The International Expansion of Mashable: Q&A with Adam Ostrow, chief strategy officer on growth into Asia, branded content & its growing audience

Mashable has been on a wave of growth internationally for the last few years, recently expanding its presence into the UK and Australia, while offering suggestive glances towards Asia. The Drum's editor, Stephen Lepitak speaks to Adam Ostrow, Mashable's chief strategy officer about international expansion plans, the power of branded content and content distribution.

We're here in Austin where Mashable annually has a massive presence. How important is SXSW to the company?

SXSW is a huge deal for us, this is our seventh year here. I’ve been coming for six or seven years myself and it’s a great event in a few ways; for one it’s always just a great showcase of start-ups and technology and things we should be thinking about. It’s also a great opportunity for us to connect with our audience in real-life. We had our Mashable House open for three days here with all sorts of cool activations. We had a replica of the Lion from the Katy Perry/Super Bowl half-time show, we had a 180 degree camera, we had an elevator pitch contest sponsored by Mastercard where you could go into an elevator and the best pitch won $15,000. All sorts of fun activations and we had a big party on Sunday night which is a great opportunity to network and engage with people who love Mashable. Increasingly over the last couple of years it’s not only an event about start-ups, there are also many major brands here so it’s a very good opportunity for our sales team to connect with clients, figure out what they are looking to do and see what we can do together - so we have lots of meetings with our advertisers as well.

Tell me about the plans for international expansion that Mashable has set upon.

We started thinking about international expansion a little over a year ago and one of the most obvious places that Mashable could grow was that we already had about fifty per cent of our audience outside of the US and particularly in English speaking countries like the UK, Australia, India - we already had masses of people reading Mashable there. Early on we looked at what we could do to add a local layer with people already reading our site and the most logical places for that to start were in the UK and Australia. We hired editorial teams in both those countries. In the UK we have our own sales team and in Australia we work with a partner. We just announced plans to expand to India which we think has a ton of potential as its a growing market. It's already the number two in terms of Internet users and some estimate that there will be as many as 600 million people online in the next few years which we think is a huge opportunity to build our audience.

And how are those going?

Early results we're seeing are quite encouraging. We've only been live now for five months now but one of the exciting things we are seeing in the UK and Australia is that those two markets are growing quicker than our global growth rate. That's very encouraging and this year we'll be adding additional editorial staff in both UK and Australia and doubling down on some of the success we are seeing there as well as launching in India. We're staring to think about South East Asia which is a pretty big market for us when you combine Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia - counties where you also have Internet adoption growing really quickly, where English is fairly commonly spoken. So that is on the road map for this year as well.

And what regions are most important as you continue?

First up is certainly India which is a massive long-term opportunity for us. Internet adoption is growing and there are a lot of fascinating things there, both within the start-up ecosystem where you have companies like Flipcard who are growing like crazy. Google and Facebook have made a big launch plus Facebook is now offering free mobile service in India. A lot of the things that fuel Mashable's growth - smartphone adoption, social media adoption - are really growing in India and that makes it an attractive option for the long-term. The digital ad market is still fairly small so for us it's all about getting in there and build a presence, great content and start to gain brand recognition in India knowing that the revenue opportunity in the advertising side is probably a few years out.

Outside of that, South East Asia you have similar markets, particularly Indonesia that are growing incredibly fast and we think Mashable's point of view in terms if the way we cover digital culture; technology, social media, entertainment - has potential to play really well there. In South East Asia, parts of the market are more developed than other advertising markets but if you look at Singapore it's certainly an economic hub for the region so we'll likely be looking to add some staff there in the next year.

How does your strategy vary geographically?

With each of our international sites it's a combination of local content plus global content. One of the fun things that we've started to see already is see digital culture become global culture. When you have something like The Dress a few weeks ago, that became a massive international story everywhere. Even more exciting than that - our editor in Australia will find something that will go beyond that. One of our most successful stories over the last month or so has been the story our editor down there reported on - Australia's oldest man who was 107. What he does now is knit mini sweaters for penguins who have been injured. That's a cool story originating out of Australia but snowballed out of Australia and became a hugely popular story for us around the world and got more than 200,000 social shares when all is said and done. That's one of the exciting things we're seeing in terms of how we keep the experience authentic to what Mashable is and add a level of localisation in each market we go to.

And how does that change for advertisers?

The markets we are in currently have fairly developed digital ad markets that aren't terribly dissimilar from the US. In both UK and Australia we are starting to do more around branded content which is really the core of our business globally and the advertising mix we are seeing is both global brands like the Samsungs of the world are looking to reach people within some of the markets where we have a presence but it's also local brands so in Australia we have done programmes with Quantas and M&T Bank to tap into some of the regionally dominant countries in new markets we‘re moving into. It’s still early on the outside, we’re only a few months into it but it’s very encouraging so far.

