Nov 5, 2020
Written by CJ
Junction Live host and VP of Marketing at CJ Affiliate, Nicole Ron, is joined by Brandon Wenerd, partner and publisher at men's lifestyle site, BroBible, for part three of our four-part series that catches up with content creators as they adapt to the rollercoaster that is 2020. Brandon dives into how the Super Bowl raised the alarm bells for the approaching pandemic, the increasing importance of discount messaging, and why creative control and authenticity play a huge part in successful partnerships.
Junction Live, taking thought leadership off the page and into the studio with some of the sharpest minds in affiliate marketing.
NICOLE RON: 00:12 | Hello, and welcome to this episode of Junction Live. I'm your host, Nicole Ron, Vice President of Marketing and Business Systems here at CJ Affiliate. I'm excited to dive into today's episode, which is part of a four-part series where I connect with a different content creator each time. In this series, we explore how things have changed for each content creator over the course of 2020, how they've adapted, and what brands need to know in order to find success when working in content. So, get your notepad out—our next guest has a lot of great information to share.
NICOLE RON: 00:49 | With me today, I have Brandon Wenerd, partner and publisher of content site, BroBible. Welcome, Brandon, it’s great to have you. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about your site. Who's your audience and what kind of content do you focus on and why?
BRANDON WENERD 01:06 | We started it over 10 years ago. And the idea was that we really wanted just to disrupt what we felt were very vanilla men's lifestyle publishers at the time. So we wanted kind of to create BroBible as a little bit of a younger, more fun authority in the digital publishing space to kind of compete against like, the Maxim, Esquire, GQs of the world. And in doing that, we focused very, very heavily on sports coverage and kind of the various ways that sports kind of seep into society and creates its own kind of content calendar in itself, in addition to cultural coverage—so movies, video, games, TV, a lot of streaming news—even celebrity news.
So the idea was really to bring a fun casual voice and perspective to the day's news cycle. Specifically in that lens of sports and cultural news, so that we're kind of staying at the tip of the tongue of millennial men. Which it's kind of funny because, like I said, starting to say 10 years ago, our core audience has really grown up with us in a big way. Myself, I was 24 when we got BroBible off the ground and now I'm in my mid-30s. And our demographic has followed us along that entire junction. So our core demographic these days falls very much so in the 28 to 35 range if not skewing a little bit older.
NICOLE RON: 03:09 | Very cool. Thanks for sharing. So help me understand—before COVID, what types of brands, products, or services resonated really well with your audience?
BRANDON WENERD: 03:21 | So a lot of the places that we traditionally aligned with on the media buying side were alcohol brands, video game companies, movie studios, a lot of different kind of consumer brands in terms of, like, Telecom was a really big segment for us, has been a very big segment for us over the years. And I would say that the thing that had shifted for us is there's more of an emphasis on the at-home consumer brands now looking to activate kind of a digital-first audience or at least using BroBible to be a little bit of an earworm for whatever the brand story is into kind of an at-home audience. Because I would say that that was a thing that was very interesting about BroBible is that I think a lot of people consumed us on the audience side at work and I feel like the brand world very much so realized that and wanted to kind of work with us in that way.
So pre-COVID, men's fashion was incredibly popular on the site and now it's kind of totally changed and it's a lot more—I would say that the people trying to capture a men's fashion audience that are looking to have people dress for an office environment or sales meetings and everything like that, that doesn't really exist in this world anymore. So all those kind of men's fashion campaigns and partners have really shifted away which is very fascinating.
NICOLE RON: 05:29 | Yeah, that is fascinating. That kind of bridges into my next question, which is when did you realize that things had started to shift pretty dramatically due to the pandemic? What did you notice in your audience and how did their trends change? And you mentioned from the business/fashion side of things and away from that. But what did people start to gravitate more towards and how did you guys react to that?
BRANDON WENERD: 05:55 | So COVID popped on our radar back in January right at the turn of the new year and it was really interesting as a team and we sort of circled it as a, "Ooh, is this going to be a problem?" type of thing. And by the end of January, it was very obvious to us that it was, as it became a more and more dominant news story for us, and we started noticing that brands were being very cautious by the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl is always like a milestone for us and of course, it is for everybody in the advertising world. But it's a big milestone for us because it's an incredible content time of year for us in a lot of ways but also because in the branded content world there are a lot of places trying to align with that messaging as well. And while we had a relatively normal Super Bowl, there was also a—that was when I would say people were starting to get a lot of the brands that I talked to on a daily basis—daily or weekly basis—were starting to get really cautious about what the rest of the year looked like. A couple things lined up here and there, but by mid-February, it was very obvious that the brakes were being pushed very hard on what the remainder of the year was going to look like.
