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DriveTribe's profit pursuit required solving social and digital media's biggest problems

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DriveTribe, the car-community media brand founded by The Grand Tour trio Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May in 2016, is gaining momentum by developing a unique business model that informs the marketing campaigns of the world’s biggest auto brands.

The media brand's website looks like a cross between an auto publication, Facebook and Reddit. It has arranged its content around ‘Tribes’ like Motorsports, Rally, Celebrity and more, all administered by a team of around 50 staff members and countless regular contributors. To get to this scale, it has had to solve the monetisation issues plaguing digital media and the algorithmic hiccups hampering social media companies like Facebook – and in doing both it has developed an engagement-centric model that it is now pitching to brands.

DriveTribe's chief executive, Jonathan Morris and contributor James May, spoke to The Drum about how the brand is now serving as a ‘petri dish’ for marketers. Morris believes the Tribe approach may serve as a guiding light to niche publishers intent on delivering maximum value to vital brand partners.

In its first year, DriveTribe breached one million users. With the scale in the bag, the next step was to attract brand partners to pursue profitability and sure enough in year two it signed its first major advertiser in Audi. Its Audi e-vehicle content, it found, generated valuable feedback from users and since then, it has been able to levy the power of its highly-engaged enthusiast audience as market research. Auto partners, including Renault, have come aboard for this mix of marketing and fact-finding.

It may come as a surprise, Morris admits, that DriveTribe did not have a solid business model until he took over in November 2017.

Unique partnerships

He says: “Year one was about growing the audience and the brand – and we learned we should steer clear of the social media advertising arbitrage model where you buy £100 of ads on Facebook to make £105 pounds in impression-based advertising.”

Pumping up the scale of the mag to monetise a niche site is a “mug’s game” in his opinion. “Unless you are already very big then the best you can do is lose less money than your competitors.”

Instead, DriveTribe realised that its users generate millions of data points (around 15m at the moment). This can inform brands about auto trends and user opinion.

DriveTribe 2

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When courting advertisers, DriveTribe downplays promises of vast social reach buyers may have come to expect. It has learned that several clients also had doubts about the effectiveness of mass reach against a highly engaged audience, and that the auto industry is in need of guidance from consumers. It is currently being disrupted by tech like self-driving cars, sustainable fuel, new car financing, Uber and environmental and health awareness.

These industry shifts mean that “the big brands have to change how they market and how they talk to users,” Morris says. "They need communities they can talk to." DriveTribe has positioned itself to deliver this.

The discovery of this model was in someways a fortuitous accident. Morris realised that Drivetribe was already a brand-friendly place where users discussed the pros and cons of certain car brands. It trialled content marketing, surveys and more to help Audi (better) promote the Audi e-tron electric car.

e-tron quiz

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“We discovered that Audi’s e-tron marketing wasn't quite hitting the right notes. They believed consumers were most concerned about range anxiety and speed but our data found the opposite. Range concerns were overblown, many were planning to buy for the school run and train stations runs as most of them don't actually drive long distances. Also marketing it as a performance car was wrong [because] people were worried they could accelerate too quickly and would put it in the wrong gear and blast through the back of the garage.”

The Tribes were most curious about the e-tron's interior design, its accessories and the noise of its engine. The media brand claims its feedback and data capture is more credible than the industry-standard weighted consumer research and the next stage is to build e-commerce and competition incentives into the product.

Morris says: “Investors see us as a petri dish for a future business model that is not reliant on monthly active users but daily active users and the number of data points they are putting into the core system. Our model is more like a mobile game than an impressions-based publisher”.

As a result, DriveTribe boasts users, not readers, and it needs them to engage as often as possible. To do this, it is looking to inspire a higher quality of content from its top contributors with an ad-revenue share system called Money Box which can be applied for by top creators.

The algorithm issues

In-house journalism and user-generated content were once exclusively ranked and placed by DriveTribe’s all-seeing algorithm; this opened the site to abuse and the algorithm lacked the nuance to spot an informative video or compelling opinion piece.

Morris admits that early criticism was not entirely unfounded. “In the early days a funny, spammy post could perform well because the algorithm loved it. We learned that you need to have real human beings checking that the algorithm hasn't gone mad.”

A team of around 150 ambassadors were put in place to run the Tribes and elevate the best content to make the site a fairer place and live up to DriveTribe's demographic promise.

“Someone who posts one piece of great content a month has a fair crack of the whip now, at the start you could bang out a post every ten minutes and the algorithm would love you – to the detriment of the users.”