How powerful is the emergence of branded content proving?

Brands and agencies all around the world are realising that branded content is pretty key to being successful in the digital landscape right now. If you think where people are consuming content, it’s primarily in the feed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all these social services. The only way to reach those people is through content and brands can create content - a number of brands are doing some very innovative things on their own but publishers also lend credibility and amplification to branded content initiatives. That’s why brands come to us - for big ideas that are going to resonate on social with our massive audience. We reach 42 million people a month globally and we have more than 20 million people who follow us on social networks so that’s a very powerful audience for brands to deliver content to.

How important is content distribution proving?

Since our early days we thought it smart to be early and aggressive to new distribution platforms. Mashable historically was one of the first media brands to really embrace Twitter and Facebook and as a result of that we are one of the most popular media brands on those platforms today. That holds true in 2015 as well. We are one of the largest media brands on Pinterest, LinkedIn. We have people dedicated to creating content for Snapchat and we’ve embraced Meerkat and we’re already on top of the leader board for that. For us, being aggressive on new distribution platforms is pretty key to who we are and ultimately we are in a position with advertisers who can tap into that reach.

How do you deal with the issues around branded content?

Transparency is pretty key with branded content. We wouldn’t want anyone to feel misled by anything they saw so we are always very clear in terms of how we label our branded content on the site. At the end of the day we want to make it really compelling for our readers. The best branded content works for our audience and the advertisers. If it only works for one or the other it’s not necessarily effective. An example I love is something we did last year during Advertising Week New York which Adobe was a sponsor for. We created a video for them; ‘The History of Advertising in 60 Seconds’ which was a fun, visually interesting video that organically got tens of thousands of shares on Mashable because it was compelling content that our audience was interested in and Adobe was thrilled because it also lined up with the audience they were looking to connect with. Anyway you can marry the reader interest and the advertiser interest where everyone can win, that’s where we try to focus our branded content programmes.

How important are partnerships when it comes to content distribution?

We have a team internally that focuses on social distribution. They are very into what the latest apps are and things we should be thinking about and new storytelling formats. We’ve just announced the Mashable Collective which is our team which is experimenting with new social formats. For us it’s about experimentation and keeping our eyes open in terms of what are the new apps that consumers might be shifting too - at the end of the day it remains key for us that we are early onto these platforms and find the best way to engage with our readers there.

Can you talk a bit more about why Mashable Collective was a neccessary addition?

We have already been doing it for a long time - we’ve already been creating custom content; editorial and marketing content on our social platforms. What we see, especially as we now have platforms like Snapchat and Instagram and Meerkat where they don’t really drive traffic back to your website. There’s no link back easily to the website. For us, increasingly important for us to think about a world where people don’t necessarily visit what is the best way to deliver content to them. We think that is potentially so important that we needed to have a focus on it which is why we created Mashable Collective.

How long do you think the issue of Church & State when it comes to branded content will be discussed?

I don’t think the conversation is going away and you are seeing organisations are handling it a little bit differently. From our point of view the most important thing is being incredibly clear to readers on what’s what, who things are being created by, how it might be influenced by sponsors. Ultimately readers are going to decide with their clicks whether or not they are being misled or deceived and for us the number one thing is to always be incredibly clear as to whether a piece of advertising is being branded, advertiser funded and then readers can make their own conclusions in terms of whether it is something they like and want to share.

What is the most exciting thing on the horizon from your perspective?

I am really excited about international expansion and also what we are going to be doing in video this year. Video is a huge opportunity for Mashable. We just announced our series B led by Time Warner Investments back in January and a lot of that investment will go towards video across the board; news, entertainment as well as branded video and some original programming. We’re very excited about our push into video.

We are increasingly thinking about ourselves as a media and technology company with our Velocity platform which started out as a predictive analytics tool to help inform our editorial team what we should be thinking about covering on the site and help inform our social distribution team decide what they should be sharing. That has now become a tool that we are opening up to other brands and agencies, so we have a partnership with MEC who is using Velocity to help inform some of their content creation and media buying. That’s something we’re looking to expand on this year as well.

How many partners do you have currently working with Velocity?

Right now it’s with MEC, so we’re in talks with a host of other agencies and brands about bringing it out. It’s still early days where we are figuring out use-cases for brands but we see enormous potential. It’s always one of the things clients are most excited about when we’re in meetings. It should be an exciting year for Velocity.

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