'I want to be a player in entertainment, film and television' Mashable boss Pete Cashmore on a decade of success and a future of video
It's been a decade since Mashable was launched by its chief executive and founder, Pete Cashmore, who is relaxing in the very dark executive bar at this year's Mashable House as part of SXSW when The Drum catches up with him.
The tall, well dressed and groomed Scots-man, whose accent is very subtle but still apparent, is on day four of his annual Austin pilgrimage where his publishing company regularly hosts one of the mainstay fringe events at a local bar, featuring pop culture experiences throughout the space. Outside the rain is lashing down but those lucky enough to be invited in the space are enjoying the shelter and free bar. The atmosphere is vibrant, as you would expect any venue connected to this hugely popular media company to be.
In the period since its inception, the company has grown globally from a technology blog into one of the biggest news and entertainment outlets on the web. It currently has over 50m unique visitors and has experienced record months this year, despite having dialed back its coverage breadth. The amount of content being produced is down by 20%, although the share count has grown by 100%.
Cashmore explains: "When we started off, technology was important. It was ‘what’s the new app?’ ‘What the new social media site?’ Now, it’s a horizontal and it goes through all of our lives and it is affecting all of how we consume our media and how we watch our entertainment and how we interact with our friends."
This is his initial reflection when asked for his view on the perception of Mashable today, adding that now the same people who love reading about tech also have passions for television and entertainment too, leading to its crossover of coverage.
"What we’ve done is really connected technology, entertainment and culture. The culture is really about the fact that pop culture is internet culture now - what’s happening on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit – that then enters the mainstream culture very quickly."
Cashmore begins to talk about the 'super-fan' strategy that is the current crux of the company's distribution strategy using its technology, Velocity. According to Cashmore, it helps it serve highly relevant content to readers, with the aim of engaging with highly followed readers within their own passion points, who will hopefully then share the content they like with their friends and followers. It's a strategy that is proving to be a huge success for audience growth but is also helping it focus on the content areas it covers.
Being an early adopter of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, has also helped Mashable engage with other early platform adopters. These users are significant because they then built their connection alongside Mashable, at a time when it was one of the few media outlets sharing content there, meaning it had less competition to cut through than would later as mass adoption built.
"By targeting these super fans, we have been able to cover more focused stuff, put out less articles and videos, more premium, more time spent on them and drive more audience. That's a really interesting trend and the scale for scale's sake is not what you need. It's about a focused audience, a premium audience and targeting the right person," he explains.
"More premium" is how he describes the content being produced by Mashable on a few occasions during the discussion, and part of that is due to the increase in video that it is "doubling down on". One area in Mashable House is a video studio which is putting out interviews with famous delegates at the festival. This has included Bert and Cookie Monster from Sesame Street, which feels entirely in keeping with the brand.
"We are not trying to blast our content everywhere. We have some exclusive deals, such as the content we produce for Snapchat Discover. We produce 12 original pieces of content every day for that platform and it's unique and you have to go there to experience it. It's in the right format that you want to experience on Snapchat," he explains, adding that the strategy does not mean video created for one will be recycled on another third party network.
Mashable is also creating video series for traditional broadcasters such, as Bravo, with last year's Real House Kids and a newly announced show; Love You, which will break down the science and chemistry behind why people fall in love. A deal with National Geographic to use its library of animal content is another partnership he highlights.
"All of the above speaks to doing more premium and long-form. We are getting more selective and it's not about blasting it out everywhere. We are looking at what works for what app and what distributor, whether it's doing an exclusive with an over the top provider, where we are doing more original content for them that won't go elsewhere and we are looking to do more with the Facebooks and Snapchats and figuring out how else we can tell stories there."
Of the online video strategy, Cashmore believes in iterating and experimentation in order to use data to drive the creation of successful and, crucially, widely viewed pieces. That may include a variation in time length, be it 30 seconds, a minute or even feature length.
"People are going to watch TV in a completely different way. What we define as TV will be completely different and it's already being pulled apart and being put together in different ways. We want to be a part of that revolution and we want to be a definitive brand in video consumption - whether you call that television or over the top video or just watching video on your social feeds."
He reveals that he doesn't believe that 30-minute or hour-long programming is not "the sweet spot" for viewers of the future, but in fact says that entertainment will be found between digital and linear TV. Despite this, however, he couldn't concede that traditional TV networks are still the masters of the form.
"I don't see us going out and making a better TV show than the TV networks, they have been doing it for years, they know what they are doing, they have great production crews and amazing ideas. What we have is a really close relationship with the data. We might put out a one minute video, which might be a show, we put it out there, get all the data back and look at who watched it, the demographic, whether it was the rig audience and work out what they think of it. We can do this really iterative thing before we move to the more risky long-form. That's how we will approach this differently."
Asked for his proudest moment over the last decade, Cashmore sidesteps the question slightly to reveal that the first year at SXSW, where they brought Grumpy Cat, led to coverage from local and national news outlets as a result of the four block queues from people coming from far and wide to meet her, was his most memorable moment. This taught him the lesson that, while major brands can bring major Hollywood stars, by bringing a major internet meme, Mashable was able to steal the conversation for a smaller fee.
Finally, when asked his ambition, he returns to the topic of film and TV where he plans to explore.
"Our ambition over the next decade, and actually I'm sure it's going to play out over five years as things get faster, is; what is the future of video consumption, going all the way from short-form to long-form? How do we keep people longer? How do we drive deeper engagement? Could people watch TV shows on our site or distributing platforms - we're going to find out, and how long-form and premium can we go?"
More scripted long-form segments will be tested to see whether audiences respond positively to this new 'premium' approach.
"That's where I want to play - I want to be a player in entertainment, film and television and that's the next revolution. It's a much bigger opportunity than newspapers and magazines by far," Cashmore concludes as The Drum's time with him expires.
The vision for Mashable is unsurprisingly still a grand and ambitious one and it's clear Cashmore is far from ready to simply rest on his laurels. He has a long way to go before he believes himself that the publication has fully reached its potential, despite the huge global following it already possesses.
And the company continues to expend when in January, Mashable announced its expansion into Asia through a partnership with Tencent.