He adds: “We were naive and soon realised that we were going to suffer from all of the problems of the big social networks. But, because we are around the car vertical (rather than everything from cat videos to family pictures) we were able to solve that much easier than Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.”

Furthermore, to improve the health of the site, it culled thousands of “zombie Tribes” to focus on the ones that were flourishing.

The launch of this new platform was timed to coincide with the release of Amazon’s first season of The Grand Tour to best benefit from a publicity lift generated by the fame (or infamy) of Clarkson, Hammond and May. Morris admits: “We took a bit of heat about the fact it wasn't perfect on day one. It was nigh on impossible to immediately get it right.”

With series investment into a bulky digital team, DriveTribe owns a platform it now must attract users to. This high-risk, high-reward approach at least insulates the media company from the wider movements in the world of social and search. To social media-dependent publishers, Morris warns: “It could all go away tomorrow with the strike of a pen from Mark Zuckerberg, he has the total right to do that. It concerns me that so many startups rely on social networks. It is a mistake to assume these guys are on your side."

To him, it is “the guys with owned and operated platforms that will win in the end”.

The Grand Tour trio

DriveTribe would not be here today without the marketing lift granted by Clarkson, Hammond and May. Morris says they bring social influence, deliver content, status, guide the product, engage the community and work with commercial partners – the trio are in some cases are bigger brands than most car manufacturers.

“This isn't a startup where the celebrities are never seen or heard from, they are very involved and will be at the staff Christmas party. They are a strong guiding light.

"It was one of the reasons we went to market so quickly. You usually do a soft launch and get it right but we had to immediately jump off the cliff. I would have fewer grey hairs if we had [soft launched] but now we are quite well known."

James May

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TV personality and The Grand Tour host James May shared with The Drum he weighs his responsibilities between the brands.

"Amazon has come to see the value of it. They think it is pretty cool. [The Grand Tour and DriveTribe] are perfectly complementary, some people say ‘that is TV, you shouldn't put it on the internet’ but our TV show is actually on the internet so they are not very far apart really.”

He then led into his experience of working on DriveTribe. He writes long-form reviews, runs selfie-like updates and even leans into his inner influencer by partaking in unboxing videos. Captain Slow is speeding into the future of media – perhaps.

James May on digital advertising

"I don't know very much about the business models for advertising but … there is a definite shift in the attitude of advertisers towards things that are focused and engaged rather than bland and enormous.

"Across the internet, advertising, pop-ups and pre-roll are just bloody irritating. It's on YouTube, newspapers webpages. If it is intelligently done, like on DriveTribe, properly focused and bespoke advertising is actually a form of content.

"I am interested in making things out of wood and metal, so if ads come up for interesting tools or shops, I don't get annoyed because that is really relevant.

"That is true of DriveTribe, it is not blunderbuss ads fired at it because there are millions of people using it, it is very focused advertising pointed towards the people who should find that stuff relevant or intriguing. You should never open a piece and be annoyed by the ad."

He says: “In some ways, this is what we always wanted to do. I was never a news journalist, when I wrote for The Telegraph and car magazines, I wrote columns and reviews and travel stories. I remember there was a moment in the history of The Daily Telegraph that they put it online and there would be discussions on my columns between a fairly hardcore, regular number of people that we could debate and I always enjoyed that. DriveTribe is a very sophisticated and inclusive version of that on a bespoke platform that allows for videos and nice pictures and is very easy to use."

May suggests some hacks may fear this discourse with their readers. “They are worried that it will find them out. Paper was the best that we had, the ideas are not different they are just more accessible, and more people can join in.”

For him, DriveTribe encapsulates many of the best aspects of social media, and sidesteps some of the worst.

“DriveTribe is devoted to one subject in its very broadest form, it is not a hardcore car-nerd website but it is not Twitter either. You get car stuff on Twitter and Facebook but DriveTribe is a community, there is always that common ground. You are dealing with people that are at least intrigued by the subject in some way so the responses tend not to be nasty, but constructive or critical and therefore generally quite stimulating.”

In particular, some of the discussion he has generated around certain topics has given him the belief that there is something that clicks with this community-based approach to media.

“it is not about getting millions and millions of people to click your post or hit the Like button, the measure of your success is how many people want to join in the discussion.

“I thought that about TV as well, it is important that the people watching get something out of it. We all secretly want millions of people to watch our shows because we all have fragile egos and we are inadequate and that is why we are on TV but ultimately it feels better to go niche and get a really positive or impassioned response than to do something big and bland that maybe gets a lot of viewers but doesn't leave you any wiser.”