NICOLE RON: 07:36 | And what did you see were the initial shifts that consumers started to demand? And how ultimately did the brands that you were working with—or maybe even new brands that you hadn't been working with, adapt to kind of meet that moment?
BRANDON WENERD: 07:51 | Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so one of the things that was really interesting, we had—look, it was incredibly rocky because January and February are kind of exciting times of years for us even though they're typically down—they tend to be kind of a down season, because men's fashion brands are preparing for spring launches. They're preparing for that buying cycle. And we had a couple of things lined up where the biggest thing that we noticed was just conversions were so much lower, because consumer behavior was being modified. And there are kind of two specific lanes there. There was one brand we were working with that wanted to charge out of the gates with Hawaiian shirts and shorts and really fun lifestyle go-out-and-party type of clothes, I would say. And another was a denim company. And by March, it was very obvious that nobody really was actively looking for those products anymore because the need for them and the utility for them had kind of been pulled away from the marketplace as a whole.
But then, there were other things that we had to adapt as well. Tax season, I feel like—and especially tax messaging—was hit very, very hard in the kind of rollercoaster of what all of that looked like. But we adjusted course there and were able to kind of get things out with some new messaging and drive traffic and audience to the brand to the partners in that.
One of the things that we really noticed that I thought was really helpful, was there were brands in April that really started to push what their discount messaging looked like in that time. But way more so than they would in any other normal season. And I think it was just to kind of get a bearing for what the overall marketplace—the consumer marketplace—was going to look like. By April, we saw the brands that were willing to charge out of the gate and do limited edition sales events and everything like that, we saw a nice boom from across the board.
NICOLE RON: 10:25 | That aligns with what we saw as a network as well. That brands—I think in order to try to, to your point, test the water on consumer propensity to buy in a time of great uncertainty and try to figure out what they would be willing to go after was really discount driven. And I having been in the industry for as long as I've been, all of my experience—we saw something really similar with the recession that happened after the housing crash. So I think it's a natural way to try to test—to your point—consumer interest in buying and try to see how deep that desire to continue shopping goes or doesn't go. So it's good that we saw an interest.
BRANDON WENERD: 11:08 | Yeah, absolutely. I want to emphasize how important that was for me as a publisher because look—data in a time of uncertainty can go a ton of different directions to get a real read on what everything looks like. And the fact that there were a couple of major brands with a lot of brand equity in their various segments that were pushing discount messaging that we were able to then push via performance marketing kind of tactics, that gave us a big read on what our audience’s buying behavior looked like. And the ability to apply that to other cycles. And I say this very I say this very cautiously—brand equity is everything. I feel like it's everything in the performance marketing world for a publisher. So to see some of the biggest and most influential brands in the world really embrace what discount messaging looks like in that time, gave us a big read over what we had a sense of what our audience would or would not do, while embracing all the chaos that comes with that. Whether it's unemployment or health or anything else like that.
And I think I say this—obviously, here we are right after Labor Day, but I think that that's going to be important going into Q4 this year as well to a degree in an entirely different, or what I feel like is going to be an entirely different kind of Q4 cycle compared to what we typically see.
NICOLE RON: 13:25 | Yep. And I think that makes sense. Especially with holiday looking so different this year. We've got Prime Day possibly kicking us off earlier. We've got an election cycle, which typically depresses spending for the week leading up to the elections—at least in the US—I know the global market’s probably not going to be hit by that. And then we've got folks that would typically be gifting for extended family or office friends or whatever it might be, that's just not going to exist this year. So I think it's going to be really interesting to see how consumers elect to spend the money that they would typically earmark for Q4. Is that going to result in self-gifting? Is that going to mean nicer things for close family? Or is it going to mean that people are going to hang on to what they've saved and wait. So I'm really curious to hear, what are you guys planning in light of what you've learned for the remainder of the year? And how are you working with brands on that as you kind of get ready for a Q4?
BRANDON WENERD: 14:31 | We're bombarded by PR agencies trying to plan out and obviously, add earned media value for their clients, especially around tent poles like the holidays. Every year it begins, I feel like, earlier and earlier. That definitely began this year in August which is—I feel like it's very early. Our preference is really on a campaign basis to emphasize messaging for a brand.
