RS West ’18: How to engage a millennial audience

In an era where cable subscription revenues are trending ever downward, intensified by cord-cutters and cord-nevers, a slew of budding media brands have seemingly cracked the code for engaging an ...
June 6, 2018

In an era where cable subscription revenues are trending ever downward, intensified by cord-cutters and cord-nevers, a slew of budding media brands have seemingly cracked the code for engaging an increasingly elusive millennial and Gen Z audience with unscripted content.

During the “Aging Down Unscripted” panel – the opening day session at the 2018 Realscreen West conference in Santa Monica, California – on Tuesday (June 5), moderated by Evan Shapiro, principal at, leading industry execs came together to detail how exactly they’re bridging the gap to the mobile-first audience, and why it’s so important for the genre.

Vertical Networks CEO Tom Wright and his team have capitalized on using data and analytics to develop content.

Intellectually, he says the Manhattan Beach-based company has accepted that the Snapchats and the Facebooks of the world will always manage to out-data content providers when it comes to generic audience insights.

As such, Vertical Networks built out what it calls a “content taxonomy” on top of the audience insights that provides in-depth data on tone, feel, storytelling, pacing, exposition, camera angles, and so on, while also allowing the firm to test a variety of things to make their programs more engaging.

“We make 10 original shows a year, and the reason that every show we air is successful is because we’ve said no to hundreds and hundreds of things,” Wright said. “And so by the time it’s gone through our process, if we’re pitching to a broadcaster, it’s not a hypothesis; we’ve been through an incredible piece of methodology to get to where we are… bothering you,” he quipped.

At Los Angeles-headquartered ATTN:, co-founder Matthew Segal noted the company has been very pragmatic in creating entertainment that informs viewers about important societal topics through “purpose-driven storytelling” across every major social media platform.

“Something that we’ve really developed a skill set around is being clever and entertaining in how we get people to consume [content about] the issues that impact their lives,” he said.

And the results speak for themselves. In May alone, ATTN: reached 800 million people across its social platforms. Analytics and data, Segal explained, play a heavily important role in the studio’s development cycle, though there’s also a healthy dosage of producing with your gut.

“Our insights team informs us as to what performs well, what has the best retention, what trends and patterns there are across our highest and lowest performing content so that we could use those insights as best practices,” he told a room full of delegates. “But at the end of the day, we’re making calls based on gut and taste, and what we think is interesting, counterintuitive and unique to differentiate it from the rest of the market.”

Though “new school” media brand companies can lean on analytics to bolster their development process, what’s really resonating with viewers under the age of 35 and retaining their attention is content that feels authentic and uplifting.

Segal noted ATTN: has to be mindful that the mission-driven programs it delivers – whether they’re short-, mid- or long-form – are not being produced in a manner that feels sanctimonious or lecturing. But above all, producers have to cut to the chase.

“We’re incredibly skillful at being concise and taking a complex issue, and boiling it down to its most basic and fundamental information that you need to know,” Segal said.

“We’re past the day and age of a flowery, long-lead intro that builds toward a punch line. You have open on a punch line today, and then you can zoom out and contextualize.”

Added Wright: “There can be some vegetables in there – there can be some substance – but the hook has to start from a place that’s fun.”

Before closing out the panel, moderator Evan Shapiro noted that the stage was littered with three social publishers – ATTN:, Vertical Networks and New York-based digital media holding company Group Nine Media – who have totaled billions of digital views amongst the three companies combined. And yet, each of those companies had mentioned it was increasingly interested in migrating its digital-first content to linear television – a platform represented on the session by VH1 VP of programming and production, Fernando Mills.

Two prime examples were Vertical Networks’ dating series Phone Swap, which premieres across Fox at the end of August, and Group Nine Media’s Dodo Heroes for Animal Planet.

Suzanne Kolb, chief brand officer for Group Nine, explained that while industry veterans will debate the future death of linear television, the truth of the matter is the medium still reaches a massive audience.

“If you want to be the leading brand, it’s a beautiful place to bring your storytelling and reach a much larger audience,” she said. “There’s also a certain degree that, from an advertiser perspective, also helps. Linear continues to make brands seem even bigger and it still carries a different notion of premium than social publishing does.”

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

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