Company Insights

Competitive analysis: BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Vice Media

  • Public Equity
  • TMT
  • North America

A new era of data privacy, shifting audience demographics and consolidation is changing the digital media landscape. Third Bridge Forum interviewed former executives at BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Vice Media for a competitive analysis of these prominent players and their operating environment.

As we heard in one Interview, although the COVID-19 pandemic effectively pushed advertising “off a cliff” in Q1 and Q2 2020, it “whiplashed back to historic levels later that year”. US digital advertising hit the USD 200bn mark in 2021 and is set to reach approximately USD 300bn in the next 2-3 years, presenting significant revenue opportunities for digital media players. 

Even with the “trifecta” of Facebook, Google and Amazon expected to soon own USD 0.85 of every digital ad dollar, “there’s a tremendous opportunity for premium publishers, Vox Media and some of their peers, to build very meaningful businesses”, a former manager at Vox Media told us. While there has been significant erosion due to the rise of these tech giants, a former divisional leader at BuzzFeed predicts a “mild swing back in the other direction” if industry players can present compelling and creative propositions to advertisers. 

“If Facebook’s earnings have highlighted anything, it’s that the impact of Apple’s privacy features have had a real depression on their ad opportunities,” the former manager at Vox Media said. “I think that opens the door even more for publishers.” However, a former VP at Vice Media Group pointed out that these players are also competing against myriad other market participants. “I would say it’s going to continue to be a big challenge, and it’s something that I think only really gets solved by IP.”

Delving into the competitive landscape, one expert’s view is that BuzzFeed is in a “two-horse race” against Vox Media. The company, which recently went public via SPAC, is seeking to diversify and invest in the “major revenue areas” of advertising and commerce, and ultimately make more acquisitions to build a larger audience and compete against the tech behemoths, the former BuzzFeed executive said.

Tasty, which publishes food videos and recipes, is BuzzFeed’s biggest IP opportunity, we heard. It is “such a powerful marketing machine for anything in CPG that there is not a single brand or category on a grocery store shelf that would not benefit from partnering with Tasty in some capacity”, the specialist said. However, they were unsure of whether Tasty can grow “at the rates we’ve seen in the past, which have been astronomic”. 

We were also alerted to BuzzFeed’s “sleeping giant” brands: Nifty, a DIY homeware brand, and Bring Me!, a travel brand. “Within the travel vertical, in the homewares vertical, they could copy/paste everything they’ve done well with Tasty into those spaces.” BuzzFeed Studios was also highlighted as ripe for growth. “It’s existed for a number of years and they don’t have much to show for it, but I think that’s changing,” the expert said. “In the last two years, they’ve made a lot of new partnerships.”  

Experts agreed that BuzzFeed’s acquisition of Complex Networks was a “smart” move, with it being suggested it is an even stronger marriage than Vox-Group Nine due to the “salience” of both brands. “I think that’s an opportunity, because if BuzzFeed can continue to grow the audience, then they’ll have both bigger brands but also more premium brands, you could say, and I think that will appeal to advertisers.”

Interviews suggest some potential headwinds, however, with the specialist remarking that the BuzzFeed brand is synonymous with listicles and a “certain time in the lives of millennials”, and that it could therefore do more to resonate with Gen Z. “I do wonder if the BuzzFeed shtick, for lack of a better word, might be dated and it might fade and become not just irrelevant but actively selected against by a new generation of consumers.” However, they noted that this sentiment has not yet come through in traffic data. 

Turning to Vox Media, our expert who previously worked at the company noted that its first-party data solutions, Concert and Forte, position it well for a cookieless future. The Group Nine acquisition also gave the company a “tremendous in-road into social”, we were told, with The Dodo boasting 50 million-plus Facebook followers. Historically an ad-supported media company, Vox’s New York Media acquisition brought a subscription business into the fold. “The real opportunity there is that that affords recurring revenue for Vox, but I would say, at the end of the day, the amount of scale that they have on the ad-supported side is so substantial that they’re able to… continue to be a leader, even in the absence of that recurring revenue.” Vox, according to the former BuzzFeed executive, is a “timeless brand” that is more mature in its outlook. However, its house of brands, with the exception of New York Magazine, hasn’t yet had that “major cultural impact that BuzzFeed had”.

Vice was described in one Interview as “new media’s darling”, built as a “youth media brand” – an important characteristic that the expert we spoke to said needs to be maintained. “The tricky thing for them is how do they do that without spreading themselves so thin that they’re unable to fulfil the content obligations or expectations to their existing audiences,” they added, noting that this is “always the biggest challenge for a publisher”. IP development will be key for Vice’s future progression, the former VP at the company said, particularly in light of BuzzFeed and Vox’s latest acquisitions of Complex Networks and Group Nine respectively. The specialist sees Vice as currently being in a “unique state” where its core demographic is ageing and adopting different values. However, they outlined Vice News as a “real strength” and also posited that the company could be well placed to take advantage of the “white space” in first-party data and insights.

Experts across Interviews see scope for further industry consolidation and it was emphasised that talent acquisition, including building relationships with successful content creators, is just as important as company acquisitions. One expert said further consolidation could see the sale of specific assets across companies, but that it is difficult to predict what will ultimately happen. “If we look at how a lot of investment is taking place in this space, especially looking at a quick return on that investment, I think we’re going to see some weird things happen in the next little while.” 

Meanwhile, with the right brand and product, the metaverse could unlock opportunities for all of these players, with one specialist noting that BuzzFeed’s ComplexCon this year was virtual and, although not an enormous success, a valuable learning curve. “I think that sort of thing will be normalised in the future.”

Related Transcripts

The information used in compiling this document has been obtained by Third Bridge from experts participating in Forum Interviews. Third Bridge does not warrant the accuracy of the information and has not independently verified it. It should not be regarded as a trade recommendation or form the basis of any investment decision.

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