How Trinity Mirror plans to transform UsVsTh3m from overnight success into meaningful moneyspinner

In the 12 months since Trinity Mirror launched its social content project UsVsTh3m the site – created by a small team and without the backing of marketing spend – has grown rapidly to more than 9 million unique monthly visitors (in April 2014, source: Trinity Mirror). Over the next year the newspaper publisher is looking to develop the site from a popular experiment into a meaningful revenue earner with its unique brand of native advertising.

UsVsThem
A year on from its launch Trinity Mirror plans to build on the early success of UsVsTh3m by porting learnings from the site to the wider business.

Last Spring Trinity’s then digital consultant and now editor of new formats Martin Belam, sent out a call to arms on his blog and Twitter in the hope of recruiting staff to join a mysterious “Project X”, offering contracts with a breakpoint of two months “in case we’ve failed very fast”. The recruitment drive was itself a live demonstration of Trinity’s newly adopted entrepreneurial attitude to digital.

Project X later revealed itself (on 28 May 2013) as UsVsTh3m, which is positioned as an experimental mobile-first “start-up” that blends topical quizzes, listicles reminiscent of Buzzfeed and other humorous content designed for maximum shareability across social media. The site eschews display advertising in favour of “sponsored content”, clearly marked as such, but ads that sit within the framework of the rest of UsVsTh3m’s content in a native fashion.

UsVsTh3m is an experiment that has “exceeded” Trinity’s expectations in terms of audience numbers and brand perception, according to Trinity Mirror chief executive Simon Fox, who adds it was never planned that UsVsTh3m would have a commercial impact on the business in its first year. That said, while Trinity has yet to strip out specific numbers for UsVsTh3m, digital revenues across the whole group were up 49 per cent year on year in the 17 weeks to 27 April, a clear sign of the publisher’s direction of travel. 

Fox adds: “UsVsTh3m is evidence that we can be as fleet of foot as a start-up. We are on a digital journey to make Trinity Mirror an attractive place for digital talent to come to work. Digital talent may have found Google or Facebook more attractive than traditional publishers, for fear that they are slow moving. But people look at UsVsTh3m and see that if you can attract people of that caliber, then [traditional publishers] can’t be all bad.”

UsVsTh3m Vs Marketers

UsVsTh3m struck its first advertising deal in March this year, which saw Metcalfe’s Skinny Topcorn brand sponsor a “How Well Do You Know Me” game designed to be shared with friends. Since then, Confused.com, adult e-retailer Lovehoney, coffee brand Pact and Tesco entertainment brand Blinkbox have also partnered with the site, sponsoring games, quizzes and lists.

Malcolm Coles, general manager of Mirror Online, says the appeal of UsVsTh3m to advertisers is that its majority male, 83 per cent demographic group ABC1, influential (more than 65 per cent have 100 Facebook friends and 45 per cent more than 100 Twitter followers) and highly engaged audience (many come back to play the site’s games up to eight times) differs from the usual online newspaper website.

It is this understanding of its users that means the UsVsTh3m team can work with marketers like a creative agency partner but with its own audience that knows how to make content “go viral”, rather than “hoping for the best”, Coles adds.

Kate Simon, group marketing director at Blinkbox, says: “We love what the Mirror are doing with UsVsTh3m. Interactive games offer a great way to introduce people to our brand in a fun, engaging way. The UsVsTh3m Eurovision game for Blinkbox Music was a good start and one we’ll build on as we continue to experiment with new types of communications.”

UsVsTh3m is “almost unparalleled in sophistication” as a destination for brand engagement compared with other mainstream newspaper publishers, according to Paul Bennun, chief creative officer at content agency Somethin’ Else, says.

He adds: “Knowing your audience well enough to get its trust and respect is key to success and UsVsTh3m does this without visible effort.”

UsVsTh3m Vs 2014

In its second year, Trinity Mirror plans to continue to work with a small number of brands on more “immersive” advertising opportunities. Revenue targets have yet to be set, Coles says, but it is likely they will be based around how UsVsTh3m’s advertising solutions and technology can be additive to the wider Trinity Mirror portfolio rather than site-specific advertising numbers.

To work on this, the publisher is growing its NASa (National Advertising Sales Agency)’s creative solutions department “Invention” to a team of about 20 staff as it looks to develop more innovative advertising offers beyond display across the business.

Above the line marketing spend is also “not off the agenda” to help grow UsVsTh3m beyond its core audience of social media-savvy users over the coming months and hone it as a more attractive advertising proposition, Fox says.

Ampp3d
Ampp3d, another Trinity Mirror digital start-up project, launched in December 2013.

The launch of UsVsThem has also led to the recent rollout of other digital projects with three months to prove their worth: Ampp3d, a data journalism site which also feeds content into the wider stable of Trinity Mirror brands; Row Z, a Mirror-branded humorous football content section; and Scotland Now, launched in the run-up to the Scottish independent referendum. Unfortunately, People.co.uk was another new brand that didn’t survive the three month probation period.

Fox hopes UsVsTh3m and these follow-on launches – even if they fail – will help Trinity increasingly be viewed as a company that “embraces digital innovation” alongside the likes of the Guardian, which Fox says is “leading in this space”, and The Telegraph, which also launched its own digital football sub-brand this month.

But it is an approach Trinity will need to deliver on financially and not just in mindset if it is to stem the an overall and ongoing decline in its revenues – down 3 per cent in the 17 weeks to 24 April – as print advertising revenue continues its downward trend across the newspaper industry.

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