The Penny Hoarder, Clarity Money, and A Plus have each seen enormous social audience and engagement growth. Get a behind the scenes look at a core set of proven tactics they share — spanning brand mission, original content investment, and data-driven decisions
Patrick: Hi everyone. Today I'm here with Jeff Stevens from the A Plus Team. Jeff, I was wondering if you could introduce yourself and share a little bit about your work at A Plus?
Jeff: Yeah, happy to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this conversation. I joined A Plus last year, leading their Head of Social and Audience Development. At A Plus, we believe in the power of positive thinking and storytelling. To us, positive journalism means looking at the day's events critically from all different angles with hope and positivity, and our mission is inherent in the stories that we share and we were actually founded back in 2014 by Ashton Kutcher. For me, A Plus has an amazing digital footprint and I want to continue to expand that footprint, but also diversify our partnerships and grow our social reach on all different social platforms.
I'm right now really focused on coming up with fresh strategies that are outside of Facebook, even though we've seen the most growth on Facebook. We're just a nine-person news team, but we are highly ranked against other publishers like Bustle, Vox, and The Atlantic. We've seen a really nice uptick in growth just in this last year because it seems like our stories are really resonating. In this day and age with the news environment that we're in, I'm really happy to be working in the positive journalism outlets.
Patrick: There's certainly a lot of negative news out there these days, so I think having some positive content is a breath of fresh air, absolutely. You have some great experience. Could share how your social media work has evolved and where you've worked?
Jeff: Sure thing. I started my social career back in 2007 at Comedy Central. I was the homepage guy for ComedyCentral.com, and since I was already managing the day-to-day network priorities, it just made sense that I would manage the Comedy Central brand presence on social. I mean, back in the day we hoped that if we tweeted a link or post a link on Facebook to our website that our fans would just click on it, right? Over the years social media has evolved into visual storytelling, and capitalizing on enticing visuals, and funny wordplay to grab someone's attention as they're scrolling.
I think Instagram has really played a key part to this behavior, and that's why media accounts have high engagement and views. It's all about the content that comes up and scrolling in their feed. Insane videos from the UNILADs of the world have become huge distribution and monetized video publishers, and define a new video era that we're in today.Every organization that I've worked with I've really shown that we need to double down on video and visual storytelling to fit the time that we're in right now.
Patrick: How do you view video monetization going in the next few years? While you're right the new video era is here, it is very challenging to try and make that something that you can bank on revenue-wise.
Jeff: I think with monetized video, in-stream ads that are happening on Facebook now are interesting enough for us to make sure that we're producing content that retains audiences and keeps them engaged until that part of that mid roll ad. Facebook Stories still hasn't really made a huge impact but it's still an awesome sandbox for publishers and storytellers and creators to play around with. We just posted a story last Thursday on our Facebook Stories and it actually got 50,000 views just off the gate, and so to try to find ways to talk vertically or actually bring that content experience to a vertical experience, it's really a matter of not just pivoting to video, but pivoting to mobile video and making sure that you have relatable engaging content that fits that format. It's not just about taking a video and stretching it to that format. It really is about shooting, editing, and producing in the format that you're hoping to publish at.
I'm glad that with the tools like Naytev we are able to A/B test different formats to making sure that the content's gonna resonate the best for an audience, whether it is square, 16:9, or vertical. It's awesome to be able to have tools like yours at my fingertips.
Patrick: Thank you for the nice plug. You worked at The Penny Hoarder during a period of really impressive growth. Could share a little bit about that experience and what lessons you learned there?
Jeff: The Penny Hoarder was one of the biggest milestones of my career, and I hope to have a lot more in the next few years as well. Prior to joining the small but fast-growing team, I wanted to show that I could grow a brand social presence like I did at Comedy Central, where we went from one million to five million fans in two years. Right after I left Comedy Central, I joined HuffPost’s Live [video] team where we saw 180% growth in the first six months. I wanted to challenge myself to do that same model, but do it for a small brand. Something that wasn't really tied to a network or a big recognizable brand. That was really one of the keys to my career is making sure that every place that I go to I'm challenging myself and continuing to adapt.
