Company Q & A 12/1/2006

Vital Media Network

Vital Media Network
Pictured starting from top left are:
Brad McDonald
- Founder, President
Todd Toth - VP of Marketing Services
Floyd Wallace - Technical Development
Steve Giberson – Content Director
Mike Metcalf – Content Director, VitalSkate
Mark Losey – Content Director, VitalBMX


User-generated content & social networking sites geared towards Action Sports are being irrigated with big money.  Lat34.com is an AOL company.  CurrentTV.com is backed by Al Gore and now integrated with Yahoo!.  Ignition bought IceLounge.com.  SponsorHouse.com and ActionProfiles.com are sponsorship-oriented social networking.  That’s not all of them -- not even close. But that doesn’t matter.  The point is, it’s a hot market and rightfully so.  Myspace just blew everyone’s mind with its gigantic sale price and that sort of thing creates energy similar to what was around during the internet’s first boom. 

Pioneers are heading into cyber-space again, this time after the social-networking pot of gold.  This short introduction could easily be fuel for a PhDs dissertation, but it’s not because it’s written by a baccalaureate (spell checked that one).  So let’s get to the chase.  This is a phenomenon and we caught up with a group of pioneers who have been in Action Sports media for well over a decade.  When they started, “Action Sports” were not referred to as Action Sports.  Most communication was over the phone and fax.  The internet wasn’t wide spread either.  The people behind VitalMedia succeeded in traditional media.  Vital’s President founded Ride Publishing years ago, and then later sold it to TransWorld.  Being able to sell a media company is a good indicator of success and know-how.  How does that experience and knowledge apply to the web and something as new as social-networking sites?  Well, social-networking is nothing new.  The means for doing it is new.  It’s faster, more efficient, more entertaining.  Turn off your favorite YouTube video today and check this out!
 
Is VitalMedia a social networking website?
Social networking is a part of it, but overall we’re creating online communities. Within these communities, users can do more than just build profiles and connect with each other; they can do things like view and comment on professional-quality content, upload photos and videos, and write product reviews.

VitalMedia’s business model is similar to a magazine in that revenue is generated by selling ad space.  What are similarities and differences in selling space online vs. in print?
Print has obviously been around longer, so there’s a certain comfort level for advertisers, while online advertising often has a lot of jargon and concepts that they aren’t familiar with. So there is a bit of a learning curve with online and different advertisers are in different places in the learning process. To help people make the transition, we’ve tried to make the sales process simple and consultative.

The one universal in the advertising discussion is advertisers know they have to be online to reach their customers. So you’re seeing advertisers shifting more and more money from print to online.

What experience is company management able to leverage into the online space?
I was in the magazine business for almost 15 years, so I understand the fundamental principles: Attract an audience by creating a good product, and then help advertisers connect with that audience. It’s the same thing online. What consumers are looking for is a little different, so it’s not just cut and paste, but the concept is the same.

I’ve started several magazines from scratch, I ran TransWorld for a few years, I’ve run my own startup before, and we have a great team in place, so that gives advertisers confidence that we’ll pull this off. Nobody wants to back something they don’t think will survive.

What differentiates Vital Media from other action sport focused social networking sites?
It depends which other site you’re talking about, but in general there are quite a few differences. First, we have sites for skateboarding, BMX, and motocross that are completely separate from each other. The people we’re most interested in reaching are core participants, so we’re not going to try to force a bunch of other stuff on them – they have too many options to get exactly what they’re into. Also, most endemic advertisers want a targeted audience.

Second, our experience set us apart from others. We are unique in that we come from these markets, yet have a proven track record in media. We’re not a big media company trying to nose-in and we’re not a kid blogging in his bedroom with no experience or resources.

Third, we’re independent. I’m funding and running Vital Media, so we have to be smarter about how we spend money. Having worked for a big company, I don’t find it intimidating to compete against them. They generally move very slow, aren’t focused, don’t commit, and waste money.

Are VitalMedia’s websites a combination of traditional magazine-style content, and new-media user generated content?
Yes. I think it’s become clear that users want both professionally-generated content, as well as content that they and their peers have created, so we need both to hold peoples’ attention. Most magazine websites can’t really interact with their users. All they do is display content – it’s pretty much a one-way conversation. Technology such as broadband and digital cameras has become so mainstream that users are now able to help create this content as well. Many magazine purists turn up their nose at the idea of user-generated content, but in many ways it’s just as good. The old days of a handful of magazine editors deciding what everyone gets to see are over.
 
Are your user’s taking an interest in adding comments on particular products?  It’s a neat feature.
Yes, users are responding to that feature, they’re also rating and commenting on photos and videos. We’re actually redesigning the product section right now to make it even more interactive and functional.

