Vice Media has come into the month of March looking more like a lamb than the proverbial lion.
The irreverent content brand saw its Web traffic suddenly plunge 17.4% compared with the previous month, according to multiplatform figures just released by Comscore for February, registering 49.1 million unique visitors. That’s down from 59.5 million in January. No brand in Comscore’s entertainment category dropped further than Vice during that period.
Reached for comment, a Vice spokesman issued the following statement to Variety: “Comscore doesn’t capture the entire universe of viewers consuming Vice content across all screens and platforms. Since introducing new viewership products earlier this year, overall audience size has continued to grow, with watch time at an all time high.”
The irony of what’s propelling this precipitous decline is a controversial practice that Vice, as well as other digital publishers, engage in online that’s actually aimed at inflating traffic numbers.
The inventory that Vice makes available to media buyers is actually a combination of its own website, Vice.com, and a collection of other Web properties Vice doesn’t really own or operate, such as ModernFarmer.com and ThePlaidZebra.com. Comscore enables this arrangement by allowing one publisher to essentially sign away its audience to another publisher through a document known as a “traffic assignment” letter. These pacts are typically struck by smaller publishers lacking advertising sales infrastructure; in exchange for turning over their traffic, they can have their inventory represented by a bigger entity with better access to a wider range of marketers.
But while traffic assignment letters are perfectly legal, they’ve been long criticized within the industry. While reach-hungry publishers like Vice aren’t hiding these partners from advertisers, these ad buys are considered the digital equivalent of mortgage-backed securities: mixed in with the premium inventory is lesser-quality placements.
Vice has been one of the more aggressive practitioners of traffic assignment in recent years, with Vice.com actually accounting for less than half of the traffic total the company has represented as “Vice Media” on Comscore. The addition of select publishers has driven some of Vice’s biggest audience gains in recent years, allowing the company to position itself as the kind of high-growth media darling that has helped CEO Shane Smith attract millions of dollars in well-heeled investors like Disney, A&E Networks and 21st Century Fox.
But the strategy apparently backfired last month when the biggest booster of Vice Media’s traffic, Distractify.com, suddenly experienced a meltdown after months of fairly consistent growth. Distractify went into free fall in February vs. the prior month, dropping a whopping 68%, from 15.7 million to just under 5 million.
Distractify’s audience is built on the notoriously volatile traffic that comes from counting on clickbait content like “13 Irish Heartthrobs to Satisfy All Your St. Paddy’s Day Needs” on social networks with shifting algorithms; a website riding high one month could find itself in a tailspin the next.
Distractify, which Vice has been partnered with since last July, isn’t the only source of inflation that has been deflating, either. Several other websites Vice just recently added to its traffic-padding portfolio earlier this year are experiencing significant declines as well, including Render Media, which is down 21% from January, to 19.2 million, as well as smaller drops from Splitsider.com and TheAwl.com.
Vice had to bring in new properties to its Vice Media network in January when its biggest traffic booster, Dose Media, moved over to Tribune Media following a $25 million investment in the startup, home to two clickbait factories, OMGfacts.com and Dose.com. That apparently hasn’t helped Tribune much, which Comscore reported is down 12% in February.
Vice Media traffic has been on a mostly upward trajectory since the Dose sites pumped the unique visitors’ tally to 41.2 million in June 2015 from just 32.4 million in May, ending three consecutive months of declines. But the February downturn is easily its biggest decline in 2014; had Vice Media been able to hang onto the 59.9 million it drew in January, it would have effectively doubled its February 2015 total.
Ironically, Vice.com itself is slightly up over its January tally. Despite the addition of a new section targeting female users, Broadly, last August, the company’s traffic has plateaued just below 26 million since then.
That said, Vice has moved aggressively in recent months to limit its dependence on Internet ad dollars through its move into TV, including its deals for a weekly series on HBO and a cable network, Viceland, via A+E Networks, as well as branded-content production pacts. Vice recently kicked up controversy on that front with reports that the company is now in business with Philip Morris International, a cigarette manufacturer looking to make inroads with the young audiences Vice specializes in reaching.