It was really cool to join The Penny Hoarder at a small time when they were a small team. I was the 23rd employee, and it was really awesome to bring The Penny Hoarder from 1.9 million to 5.4 million fans in the first 18 months. That was a huge accomplishment so far in my career.
One thing that I'm really grateful for is that our CEO and leadership team trusted my intuition and my strategies. Kyle Taylor saw the value investing in social media publishing tools and making sure that we also have analytical tools to measure our successes. When I joined The Penny Hoarder, they were already seeing tremendous growth and they were going to be staffing editorial team as well as their video and other teams. Our Executive Editor really wanted to find a tool that would optimize the scale, because we were basically publishing at that time about 10 articles a day. That quickly went up to 30 articles a day, and so luckily Lexi had a really and amazing conversation with you and decided that Naytev would be a perfect fit for us to scale.
Naytev allowed us to literally A/B test every article and video before we published it organically. It gave us at least the key insights to know if a story was going to resonate with our audience and over perform over time. I mean, rather than posting blindly on Facebook and hoping for the best, we knew that after testing our content that it would be engaging and people would click on it and people would share it because they felt special that they came across something that really was relatable to their family or friends or whomever.
It was awesome to put together all of these key stats for you and just look over time to see the tremendous lift in organic brand awareness, but also our click-through rates skyrocketed and our video views actually saw a huge boost as well. That was an awesome learning example for me that it should not be forgotten that you really do want to science the hell out of everything. The making sure that you're thinking smart about publishing content.
I think it's really awesome to make sure that you A/B test different variations of content because you want to make sure that the content has eye-catching enticing visuals within that first three to five seconds. I challenged my team of video producers to make different variations of content in order to make sure that we're only publishing content that our fans will watch through to the monetized ad mark or at least a point where we know it's going to be shared.
Patrick: You've got experience working with direct-to-consumer marketing teams, too. What do you think is the best way for teams like that to balance creating content for brand building versus driving acquisitions directly?
Jeff: Yeah, I believe that you really do need to split your resources 50-50 when it comes to user acquisition. The ads marketplace fluctuates over time, so you can't put all of your money and all of your budget into ads. You really need to dedicate at least half towards content creation and organic content. Make sure that your organic content represents your brand and it represents the value of your product. I've seen a lot of tech startups only rely on ads to drive acquisition. I don't know, it's super shady to me. It feels like affiliate marketing at its lowest level.
If you're gonna spend money to drive app installs, you really have to make sure that you have more than just a pretty app page. You have to have daily stories, user stories, community involvement. I discovered all of this during my time at Clarity Money, which got acquired by Goldman Sachs. We were doing good. I think we were doing it at the best, making sure that we had a 50-50 split.
Again, it goes down to the content creation that we would A/B test our stories on organic, and then the ones that actually overperformed, we would use those as ads because we knew that they resonated with an organic audience. It just informed our ad strategies.
Patrick: For teams that are just starting to ramp up their content marketing, what would you recommend they focus on first? How do you think their investment should evolve over the course of their first year doing content marketing?
Jeff: Decide whether there's going to be video storytelling that supports the content or it supports the product. The social media managing world has evolved where we're not looking just for a copywriter that can write tweets. We're looking for someone that can bring in a design aesthetic or a visual look and feel that reinforces the brand. I always want to have creative designers that have a wide variety of different skills, whether that is graphic design, illustration, motion design, or even video editing and producing videos.
I think even when it comes to personal finance, you can tell stories through video and have them resonate more audience because you're playing to users' emotions. Whether that is something closely tied to money and personal finance or if it is something very positive like A Plus and making sure that the positive stories are told visually. For teams that are building out from the ground up, I think especially for content marketing, I would invest highly into video editors as well as designers.
Patrick: You mentioned that it's really valuable to tie in with the emotions of readers and people consuming content, notably going after either positive or maybe on the negative side as well. We've seen a similar pattern where positive- or negative-framed content tends to outperform neutral content, but with that, have you seen folks become numb to content that's positive or negative? How do you stand out when everybody's doing positive or negative content?
Jeff: I haven't seen users go numb. One thing that I've been reprogramming my distribution strategy here for A Plus is to build partnerships with like-minded publishers that are crushing it on social, that have an engaged audience that is closely aligned to A Plus and finding ways to cross-promote and amplify each other's content, just knowing that that content's going to resonate with their also feel-good audience. It's about identifying strategic partners that you know the audiences meet in the crossroads.
