Fort Lee-Based Jerrick Bets on Long-Form Digital Publishing as Alternative to Online Ads

Jerrick Media Holdings is building significant momentum on a tech bet that promises to offer a better alternative to the online advertising business.

Since Jerrick’s relaunch, in December 2016, the Fort Lee-based company’s proprietary long-form digital publishing platform, Vocal, has attracted millions of people who have viewed or listened to content from more than 380,000 writers, musicians, video producers, podcasters and others in the platform’s 34 topic-specific “communities.” A recent research report on the firm said that the Vocal platform is expected to more than double its number of content creators this year.

Vocal Platform

Vocal allows creators to post articles, videos, music and other content that could garner greater recognition for their work, and to get paid for it – without charging them any fees. This content also appeals to advertisers seeking new and innovative ways to market their products to an engaged and targeted audience.

A few years ago, Jerrick’s executives felt that the timing was right to begin work on Vocal, which was developed by teams in New Jersey and Australia. They concluded that digital advertising techniques, such as banner ads and pop-ups, were wearing thin on consumers, and that it was only a matter of time before these techniques would reach their peak.

This meant that the company needed a cost-efficient way to deliver rich content to digital-savvy consumers who want to be informed and entertained without being constantly bombarded with online sales pitches.

Jerrick CEO Jeremy Frommer, a former Wall Street executive who founded the company in 2012 with Hollywood film producer Rick Schwartz, realized that a platform like Vocal was needed for the company’s survival. “The definition of a successful technology company is one that has a platform that it can operate from,” he said.   

Why New Jersey?

Frommer and Schwartz chose to launch this technology in Fort Lee because of its proximity to New York City, reasonably priced office space for Jerrick’s 30 employees, and the growing number of early-stage tech companies in the Fort Lee area. The cofounders have also taken an active role in fostering the city’s growth as a tech hub by organizing networking events and other activities.

At Jerrick’s headquarters, employees can be found working on the platform, which enables creative people to produce content designed specifically for an audience that’s increasingly tuning out online advertising. “We were seeing early on that traditional revenue models for digital media were flawed,” said Justin Maury, Jerrick and Vocal’s head of product. “We needed to build a product that could solve a growing need, which was user-generated content.”

Digital media platforms like Vocal, Vimeo, Patreon and Medium are viewed as an outgrowth of the consumer backlash against various forms of digital ads, which have been denounced as intrusive and ineffective.

In addition, recent studies on digital publishing platforms have found that they tend to be more effective in building audience engagement than online advertising. This conclusion is supported by an industry report that says that branded content creates more than three times as many sales leads as outbound marketing. Other studies have shown that most Americans ignore digital advertising.

More people are flocking to digital content publishing sites because they offer topics that are of interest to them. This allows both creators and brands to produce diverse content in hopes of building a large and loyal base of followers that, in turn, will generate increased interest in these platforms.

The Vocal platform hosts a lot of informational and entertainment content, including topics on food, sports, cosmetics and controversial issues such as the cannabis industry and human sexuality. The firm says that blogs posted on Vocal are read, on average, for more than four minutes, compared with nearly 40 seconds for blogs posted elsewhere online.

Incentives for Content Producers

To achieve its goal of becoming a successful digital publishing company, Jerrick offers attractive incentives for content creators on Vocal.

These include a comprehensive set of editing tools that will help creators to make their online content visible to a wider audience through the platform’s search-engine-optimization (SEO) feature.

Vocal also has technology that pays creators for work that might not be funded elsewhere. The pay rates are determined by an algorithm that measures audience engagement with their content, or by an Uber-like feature that allows Vocal’s audience to make donations, or both.

To ensure quality control of the platform, humans and automated systems vet “every piece of content before it gets published,” said Maury, to guard against “fake news” and other inappropriate content.  

Jerrick also has an in-house studio, called “Vocal for Brands,” which offers fee-based branded content campaigns on the platform’s network.

The company is now public. In the first quarter of 2016, Jerrick’s intellectual property (IP) and technology, including the Vocal platform, were rolled into one entity through a reverse merger, thus recasting Jerrick as a publicly traded tech company.

Going forward, Jerrick is contemplating charging Vocal creators a monthly subscription fee, starting later this year, that would entitle them to premium add-on services and features. The company may also offer a similar subscription fee for brands.  

“Lucky to Learn from Mistakes of Others”

Maury credits some of Vocal’s growth to Jerrick’s strategy of capitalizing on the missteps of other digital media providers. “We don’t want to be the first to market, but the second to market. We’ve been lucky enough to learn from the mistakes of others, and have positioned ourselves in a way that we can take away a large percentage of market share,” he said.

The rise of social publishing platforms like Vocal may weaken the grip of the Facebook/Google ad duopoly on the digital marketing space. According to an eMarketer report, these tech behemoths dominate the business, accounting for more than 60 percent of all ad spending in 2017; and total ad spending is expected to reach $100 billion within the next few years.

Maury expects that Facebook and Google will continue to be the biggest players in the industry, at least in the near future, but upstarts like Vocal are poised to play a greater role in the digital media industry. “I think there will continue to be a duopoly, but there will be a large amount of people more interested in an educational type of marketing.”  

While the digital publishing business is expected to show continued growth in the coming years, Jerrick doesn’t pay much attention to Vocal’s competitors.

“We’re not particularly competing against anyone,” said Frommer. “What we are competing for is eyeballs.”

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