There are bugs that exist in your product review section.  I want to make a comment on a beanie, but go to a page with belts.  When will the site be bug free?
We try to add new features relatively quickly, so there’s always that tradeoff. Luckily, the mistake you found was an easy fix. We have coders in-house, so they fixed it in five minutes.

What are the plans for growing the VitalMedia audience?
We carefully track where our users come from and try to do more of what works. We currently have a number of things happening, including partnerships, organic/viral growth, links, search, and email.

Will VitalMedia ever produce a print magazine to distribute to its online audience?
It’s pretty unlikely. In our first month, our sites attracted more unique visitors than most of the magazines in their categories. The magazine business is incredibly inefficient and wasteful from an environmental standpoint, so being able to not use millions of pounds of paper every year is a nice perk (especially considering that most magazines are never even sold).

Is there a challenge in demonstrating value to your potential advertisers? 
Advertisers know that magazine readership has fallen off dramatically, and readers have moved online, so they’re generally sold on the medium. The challenge is in helping them figure out how to market their brands online. The two mistakes that I see some companies make are:  1. Being too ambitious. They do little or no online advertising at the moment, but they know it’s become critical, so they’re trying to come up with the “perfect idea.” They want something unique, big, and completely measurable. Those types of ideas are very hard to come up with and even harder to execute, so companies sometimes wind up doing nothing.  2. Because online advertising is new to some people’s budgets, they analyze it to a degree that almost no form of marketing would stand up to. Marketing is a combination of art and science, so short-term brand-building is very hard to quantify. Things like athletes, television, print, and events are extremely hard to measure, but they’ve been around long enough that people overlook their shortcomings. The point is they just need to get started, then figure out how to improve things later. We have a range of options to help people make the transition – banner ads, 15 second commercials before our videos, consistent branding on our homepage, product features, etc.

Are logical advertisers endemic and non-endemic companies?
We wouldn’t necessarily turn them away, but we’re not going after non-endemics at this point. Our goal is to solidly establish our sites within each of the communities that they represent, and endemic advertising is an important part of that. Just as with magazines, users don’t make a big distinction between advertising and editorial, so you’re being judged by the quality of the advertising you run.

What is the next stage in VitalMedia’s development?
Just more of the same for now: Better content, more traffic, more advertising, better technical infrastructure. We’re always looking for better ways to serve our customers.

What people will you put in place to achieve that step?  And as VitalMedia continues to grow, what job opportunities will you be hiring for?
People who can create content (video, photos, writing), consumer marketing, ad sales, designers and programmers.

What positions or departments are the hardest to find candidates who have the right skill set and experience?
It all depends on timing. Sometimes it’s very difficult to find the right person for a particular job, other times you have a lot of great candidates. I can’t think of any one type of position that’s consistently tough to fill.

Which job titles / categories are most likely to be filled by candidates with Action Sports industry experience?
Content and advertising sales for sure. Someone in consumer marketing would need to have a good grasp on the categories we’re in, but broader experience is also very helpful. For technical positions, action sports experience is a bonus, but definitely not a requirement.

Which job titles / categories are most likely to be filled by people with strong professional-level experience gained outside of the Action Sports industry?
Anything on the technical side. Very few of the things we deal with on a technical level are unique to action sports.

How can candidates without OR with industry experience showcase their skills and value to your company?
From my perspective, “industry experience” can be acquired as a participant if they’ve paid attention and been involved. I look for people who have insight into how things work and can get things done. Experience can be obtained in many different ways.

What is going to make a candidate stand out to VitalMedia?
The main things I look for are a combination of motivation, talent, experience, and the ability to work within a team. There are lots of other factors, but those are some of the big ones.

Give us some “read between the lines” details that apply to anyone interested in working for your company.
Assuming an applicant is reasonably qualified, a little persistence and extra effort can go a long way. Especially for a sales position, seeing how somebody goes after a job opening is very insightful for assessing how they would actually do the job. Many jobs don’t require great sales skills, so in that case it’s important to look at the whole person, not just whether they present well during an interview. But in almost any case, if the people are close on paper, it will always go to the person who is persistent and goes the extra mile to show you that they’re interested.

What can job seekers do, in the short or long-term, to increase the chance of employment with your company?
I always look for people who have passion for what they do and would be doing it whether it was their job or not. Most of this is stuff people can choose to do as a hobby, so that’s one major thing I look for. Photographers or filmers need to be shooting whether they have a paying gig or not, aspiring writers should have a blog, wanna-be web developers should have a project site, ad sales people should be at industry functions, etc. I look for people who will be stoked to have this job, will want to go the extra mile, and don’t really see it as “work.”