May concludes: “You could do these verticals over anything, people associate us with cars so we did it about cars. When you are known pretty much globally for arseing around with cars, it will help a lot more than just being a startup.”

Chief strategy officer of DriveTribe Richard Beech offered a hint of where the company is going.

“After a good year of commercialisation, we have a model we can scale up and move to other verticals. The next level of funding will help the title scale up and slip into new verticals under the same model.”

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10 questions with…. MediaLad

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In an attempt to showcase the personalities of the people behind the media and marketing sector, The Drum speaks to individuals who are bringing something a little different to the industry and talks to them about what insights and life experience they can offer the rest of us. This week's 10 Questions are put to the most anonymous of industry commentators – MediaLad

What was your first job?

Baker.

Why did you get into advertising?

I’ve always had a business or economic brain and marketing was the most attractive area for me given the psychology and quantitative aspects of it.

What’s the worst buzzword in the industry?

Transparency, leverage, gap – take your pick.

Leverage – makes it sound like you’re using someone or something to get around a problem not solve it.

Gap – basically means someone isn’t doing their job.

Transparency – no one knows what transparency actually is until they try to do it and fail miserably at it.

If you could improve Twitter – how would you go about it?

Tweetups with people near you or a gaming element to it a la HQ.

Which industry event do you have to attend every year?

The IAA Xmas ball – The biggest celebration of media in the calendar year.

What’s the most surprising thing you have learned about the ad industry since working within it?

The most surprising thing is how little the so-called knowledgeable industry experts get to grips with both sides of the buy or sell side. The fact that they don’t know that not all third-party data can be bought on premium publications (even before GDPR). The fact that some technology does not interact with others in the most fluid way, yet expect a “transparency” that just will not be there unless there is a drastic change. The fact no one even talks about that astounds me. The fact they’re so focused on the buzzwords and chasing followers or awards, and not actually fixing the problems pisses me off.

Who is the one person in advertising whose advice everyone should listen to – other than yourself?

The guys at Avocet for digital buying, namely Ezra Pierce and Simon Critchley.

Who or what did you have posters of on your wall while growing up?

Eric Cantona, and House Record Labels.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

There’s a couple. From a life perspective, it’s about how much is in your control. 70% of your life is outside of your control. Stuff that happens to others in your life like your partner, parents, and loved ones. The stuff they do to annoy or delight you. 20% is what you’re in control of including life choices and what you do for fun, work, spare time etc. The rest is just pure luck and chance. For that reason only take time on the 20% as you really don’t have a lot of say on the rest.

What do you think ‘Media Lad’ means to the industry and what has being him meant to yourself?

I mean it started as a joke for the company I used to work for. I handed my notice in and had a bit of time, Twitter was new to me and I used it as a bit of a platform to promote jokes in my career that turned out to be common problems faced by everyone. It’s turned into this mad Banksy type character that (most) people enjoy, and want to unmask. I am honestly so humbled by that. Others hate it, for calling out their shit, but you know what… it’s not about who I am but it’s about what should be the “right” way to do media or your job. Bring perspective and enthusiasm to a job that really doesn’t save any lives or do anything meaningful in the world apart from raise awareness for certain companies/products. I try not to raise my own profile as (believe it or not) I’m not that type of guy that wants a headache to appear on stage. I’m busy working for my clients and that’s what motivates me.

More entries from 10 Questions With… can be found here.

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Online advertising has alienated our most valuable asset – the consumer

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It’s an understatement to say things have changed since I started my career in publishing 34 years ago, and mostly for the right reasons. The industry has moved on and some of those less palatable institutional barriers have been broken down. Yet there are certain industry behaviours that are having a real impact on original content creators, and they are so often borne from preventable consequences.

In many instances, these could be negated through the reapplication of ‘guiding principles’ that have perhaps been lost along the way.

It’s time we took a look back to make sense of what’s in front

The media industry has always been a sum of its parts, with different skills and disciplines working, mostly, in partnership. There was a sense you belonged to something special, and you knew you were directed by principles honed from many years of evolving media and advertising practices.

But it’s time to face the truth: today, consumers lack trust in digital advertising. In a quest for infinite online inventory, the crucial relationship between brand and consumer – that was built on shared values and respect – has become commoditised and jeopardised, quelling any desire for users to engage with ad campaigns. How have we got to a place where advertising that lives in the online world has all but alienated its most valuable asset – the consumer?

And no matter how many smart and inspiring examples of diversification and new monetisation models we see emerging, for original content creators, a base level of advertising remains essential.

There needs to be a change in behaviour

Many promises have been made to re-evaluate advertising practices and there’s an acknowledgement that quality and context matters. However, very little seems to have moved on and there remains limited evidence to suggest any measurable change in behaviour.

