How’d You Get So Big? Lending an Ear to PolicyMic’s Co-Founders
PolicyMic, the New York-based news and conversation hub for “smart millennials,” is crowded. Jammed into the better part of two rooms in Chelsea, founders Jake Horowitz and Chris Altchek apologize, lacking even a conference room for a conversation. They’re cramming all 18 of their staff members into space meant for perhaps 10 — and they’re still growing.
“We started in this brownstone we were living in, in Harlem,” says Horowitz, 25. “And eventually, all our employees at the time were making the trek up from SoHo and complaining. So we moved here.” Adds Altchek, also 25, “It was kind of weird, having people go through your bedroom to get to the office.”
Now, the partners — who have known each other since they were classmates at New York’s Horace Mann School before Altchek decamped for Harvard and Horowitz for Stanford — are practically climbing over employees to get to their desks. They’re using the back tables at their closest Pret a Manger restaurant as a conference room.
It’s fitting that the company is literally bursting at the seams: So is its traffic. PolicyMic was little known only a year ago, but seemed to come from literally out of nowhere to suddenly become a significant player in the news world. The site is pulling in millions of unique visitors every month and carried a load of 20,000 concurrent users during the 2012 elections last fall.
The two-year old company has raised about $1.8 million in two seed rounds, and will be raising “a lot” more money in the next six months, chasing an advertisement-based model “soon.” Their biggest supporters, including the Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund, are enthusiastic about their investment.
“They’re focused on content, and it’s content that’s been hard to get people to be engaged in,” says Michael Maness, vice president of journalism andmedia innovation at the Knight Foundation. “They’ve been very focused on using social media and SEO in a metric-oriented way, and they’re really aware of who their audience is.”
“Our comScore index is 179 for 18-34 year-olds and the number keeps rising,” says Altchek. “We have upwards of 7 million uniques per month (Google Analytics), and the majority is young, smart, and savvy people.”
“Every single person who writes for the site does so because they’re passionate about their issue — we’re not training people as journalists. We’re giving them a voice,” says Horowitz.
Horowitz says as editor, he’s pushing his community past even the high bar set by Reddit because of the way participation on the site is organized.
“You can’t write – you don’t really have a voice – until you’ve been there, in the community and given ‘mics’ by your peers,” he says. “Things sort of bubble to the top, but it takes awhile, and it takes dedication.” At the same time, he says he’s knowingly building out verticals via something of a formula.
“We have a detailed editorial calendar, set up for weeks and months ahead. All of our content is event-based,” Horowitz continued. “Each editor looks at the calendar and uses analytics to tease out angles around the event. Then we reach out to our pundits all over the world and assign ideas based on what we come up with from the analytics.”
“When we first started, we got good at the SEO game. It was about 60-65 percent of traffic,” says Liz Plank, 26, PolicyMic’s new viral editor. “Now it’s 35 percent social traffic, mostly from Facebook, and about 30 percent is direct. If we’re mastering Facebook, we’re taking the demographic we want and our stories have longer staying power and better performance.”
“We’re trying to figure out the best ways to make things popular, and we’ve really started to figure out the secret sauce to making things have an impact,” she said. Plank cited a story recent story of a Canadian woman who’d stood up to her attacker to protect her children.
“Originally, that story had a really boring, sad headline and we weren’t doing anything. We recast the headline so that it seemed more ‘David and Goliath’ and it started to go viral almost immediately,” Plank said. “There can be an excellent piece about an issue but if you don’t package it in the right way, it’s not going out.”
“The things people love are stories that [frame] the ‘hero and the bully’, or the ‘underdog rising,’ or a story that gives the bad guy what he deserves,” PolicyMic viral editor Liz Plank says.
Sometimes Plank writes ten headlines for a piece, and then bothers whoever she can find on chat – or in the office – to figure out what the ‘perfect’ headline for a piece might be. “Really, the headline is what matters – and sometimes using my friends, or my coworkers to brainstorm leads to something I wouldn’t’ve thought of,” she says.
“The things people love are stories that [frame] the ‘hero and the bully’, or the ‘underdog rising,’ or a story that gives the bad guy what he deserves,” Plank says. “It’s why stories like Wendy Davis [the Texas Democratic Congresswoman who recently filibustered the state’s proposed new abortion laws]’s go viral.”
These recent successes, plus a site-wide belief that social is the future, are the driving forces behind the site’s forthcoming redesign. It’s taking shape for an August relaunch, influenced by many of the sites they see as competitors. “We’re very much going for immersive storytelling and taking the beauty of a magazine online. The new site is going to be awesome – and much more useable,” says Horowitz.
“We want to be the CNN or New York Times for millennials – the first place people go to get their news, opinion and analysis,” he says. Horowitz plans to apply his team’s viral principles to bigger stories going forward. “There’s little competition for smart, engaging news that targets this demographic — even The Atlantic isn’t as engaging as we want to be.”
“It’s shaping how we’re doing everything,” says Horowitz. “We’re going to be the easiest way to reach a smart audience.”Image by chaoss / Shutterstock.com