During the election, when social media seemed filled to the brim with fake news and partisan screeds meant to confuse, a startup called Attn: was quietly continuing its mission to make complex social issues easy to understand.
Attn:’s most effective tool: short viral videos, particularly animated ones spread on Facebook.
Even if you’ve never heard Attn:’s name, you’ve probably seen one of its videos, which average a whopping 3.8 million views in the first 30 days — more than any other Facebook publisher, according to Tubular Labs. Attn: says it has never paid for that reach, and that all its growth on social media is natural.
That is an impressive feat for a startup that is not yet a household name, and perhaps it’s why Attn: has already attracted big partners and investors, especially in entertainment — from Bill Maher and HBO, to Apple Music and Jimmy Iovine, to Ryan Seacrest. Attn: has raised $24 million total, including a $20 million Series B round in 2016.
Matthew Segal and Jarrett Moreno, who had previously run the voter empowerment organisation Ourtime.org, founded Attn: in 2014, with the goal of breaking down issues in a way that’s easy to digest.
“2,000 words can be a little tedious, and can feel like a homework assignment,” Segal told Business Insider. Sometimes it can be intentionally confusing, he continued. Attn: started to brainstorm ways to make the type of issues, from the electoral college, to the war on drugs, to gerrymandering, clearer to you in a few minutes on your smartphone.
One of the first big breakthroughs was animation, which Attn: has worked with from day one. “Animation has been incredibly successful,” Segal said, especially in allowing a two-minute video not to feel totally dumbed down. It makes the complicated issues more accessible, he says.
Attn: works in other forms, like video interviews or text articles as well. It depends on the issue. For instance, Attn:’s live-action videos about different aspects of parenthood have gone viral over and over. The 75-person company produces about 4-5 videos per day.
In deciding which topics to cover, Attn:’s number one consideration is whether its editorial team feels there is something about the issues that needs to be changed, Segal said. That sentiment is key to understanding what makes Attn: click.
“We are not a news company,” both Segal and Moreno said at different points. “Of course we are opportunistic about news,” Segal said. But Attn: is more about getting people involved with the political process, or the community around them.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Attn: is pushing a partisan agenda, Segal said. The editorial team tries to pick issues where “the writing is one the wall,” and where they see a sense of “moral obligation.” That does skew toward the values of younger people, however.
Take the “War on Drugs,” which Segal said Attn: has made hundreds of videos about. “It’s abundantly clear that marijuana is safer than alcohol,” Segal said. He characterised things like marijuana legalization as bipartisan issues that transcend party affiliation. But a recent Attn: video talks about how Donald Trump’s attorney general pick is against marijuana generally, and ends with this frame:
While Attn: isn’t hawking a Democrat agenda, there is a certain element of progressivism in its politics. But there are areas where Attn:’s editorial team feels that there’s no clear answer to a problem, and in that case, Attn: doesn’t offer one. “Sometimes there is no call to action,” Segal said. He presented an explainer on the Iran nuclear deal as an example of this. Attn: just wanted to explain what was going on.
A partnership sweet spot
The basic aim of Attn: is to be empowering without being hyper-partisan. It’s comprehensible and palatable. That combo has made it very attractive to partners and investors.
“It’s such a clean product,” Main Street Advisors CEO Paul Wachter, who is an investor in Attn:, said. “It’s easy to understand, since it’s so obvious what they are doing … That’s always good for partnerships, not, ‘We kind of do this.'” Wachter should know. In his career he’s helped negotiated high-profile partnerships and acquisitions, like LeBron James’ lifetime Nike deal, and the sale of Beats to Apple.
Attn: already has partnerships with heavyweights Spotify, HBO, Apple Music, Tribune Media, and others, and has made videos for the likes of Netflix and Showtime. And there are lots more deals and partnerships to be had, according to Wachter.
“Partnerships with brands is the place where there is low-hanging fruit [from a revenue perspective],” cofounder Jarrett Moreno said. This is particularly useful since media companies are having a tough time effectively wringing money from Facebook video, where Attn: does a large piece of its traffic.
These partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. Attn: made an original series for Spotify about musical history, whereas with Netflix it was branded content. Attn: has also done partnerships with celebrities like Catfish’s Nev Schulman, who collaborated with Attn: on a video about maternity and paternity leave that has garnered over 92 million views. Moreno described these celebrity collaborations as akin to an op-ed.
Some of these partnerships are also intertwined with investments. Bill Maher’s investment, for instance, helped Attn: land a partnership with HBO. The entertainment bigwigs that have backed Attn: aren’t simply names on a page, Moreno said. They are pretty much all “strategic investments.”
Eventually, Wachter sees Attn: fitting into a larger company, with a portfolio of media brands, that is looking to engage younger people. He said he could name 20 off the top of his head. “It could plug and play so easily … But it’s too early for that,” he said.
Los Angeles style
Right now, Attn: is focused on continuing to deepen its reach on platforms from Snapchat to Facebook to old-fashioned TV.
Moreno says he sees longer-tail value licensing Attn:’s content to different places. Both Moreno and Segal use the word “evergreen” to describe a big chunk of Attn:’s videos. They describe ongoing issues, and will still have value six months from now.
And Moreno says the company is exploring longer opportunities like TV or digital shows, TV specials, and so on. In pursuing that, Moreno said the company’s base in Los Angeles is perfect.
“Not only is LA the epicentre of all things video, in politics it leads the nation in how it tells stories, and shapes people’s perception,” Moreno said.
Hollywood’s political reach seems an apt touchpoint in understanding Attn:’s appeal. Hollywood often gets accused of having a left-leaning political agenda, but the narratives it crafts are consumable by those on both ends of the spectrum. There is a certain universality that boosts its massive reach. Attn:’s videos are more overtly political than many Hollywood films, but watching them, one gets that same sense of broad appeal.
That’s probably why, even as a young company, Attn: has developed a superstar roster of Hollywood backers and partners — and continues to produce videos that spread across Facebook.
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