Last spring, a proprietary publishing platform created by Vox Media, called Chorus, played a pivotal role in the seduction of Ezra Klein and the remarkable nine-week creation of Vox.com. As a result, it earned a near-mythological reputation in the media world.
“The joke is that Chorus is a unicorn with a kitten on its back,” Vox.com co-founder Melissa Bell told The New York Times. “People think it is a magical system that fixes everything.”
That reputation has stuck, and the media world has been salivating to get its hands on Vox Media’s phoenix feather core wand ever since. For now, those media companies will have to wait—but brands won’t.
During the media upfronts this spring, Vox announced that it was partnering with marketing agency DigitasLBi to bring Chorus to brand clients for the first time. But that left a lot of unanswered questions: Why now? And what’s in store for a platform that could potentially disrupt a digital publishing industry primed for change?
To untangle that puzzle, it helps to start from the beginning.
Vox first teased the move last August in a post by Lockhart Steele, Vox’s editorial director, about the future of blogging: “Here now, the buried lede: perhaps Chorus should become a tool for more than just those of us employed at Vox Media, and a platform that transcends words in the ways that Vox Media has long since transcended just being a collection of websites?”
That launched a wave of coveting in the media industry, but not many thought Vox’s first client would be a marketing agency. The move speaks to the evolving trend of brands building large-scale media divisions, not to mention the profit incentive from Vox’s perspective—brands and agencies, after all, have a lot more money to burn than traditional publishers.
The talks started during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, eventually leading to a sit down between DigitasLBi and Vox for an inside look at the platform. “Once we got a look at Chorus, it was like, ‘How do we do something with that?'” said Adam Schlachter, chief investment officer at DigitasLBi and one of the main architects behind the deal. “For them, I think they were looking for someone to ask.”
Schlachter believes his company’s reputation as an innovator in the media marketing space, and its belief in content, made it a strong first partner for Vox. DigitasLBi saw Vox and Chorus as the leaders of the future of content creation in a media world dominated by social and tech platforms.
“What you really want to do is fit in,” Schlachter said. “Within the flow, within the feed. [Vox] wants to create things that are more timely and more meaningful and fit better into the platforms that people are spending time with.”
Schlachter also explained that Vox’s social prowess on platforms like Facebook in particular played a part in solidifying the partnership: “People spend an inordinate amount of time on platforms like Facebook on their mobile devices. Facebook can be quite crowded, [so] it’s definitely critical for brands to figure out how to better take advantage of it.”
Vox’s monetization of Chorus also signals a shift in the winds for publishing companies. More and more, media companies are becoming hybrids; tech-social-agency-journalism company is probably a more accurate way to describe emerging media empires like Vox and BuzzFeed.
For Vox, licensing its publishing platform to agencies and brands is just the latest experiment in expanding the definition of “media company.” For all intents and purposes, this is a move into the content marketing SaaS sphere.
And to make sure this initial experiment goes according to plan, Vox is working closely with DigitasLBi to ensure Chorus is used to its full potential.
“Turning over the keys isn’t necessarily going to make them successful,” explained Lindsay Nelson, head of brand strategy at Vox.
“We’re looking to leverage the full suite, but it’s going to be a crawl, walk, run,” Schlachter added. “We have to get smarter about it and build up our intelligence and understand production, developing, and distribution aspects of it. That will take some time, and we’re going to work together on it.”
Nelson believes that Vox’s perspective as publisher will give DigitasLBi a leg up on the competition. “To be able to figure all of that out on your own is a big challenge,” she said. “And I think that’s where the right kind of publisher adds a lot of value.”
If the partnership is successful, don’t be surprised to see Vox and other media companies with coveted proprietary tech (BuzzFeed’s Pound technology, for example) expand their offerings to more brands—and maybe even other publishers, though that’s not in the cards right now for Vox.
“We’re not in the business of licensing this offer to publishers,” Nelson said. “That could change.”
If it does change, brands and other publishers will undoubtedly trip over themselves to get their hands on these powerful tools. What they do with them—well, that’s up to the wizard.