Vice Media Traffic Plummets, Underscoring Risky Web Strategy

Vice Media Shane Smith Business Prospects
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

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.

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Vice Media Shane Smith Business Prospects

Vice Media Under Pressure

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.

DECIPHERING VICE’S COMSCORE TRAFFIC: Don’t confuse Comscore’s calculation of Vice’s online traffic with the actual audience for Vice.com, which accounts for less than half of that total. The other half comes from a selection of other websites (any color not in black, below) neither owned nor operated by Vice, which handles some ad sales for these partners only. Comscore enables this arrangement through what’s known as “traffic assignment letters”; note the significant mid-year lift Vice traffic got when a trio of websites including Daily Dot were swapped out. January 2016 could be an interesting month for Vice, which is losing OMGFacts and Dose — two notorious clickbait websites — and exchanging them with still other non-affiliated websites.
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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.

 

 

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  1. sex videos says:

    Also, there’s a 20% tax on the gross gaming revenues as properly company tax of 28%.

  2. Joe Whitehead says:

    Haha, maybe they can try bring back public comments, and stop being like the guy with a megaphone in a crowd wondering why no one wants to hear what they have to say. Then again, they’re like newspapers that can’t even afford writers or editors, and thus have to pay AP or someone for their stories. Moderators cost them money so they got rid of comments, entirely.

    Or maybe people are getting bored with the Distractions? Create better ones? ;) Sorry to be mean, but there’s a good reason traffic has gone down on a well-known stereotypical click-bait site.

  3. Pat Mar says:

    Example of where Vice is at now, honestly I have never seen such a scandalous heading “Brexit Proves Baby Boomers Should Get Less of a Vote”

  4. Vice, I hope you land up in the dust! You have taken off the only ch. that was worth watching. That ch. was H2 with Ancient Aliens, Geography, etc.. Good family entertainment! And we all wonder why our Kids and country are going in the wrong direction. Vice is nothing but trash, porn, vulgar language & nothing that any of our family members care to watch. Check out the complaints written in on Comcast, & other providers. Millions of your viewers are gone.

  5. armenia4ever says:

    VICE got rid of their comment section, so I got rid of any effort to click on their articles.

    • Joe Whitehead says:

      I just put motherboard.vice.com in hosts file to block them. Tempted to add them to filters for browser itself. It’s just a nuisance now when searching on stories that aren’t coming from a POV monopoly. Some of us actually like to read the hilariously bad comment sections.

    • NikFromNYC says:

      VICE earlier banned is competent climate skeptics after we owned the comment section for a few years. Brian Merchant was the editor and eventual banner.

  6. hamilton says:

    adblockers can’t wipe these slimy yellow journalism sites out fast enough.

  7. J Mac says:

    All these companies are just buying ad space without paying attention to what counts. CONVERSIONS. They think eyeballs means getting message out.

    I love it tho. Valuations based on inflated views. The bubble will only pop once the companies buying the ad space figure it out. But with so much cheap money out there thanks to the FED and other Central banks. Who cares. Burn baby burn.

    • Joe Whitehead says:

      Create a cable network or newspaper that is not allowed to offend the advertisers… then wonder why your circulation went to the ground, right? :)

  8. Vice is buying traffic says:

    It’s pretty obvious what they are doing. Vice is buying traffic. All the big networks do it. They probably got flagged for bot traffic.

  9. MerryMarjie says:

    What on earth possessed the powers-that-be to allow Vice to replace a perfectly wonderful TV channel called History 2 is beyond my comprehension. I am apparently an old fuddy-duddy (one who actually watches TV) who can’t appreciate shows such as “Weediquette” and “Noisey,” the only two offerings for the 24 hours of programming today. Personally, I hope they fail in a very large manner.

  10. James says:

    Distractify.com is a trash website run by even trashier people. They just did a massive round of unexplained layoffs which would explain their embarrassing decrease in traffic.

  11. Patrick says:

    Vice has become the Huffington Post since Gavin McInnis was pushed out. Total crap.

  12. Rex says:

    No whore like new the whores. Surely Vice is just the tip of the iceberg for this bullshit? Seems like every like-minded “popular” journalism website is in bed with clickbait sites these days. Guess that’s the only option they have to make people think they’re actually relevant in an era where the sheer volume of content has become so massive that nothing stands out anymore. Nothing. It’s all just noise, good or bad.

    Oh, and Gen-X’ers and Millennials have now grown up and are moving on. Those numbers will only continue to drop.

    • dziban303 says:

      I was reading Vice back when it was just a magazine. Does that make me a hipster?

    • Rex says:

      Also, it’s fascinating how many of these not-so-self-sustaining websites and their owners only have one true goal in mind: television, the tried-and-true format that will, in one form or another, outlive sites like Vice. It’s almost like Shane Smith and his ilk know they’re living in houses of cards, and the only way to keep their brand alive is to grab the golden ring of television. And the TV execs have undoubtedly been impressed with these inflated numbers, until now.

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