But what I'm trying to get to though, is that I think the way that we've talked about it internally, is that we want to really emphasize value in all of our messaging for the holidays this year, given the state of the world, and what we've seen work in terms of conversions. And at the end of the day, that's kind of our job as a publisher, is to sculpt the message and be the store front of what's going to get people to buy as a foot in the door. And the most successful campaigns, in terms of performance, have been ones where we've emphasized what value really looks like because there's all sorts of tactics. Different publishers have different understandings of what this looks like and processes of what it looks like. But some places like to just make something look cool and you buy on virtue of it being cool. Other places emphasize the utility of a product or service which is fine. BroBible and others emphasize the value. BroBible’s sweet spot kind of is combining all three of those into one coherent message. But I will say that the brands that really are inclined to talk about value driven messaging, tend to be the ones that perform, almost always, the best with our audience.
NICOLE RON: 16:57 | I'm curious, in light of all the learnings that you've had over the last, wow—nearly six to eight months [laughter], how have you had to educate brands, or basically set expectations, or give them best practices, on how to think about working with your audience during this time so that it's mutually beneficial?
BRANDON WENERD: 17:20 | So there are new strategies that we're really interested in working with partners with to see bigger performance on their end like whitelisting on Facebook using BroBible sponsored editorial to then drive and then have that be a performance-driven partnership with a higher commission that we can negotiate on is one tactic that I'm really interested in. So if we can work with a brand on combining forces for what their social spend looks like and what their paid search spend looks like, but then also drive the performance marketing, there's an overall big net win. But the problem that we see it right now is that there's so many people in performance marketing—whether it's at the agency side or at the brand side—that see it as a very simple calculus of, "All right. I give this brand 10%," and they make 10% of whatever, and it's done.” Whereas in order to really see the numbers take off, we feel like a brand has to put a little bit more into it and not just on the commission, on what they want to see out of BroBible, because we're in this bigger content marketplace and our stamp of authority acts as something there. So we're trying to work with brands more that are willing to do something with the content that we make about their product and not just have it live in this kind of battlefield of SEO positioning.
NICOLE RON: 19:25 | Yeah, and I think that third-party validation piece that you hit on is something that a brand can't give themselves. It's something that someone else has to come out and say, "Hey, I think Brandon's awesome." But if Brandon, you are the one running around telling everybody you're awesome, it doesn't mean as much.
BRANDON WENERD: 19:46 | Right. And that's something that we really pride ourselves on at BroBible. We build our entire organization around the idea of an authentic editorial voice—a voice that leverages comedy, that's fun, that is not necessarily writing like a robot for an algorithm, which is how I feel like a lot of—I don't want to knock other lifestyle sites—but I feel like if you search for a product and then if you see then the next three pages on Google are basically all the same players writing about a product in a very similar way, to me that takes a lot of the fun out of even being a publisher—this kind of algorithmic approach to writing and copy and trafficking and therefore, the transaction. To me, we want to write in a way that's fun, that captures the audience, that brings people back in the door over and over. Because in a lot of ways being a publisher is—or at least for BroBible—being a publisher is being informative and being authentic, but also being an entertainer to a degree as well, just as you would if you were going to a concert or a comedy show or something like that.
NICOLE RON: 21:21 | Yep. Totally. Makes sense. All right. Kind of on a similar vein, has your monetization strategy had to adapt at all during this time?
BRANDON WENERD: 21:33| It really has. I think, well, everybody kind of saw a—when the world—well, I hate to say it like this, but when March hit and entire segments of the economy were pulling their ad spend, I think everybody felt that. On the programmatic side, especially. When you lose the ability to have—or when the travel segment, for example—every hotel group and every airline etc. pulls their spend out to just tighten up the belt there, we felt that in a pretty big way, and I think a lot of people did. Because obviously a publisher like us, our number one source in revenue is display advertising. So the programmatic pullback there was definitely noticeable, but that's why that corresponding emphasis on discount messaging from brands that we were able to partner with on a performance basis was so important. Because then we could emphasize what a sales event for a sneaker brand looked like, or a sunglasses brand or something like that. And it also wasn't driven by consumer behavior that evolved like travel or anything like that. Does that make sense? It was mostly about consumer goods that a person could buy and receive shipped to them at home, brand direct.
NICOLE RON: 23:26 | Do you have any advice for brands who are looking to partner with content creators like yourself?
BRANDON WENERD: 23:34 | I do. I have a lot of advice [laughter].
