Sarceda and his co-founder Mercedes Reina aren’t chasing investigative stories or promoting citizen journalism. They’re building a community that happens to be exactly who Argentine advertisers want to reach: millennials who are passionate about art, filmmaking, food, drinking and politics.

Here’s how they’re doing it and how they’re attempting to incorporate journalism along the way:

Finding initial funding and mentorship

Reina had spent 15 years as a designer at various media and advertising agencies, and until starting El Meme, Sarceda devoted his career to building websites and communities online. Although they both had an insider’s view of Argentina's advertising world and were familiar with how to cultivate an online following, the El Meme co-founders knew little about running a business.

They applied for a spot in Latin America’s first media accelerator program, Media Factory. An initiative of ICFJ Knight Fellow Mariano Blejman, Media Factory promised applicants an attractive bundle: It would invest US$75,000 into the startups in exchange for a 17 percent stake, provide them with office space in Buenos Aires through NXTP Labs for four months and put the entrepreneurs face to face with a slew of digital media mentors.

Media Factory chose El Meme — along with Ecuador’s GKillCity and Venezuela’s El Cambur — out of 120 applicants. The program gave Reina and Sarceda access to experienced leaders in digital media, including Michael McCutcheon, who helped lead Mic’s branded content strategy; Ross Settles, a senior advisor for digital media at the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF); and entrepreneurial journalism consultant James Breiner.

The three mentors offered Reina and Sarceda a wide range of advice, from how to promote content on social media to ways they could monetize content. Speaking with people who had journalistic backgrounds also taught the El Meme co-founders a crucial lesson that helps with business too.

“Try to listen and ask the right questions,” Reina said. “We learned from journalists to ask the right questions.”

Content is king — and will draw advertisers

El Meme’s community of users remains the platform’s backbone. The content they produce draws a large crowd: From April 2015 to June 2015 alone, El Meme attracted more than 2 million unique users. So far, advertisers in Argentina are keen on the size and demographic of El Meme’s audience.

Sarceda and Reina tested the waters with branded content in Argentina’s advertising world, and they have achieved success in ways not widely attempted by other Latin American online outlets: El Meme collaborates with advertisers to generate campaigns that blend into its site.

For example, Cynar Argentina, a popular Italian bitter liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants including artichokes, approached El Meme about creating content to promote the beverage. Working with Cynar, El Meme developed a handful of branded articles, such as “8 ideal drinks to incorporate more fruits and vegetables to your diet,” and showed its audience how to make the perfect julep using an interactive scroll-technique.

“We noticed that brands need content, and media agencies often don’t have the power of people to produce content everyday,” Sarceda said, noting that the pace of social media increases demand. “They need to look outside the company or agency for someone to produce this kind of content everyday.”

Using advice from their Media Factory mentors, Reina and Sarceda were able to build off their experience with Cynar. They began to expand their clientele, which now includes larger brands such as 20th Century Fox, Chevrolet and the e-commerce site Avenida.com. Depending on the brand, its timeline and the number of pieces produced, El Meme can bring in anywhere from US$3,000 to US$30,000 per campaign.

Noting that the Latin American native advertising ecosystem is still in the early stages, McCutcheon, Mic's former mentor, said El Meme's pursuit of branded content will offer them a competitive advantage in the near future.

"While it may be difficult to be one of the early companies of their kind [in Latin America], that's also an advantage," McCutcheon said. "They can grow to a scale that makes competition much more difficult for their [future] competitors."

Realize the potential in your pre-existing platform

Reina and Sarceda are trying to add more journalistic stories to the site. They’ve provided community guidelines for their registered users and added an editor to oversee the site’s content and provide users with feedback. The editor also controls what pieces are promoted to the homepage and section fronts. An e-learning platform for people interested in growing their own online communities is currently in beta.

El Meme also works with about 10 freelancers, who they pay to produce news stories. In anticipation of local and national elections throughout Argentina, El Meme commissioned freelance journalists to hone in on politics and campaign and election issues.

“We try to balance all kinds of content so people don’t get bored with just entertainment and they also have pieces of real journalism,” Sarceda said.

As Sarceda and Reina prepare for a possible El Meme expansion to Mexico, the co-founders are also thinking of the future for journalists in Argentina. They've been visiting universities to find young journalists who need to test the waters with readers.

“We think of El Meme as a tool,” Reina explained. “[Students] have theoretical knowledge and can start a blog, but they cannot test themselves with an audience," which El Meme can provide.

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

Main image courtesy via El Meme Facebook page.