Twenty-two-year-old María Lorena Ramírez, an indigenous woman from Mexico’s Tarahumara people, won an ultramarathon wearing traditional huarache sandals.
Her story is inherently shareable. It’s true, it’s surprising, and it’s emotionally engaging: a perfect recipe for virality. But this isn’t her story. It’s the story of an unlikely digital publishing partnership between the largest Spanish-language newspaper and a viral media site.
In 2014, El País partnered with a viral site called Verne with the aim of connecting with new readers and adapting to the digital market. As veteran team member Lucía González, now at the helm of Verne, told me, “Our purpose from the beginning of our partnership with El País was to experiment with new ways of getting closer to the stories and their protagonists and explore the internet. We like to consider ourselves network explorers. I think we function as a laboratory for El País.” [author’s translation]
Verne‘s explorers find moving, shareable stories like the one about María Lorena Ramírez. But what can stories like this do for publications like El País?
With over 11 million readers, El País is the most widely read Spanish-language digital newspaper in the world. It has editions in Spanish, English, and Brazilian Portuguese and the world’s largest network of Spanish-language correspondents. In addition to its headquarters in Madrid, it has news desks in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Washington, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Beijing.
El País was selling 400,000 copies in 2007 but slumped to 267,000 in April 2014, right in the middle of a worldwide crisis of the printed press. How’s that for an inciting incident?
As traditional news media struggled to adapt to the digital world, not all strategies have been equally successful, so how did our protagonist fare during those difficult months of 2014?
Verne, named after the science fiction novelist, is a viral site launched in September 2014 by Delia Rodríguez, Univision Digital’s managing editor of audience engagement, in partnership with El País. Virality is nothing new in journalism or in marketing. What’s new in Verne is the concept of combining the fun of viral sites with the trustworthiness of conventional media.
“That is the very reason for Verne’s existence,” says Lucía González. “I mean, understanding the processes that lead to something ending up in social media and treating everything viral from a journalistic point of view. We take the work behind each story very seriously, applying the same rigor and ethics to tracking a fun YouTube video as to researching a hoax of terrorism, for example.”
That balance between fun and trustworthy could also allow brands to cover a wide range of topics, beyond puppy videos, and still be equally effective in gaining the favor of the audience.
In fact, in its first six months Verne reached a peak of 6 million monthly unique users and brought new readership to El País at a time when the newspaper was struggling with digital transformation.
Headlines from Verne in English
In the denouement of the story, opposing forces duel and there are clear winners and losers. And yes, at the end of our story El País was among the winners in the fight to adapt to the digital era. But how did Verne help El País? Did it prop them up financially, or did it bring more readers on board?
Verne is profitable, running a mix of display and native ads, although they “do not give absolute audience figures.” But above all, the virality strategy works as a gateway that drives more readership for the traditional news outlet, which demonstrates that their example can help corporate publishers in their own efforts to hack into readers’ attention. Especially when we know, as González told me, that “more than 60% of our traffic comes from social media, mainly from Facebook. The percentage of visits from mobile devices is similar.”
Approximately one in three Verne readers comes from countries other than Spain, mainly Mexico (Verne Mexico was launched in February 2016).
“In 2015,” added González, “two of El País’ 10 most visited news items were from Verne: a story about a viral video that was published following the Germanwings accident and another that appealed to the nostalgia of childhood. In 2016, the seventh most viewed story of the year throughout El País was this report from Verne about how the Spanish work day is alien to most visitors.”
Now, imagine what this strategy can do for marketing content hubs.
The strategies that traditional media used to enter the digital era—whether it is promoting subscriptions in the case of the New York Times or a viral partner site in the case of El País—can also make digital publishers more competitive.
So in this current digital publishing environment, traditional publishers can use non-traditional sites like Verne to explore new regions.
As well as driving readership, Verne can serve marketing objectives by covering subjects that El País wouldn’t normally cover, e.g. by using a first-person narrative format, voting on the best headlines, or testing narratives for informative purposes in Snapchat or Instagram Stories.
Besides these new techniques, brands can draw two conclusions from viral sites. First, that the front-page format is in decline, as most of their traffic comes from social media—commonly accessed via smartphones—and so each individual piece of news becomes in itself a link in a web of content. Second, that digital publishers today need to combine the skills of copywriters and journalists with those of data analysts, as the ability to react immediately when a strategy fails is of the essence.
For brands, virality doesn’t have to be about puppies and slapstick humor but about good storytelling and good distribution. That’s what Verne proves possible every day with stories like that of María Lorena Ramírez, the Tarahumara ultramarathon runner.
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Featured image attribution: Jordan Whitt