I'm blessed to have a number of different partners that we know that their content resonates with our audience, so it's mutually beneficial. I'm happy and I think that's really what makes us stand out on social these days, and it seems to really be working. I worked with HuffPost, I worked with Penny Hoarder and Comedy Central, but I mean, hitting our goal of 120 million video views per month is just awesome. Being ranked alongside those other [top] publishers is just awesome, and it's just a measure of making sure that you have great relationships and great audiences that you can test out content with.
Patrick: It sounds as though the partnerships have been important for your team driving organic growth at a time when others have found that challenging. Who are some of the partners that you're working with? How did you determine that they'd be good partners?
Jeff: I definitely use CrowdTangle to analyze like-minded publishers that have an engaged audience that have seen growth in the last two, three years, maybe even less than a year. We maintained some really great relationships with BrightVibes, which is an amazing feel-good publisher and I've always wanted to collaborate with BrightVibes. It's been insanely awesome to be able to amplify their stories and bring the A Plus content to their audience and see how it resonates.
I'm really happy with our relationships with Vocativ and Brut. America and LightWorkers. Just really identifying publishers that are also publishing content that is positive, uplifting, but inspirational. I want to continue to grow our partnerships over time, so definitely I hope this podcast reaches the right people that we can build off of that, because I know there's a few other ones that are on my dream list and I would love to continue to increase that over time.
Patrick: You've talked a little bit already about how partnerships are helping out a lot and how investing in video is helping out a lot with driving growth to your team. It's quite tough to stand out. Beyond those particular approaches to driving growth, what do you see as working? What do you see as not working?
Jeff: I would say that I think what's really working is Instagram and Instagram Stories. I think what is really working is just the 24-hour story and brand voice activated through visuals and vertical video. I do think that Stories has really taken people's attention. Instagram's daily active users is seeing significant growth quarter after quarter, so that Stories format has brands and publishers rethinking posts that are off the grid and taking into effect some three- to five-frame story with the hopes that then it drives to a landing page to watch the full content or read the full article.
It's a matter that the ways that you go about creating social content has to be formatted in a much more concise way. More people just want to want short-form stuff and then come back to it later if it's really brought their eyes and attention towards them. I definitely see that. Facebook Stories is, like I said earlier, going to really take off if publishers have the right stories to tell in that medium itself.
Patrick: How do you think resource strapped teams should balance investing in more original content versus content focused on well-covered topics?
Jeff: I think that most publishers really need to double down on original content. That is what will really will truly reflect who they are and the products they're trying to share. I think that there's a lot of different news organizations — I would think BuzzFeed even prior to the layoffs — I think they were doing an amazing job with their original reporting and their original videos. I think BuzzFeed News was underrated, and I think that they had really shown that original reporting from a news outlet that meets the millennial audience works.
More teams should be investing more in original content. For me, when I joined The Penny Hoarder, I really wanted us to make sure that we were telling real stories about personal finance. To tell the personal side of personal finance is just going to resonate more with audiences and being able to bring the best out of my team and inspire my team to create great work.
We created a national holiday called Purple Friday where we had three different news teams going out into the ecosphere, going live on Facebook and surprising people at their homes because Purple Friday was all about not buying anything and investing in you. I think that is what made the original content overperform and resonate with our audience because it was more about the real stories and the real people. There are a lot of publishers that are already covering topics and issues that are out there. It just seems like the aggregation publishers, they don't last very long, and I think that's why original content and original reporting and original storytelling just works.
Patrick: What about for folks who are on content marketing teams that brands where they want to create evergreen content that for some limited investment lasts quite a while? I think we've often seen things like, "11 tips for you when you're getting ready to file taxes this year." How much of that type of filler content should be included in the mix for content marketing teams versus something that requires more creative resources to pull together?
Jeff: Oh, I would say there needs to be a lot of that in your social content calendar. I wouldn't say 50-50, but I would say the way that I like to plan out my social channels is I look at like a Pinterest Planner and I look at topics as well as themes that are coming up in quarters ahead and planning our calendar around that. What I think is really important for me is, as original content, fresh content, breaking news content comes in, we just push that stuff back, and making sure that you have at least two weeks worth of content scheduled out.
