The Onion’s sponsored content unit is keen to get into messenger app bots and virtual reality, according to Hassan S. Ali, a writer at Onion Labs.
Ali and Jordan David, the Onion’s content marketing director, spoke to Business Insider at Engage 2016, the giant social media marketing conference held annually in Prague.
The pair described The Onion’s famous trajectory from being a well-read free satirical newspaper into an all-digital media brand big enough to be acquired by Univision in January of this year. Less well-known, however, was the more difficult period between 2013 and today, when The Onion decided to abandon the print edition and go all-digital.
“There was a kind of death rattle with print where we made a lot of money right before it was dying” in 2011/2012, David says. At the time, The Onion had rolled out a series of local franchises allowing companies in smaller towns and cities to licence and print The Onion, and sell local ads inside it. “It was not a great time to launch those products,” David says. The Onion printed its last paper in 2013.
Like everyone else, The Onion then hoped to make money sell ads on the web. But “as banner ads became less robust we entered the world of sponsored content,” David says.
“It’s been a good two years of finding that footing,” Ali says. Luckily, The Onion is so well-known that few clients need an introduction to it. Around 70% of the time big agencies like BBDO, Digitas, and Wieden & Kennedy are drawing up their media plans, The Onion is already featured, without needing to pitch.
“We are partners on their media plan, that those agencies have sold into their clients to fulfil a larger campaign,” Ali says.
Interestingly, even though The Onion is a fake — sorry, satirical — news organisation, it still has a cultural separation of editorial and sales. While that wall is more porous than it might be at a regular news company, writers and editors are allowed to decline assignments or branded mentions in stories if it doesn’t feel natural or funny. So Onion Labs has a stable of writers who create custom vehicles in The Onion voice for advertisers. A good example of that is The Onion’s guide to cat ownership, presented by Temptations:
Other than that, The Onion has the same challenges as everyone else in the web publishing world: “Video is the main charge right now,” Ali says. “We’re also toying around in really interesting ways with VR and bots, in terms of how to engage audiences in interesting and cool ways on behalf of brands. I personally am very interested in bots right now. I think there is a lot of entertainment potential there, in terms of engaging audiences and keeping them interested.”
To give you an idea of what that might be like, Mic, the millennial politics publisher, has a comedic bot inside the messaging app Kik. It’s a satire of Donald Trump, called “Trumpchat”:
“If we can create advertising that is actually entertaining, that is the Holy Grail,” Ali says.