I’m not here to knock the technology that has enabled so much in modern life or the dominance of social media in which many users choose to consume news. Yet there is an obnoxious disparity around ‘standards’, accountability, and responsibility, and the right to compete fairly for advertiser funds that enable and sustain the creators of original quality journalism and content.

Despite all efforts to collaborate and support the industry’s wider call for greater parity, media owners with a long-established code of conduct and complete accountability for every single item present on their site continue to be at a disadvantage. Media organisations have always been defined by their transparent policies. So how is that an organisation like Facebook – that has such an impact and influence on the industry – is able to prosper and have a significant amount of revenue derived from online advertising, without being defined as a media business, and therefore does not need to adhere to any of the policies or codes of practice that is required by others?

As long as these organisations continue to be the principle benefactors from a type of advertising purchase behaviour, they have no motivation to change. It is only when we see a promised change in the advertisers’ behaviour, that the technology businesses themselves will be forced to re-examine their practices – meanwhile they will continue to enjoy all the spoils while residing outside of the union of all other media practitioners.

Driving better standards, and meaningful returns

As media owners, we continue to value the long-established trading partnerships centred on mutually defined policy and protocol, and relationships built on trust. These values matter.

This is a call to advertisers to check this current commodity driven behaviour, to take a moment to reflect, and work with publishers, as partners. But we also need to be sure that in striving for this goal we aren’t diluting standards, and the desire to improve accountability doesn’t just find us looking to provide a definition around practices that would otherwise be deemed as sub-standard.

Within the industry, we have in place numerous compliance guidelines. The IAB has been tireless in its efforts to bring the industry together to agree on a variety of advertising technology compliance standards. But what use are these if there is no accountability and seemingly no process to enforce compliance? While other established media channels have flight checkers in place – for both creative compliance and copy integrity – with all this wonderful technology, why does it not exist online?

And what about the extent of these standards? Premium publishers operate to much higher standards than laid out by these bodies, and always have done. They are self-regulated and they are accountable. And while I strongly support the adoption of universal standards for the good of the industry, it doesn’t change the fact they represent something that is significantly less than what we can actually provide.

At AOP, we’re committed to surfacing these challenges and we are striving to find practical answers, recommendations, and examples of best practice to help cement the future of advertising and publishing. But we must all commit to win back the trust of the consumer and return to a place of integrity – and continue to succeed as an industry I have always been proud to be part of.

Richard Reeves is managing director at AOP

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‘Project Dragonfly’: Google’s rumoured censor-friendly launch in China

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It’s common knowledge that Google, as present as it is in our daily lives, does not enjoy the same ubiquity in China, and hasn’t done for eight years.

Leaked meeting minutes from the corporation, however, suggest that could be about to change.

Codenamed ‘Project Dragonfly’, the search giant is allegedly in the midst of a bid to launch in China in an iteration that would play ball with Beijing’s hardline censorship policies.

According to a transcript from a meeting led by Google’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, ambitions for Dragonfly were to reach “the next billion” users and launch within “six to nine months”.

Gomes said that China was “arguably the most interesting market in the world today”, according to the transcript published yesterday by The Intercept, said to have taken place on July 18.

“It’s not just a one-way street. China will teach us things that we don’t know,” Gomes told staff. “We have built a set of hacks and we have kept them.

"Overall I just want to thank you guys for all the work you have put in.

"We have to be focused on what we want to enable," Gomes says. "And then when the opening happens we are ready for it."

According to the South China Morning Post, Project Dragonfly has previously been reported as the codename for a censored search app specifically for the Chinese market.

Blacklisting any websites related to human rights, democracy, religion and any other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, the country’s internet censorship laws are considered the most extensive and advanced in the world.

In the meeting, Gomes reportedly acknowledged that trade wars between the US and China were causing difficulties in negotiations with Communist Party officials in Beijing, whose approval Google would need to launch the search engine.

Re-launching in China would open up a vast audience and a matched opportunity to scale its advertising operations globally, competing with Asia’s ad tech giants such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.

Away from China, however, the move – which would be contributing to China’s hardline stance on free speech – could be seen as a far cry from the search giant’s original “don’t be evil” policy.

The reveal of the leaked transcript also comes following a reveal of Google’s efforts to cover up a Google+ data breach, which resulted in potential vulnerabilities to private data attached to 500K users.

As noted by Business Insider, side-by-side, these revelations set a worrying trend of a very powerful company acting in secrecy, and despite its efforts to appear the opposite, unethically.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.

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