I think that just streamlines the publishing and it streamlines our feeds to a place that our social editors are not scrounging to fill up any holes or anything like that. There is actually a robust publishing schedule out there, and we're just maintaining it.
I think that the evergreen content really fits in that publishing schedule as much as possible, and then you'll be able to replace it with whatever comes through the pipeline that is a key initiative.
Patrick: Today we've talked a lot about how to stand out on social, how to focus on creative content versus less original content. One thing we haven't talked about yet is brand voice. Can you share what a strong brand voice looks like? How important is it for social storytelling?
Jeff: Well, in every organization that I join, I always put together a social mission, a social DNA of the brand. This includes the targeted audience. This is includes the ideal personas that we would like to reach, but also the five things that bring value to our audience. I actually really enjoyed The Penny Hoarder's mission, because it helped me really streamline our social voice, making sure that our social tone was three different factors: smart, resourceful, and communally friendly. This mission of putting money in our readers' pockets gave us a framework that we really couldn't have much wiggle room when it comes to tonality since the mission was so clear.
I think that with social storytelling, you have to maintain consistency, and it's important that you find a factor that is strong, that really, truly represents the brand. I mean, I remember Gawker's social tone being irreverent and snarky and witty at the same point. That's really what defines a publisher from a brand. The social DNA of a brand will evolve over time. What was also great from a leadership perspective is you have to do this up front, and it will evolve over time, but then you have to ask the company, "Are there some assumptions that are being made about our content and how it resonates with our audience in certain locations?"
Back at The Penny Hoarder, I remember one of my first meetings with our editorial team. They had the assumption that our audience was in these different areas of the country and we wouldn't be able to write a story about Uber because these locations that they assumed don't have Uber and don't commute and utilize those services. What I love is to back those assumptions with data and paint a bigger picture so that we have clear data that brings those assumptions and makes them the standards. It's great over time to see different breakdowns over your audience over time.
Patrick: How do you measure the impact of brand voice? How do you know when your voice needs to evolve? That it might be out of sync with your target audiences?
Jeff: When people don't click on your content. When people don't engage with your content. I mean, if your tone doesn't have something that's very straightforward and it has these three different fluffy factors that are not clear over time with all the different updates that you're making in a day-to-day period, then that's when you have to look at your voice over a two weeks period and pull out the top performers and what made them outperform or overperform and dissect those DNAs and make sure that you're clearly identifying the best performing content and evolve from there.
Those have been the best behaviors in my career so far and there's been a lot of times where things didn't work and we've learned from it. What I think is also great is with variation testing you can clearly define and clearly see the insights of what's working and what doesn't.
Patrick: Jeff, you're always experimenting with new things. What are you excited to experiment with in the year ahead?
Jeff: Yeah, there's a few new exciting things that I'm definitely excited to experiment. I'm a huge guinea pig on all kinds of social tools as well as content experiences. I think one of the things I'm really excited to do more of is going about an original video shoot with multiple cameras looking to capture a 16:9 video with two people talking to each other, but also capture individual shots of those people and utilize the vertical long video and having a split screen and a multi-view experience to that video. I think this allows you to capitalize on the screen time and keep the video really engaging through different editing techniques and formats. I still think Facebook Stories is a really early adopting platform that we can experiment and try things on. I think another area that I'm super excited to be exploring is reddit. I think that reddit in just the last year is seeing a huge significant in native video views. I believe they had mentioned like in December they were getting one billion monthly video views just natively on reddit.
Reddit has been particularly an interest of mine for many years. I think making sure that you have the content that is going to work in certain subreddits, I think we have a good advantage with positive journalism that there's a lot of subreddits like GetInspired or This Will Amaze You where we can leverage our awesome video content and diversify and think out of Facebook or think out of the box and get that out there. I think reddit over time has become more publisher-friendly, but it's still early on to see if the reddit community is publisher-friendly, so we're gonna tread that lightly and just experiment with different content experiences in certain areas of reddit.
Patrick: Well, Jeff, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it, and I look forward to sharing this with our audience.
Jeff: Same here.