Look, I think the thing that's so key is authenticity. And what I mean by that is allowing BroBible to be authentic in that degree, to really give voice to what something can look like. I am very much so am from the opinion that as creators, we like to create even when it comes to creating stuff for a brand. And one of the things that is very frustrating for me is when a brand creates something—oftentimes with either an earned media agency, a creative agency etc.—but then just leans on BroBible to signal boost it. And oftentimes not even as paid spend—as earned media. And that's something that really bothers me because there's no opportunity for us to sculpt that message to our audience and bring it to life and make it fun, get a couple of our podcasters involved in elevating the message to the next level, etc. Our best partnerships in terms of organic performance, are really when a brand says, "Hey, we're trying to do something around this, this, and this. Can you guys build a proposal about what that would look like in the lens of BroBible?" And then we do exactly that and then we put it out of the world and people engage with it and we see organic performance of it improve. And everybody's happy.
Our most difficult partnerships are the ones where we are—for lack of a better way of putting it, it's very binary, it's very “Here is what it is, put it out, don't really give any voice to it or anything like that. But we just want to align with who your audience is and what some of their lower funnel stuff looks like.” And that's just a very frustrating thing.
I would also say to that point, though, when it comes to content, the economics of it really do take a campaign budget commitment for us to do something of meaning. I can't lean on bringing talent to the table with big Instagram followings and everything like that to just do something on a CPA basis. No one's going to accept that deal. And I think that that's one of the really important things for us. So I'm kind of going on a tangent of a couple of different directions here. But the one thing we love is when we're brought together, brought to the table to collaborate with a brand in a way that's meaningful to our audience and then able to build out a campaign on that.
NICOLE RON: 27:21 | All right. I have one more question for you. And this one we did not provide in advance. But I'm curious what hobby have you picked up during COVID that you didn't have pre-COVID?
BRANDON WENERD: 27:35 | [laughter] Awesome. That's a great one. So two. I have two things which feel like they shouldn't be mutually exclusive but in a way they are. So one is I'm on a big wellness kick, right? I'm on a big COVID-driven wellness kick where I'm really into my hikes, my getting in shape, being active, eating the right supplements, everything like that. I know that sounds like a really weird thing to say that it's a hobby, but I feel like the way that I've approached it is very much so like a hobby. I wish my place in Los Angeles was big enough to have a Peloton. I want a Peloton really badly. [laughter] Because I love riding one. At some point though, I will expand it and do that.
And then the other one something that's kind of come in the back half of the summer for me, it started actually pre-COVID and then I kind of took a little break, was I've gotten really into video games again. And I go through this cycle where I'll be obsessed with playing as many video games as possible for a couple of months. Then I'll take a break and not touch one. And then I'll go back to being obsessed with with playing video games again. And that's currently where I'm at—really into my Call of Duty games and Warzone. And now Tony Hawk Pro-Skater, PGA, PGA Tour 2K. I would say that I know that sounds like a strange thing to say as a hobby, but I love it. And I think it gives me a very fun sense of purpose if you will.
NICOLE RON: 29:48 |That's awesome. Thanks for [laughter] filling me in on that. I'm sure you're not the only one that's picked up the video game hobby and the health kick hobby. I think half of CJ at this point own Pelotons and I feel like I'm missing out on this Peloton gang.
BRANDON WENERD: 30:06 | I do too! So half of my team has them as well. All of my team on the East Coast has acquired Pelotons in the last couple months. And I'm like, "Oh, I like my apartment too much but there's no room for it, so next apartment.” But I know that if I got one, I would love it. It looks really really fun.
NICOLE RON: 30:31 | Yup. They’re pretty cool. It's kind of like the combination of gaming and biking all at the same time.
BRANDON WENERD: 30:36 | I know!
NICOLE RON: 30:37 | I feel like It's the perfect combo for you.
BRANDON WENERD: 30:39 | Exactly. It reminds me of that black—there's a Black Mirror episode where I feel like it was like, your Peloton basically powered what all your life looked like. But, look, if I have to stay at home, I might as well stay at home and be as active as I possibly can. So that I can sit around play video games.
NICOLE RON: 31:08 | [laughter] That's a good strategy you got there. All right. So thank you so much, Brandon. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about BroBible and how you guys have adapted during the pandemic, and all of the strategy and tips and tricks as well as recommendations you've shared with our listeners today. So thank you so much for coming, and I hope to be able to chat with you again soon.
BRANDON WENERD: 31:33 | Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. And I hope that me talking about our experience in the workplace is helpful to others.
NICOLE RON: 31:44 | I'm sure it will be. Thank you again. I really appreciate it.