By Ashley Norris
As publishers seek new and innovative ways to monetise their brands, many have begun to wonder if they could scale creating products that would chime with their audiences. They don't need to look too far for inspiration.
Visual Statements, which was set up in Germany in 2014, creates and shares meme-like content and is now generating several millions Euros per year by selling items like cards, t-shirts and posters off the back off of its highly successful social media channels.
Benedikt Böckenförde and Kerstin Schiefelbein (who will be speaking at DIS 2018) explain how they developed the company, what the eureka moment was for its business model and how they are working in innovative ways with brands.
Tell us about the early days of Visual Statements. What drove your interest in memes?
Benedikt Böckenförde: I founded Visual Statements as a Facebook page in 2011. I started to publish the collection of statements that I had saved over the time on my laptop and built a small community around it. In the beginning it was just a curated Facebook page - a one-man show. In 2014 I founded the company and put together a business plan. I’m proud that we inspire 35 million people a month who interact 25 million times with our content.
At what point did you realise that you could develop a business? Was it all about hitting a certain level of reach?
Ben: Kerstin and I are passionate about content, which is an important part of our career-DNA. We learned in our days working in publishing that building reach, telling great stories and nurturing an active community is a great base for a business. For us it was just working out what that business model was.
So the first focus was content only. We wanted to build a content format that inspired a social media audience. We wanted to have emotional statements on emotional pictures that are so highly inspiring that millions of people identify with the content and share it on their own or friends’ timelines.
The first attempt to print quotes on products was actually inspired by the community who constantly asked us if we could provide them with the beautiful quotes on pictures. The first products were t-shirts and posters which we sold in an online shop which was only marketed in Facebook. We promoted one of the shirts on Facebook on one post and were delighted when it sold 25 times. I was then convinced that VS could sell more shirts and products and the business model was born.
Kerstin Schiefelbein: The second moment that especially convinced me of the potential of VS, occurred when I analysed the data Facebook started to provide in 2015. I was working on a different job in the US at the time and called Ben to check the figures. I couldn’t believe that VS had reached more than 30% of all millennials in Germany. When we realised that this was the case it convinced us even more to invest more into VS, so I quit my job and joined the company fulltime in 2016.
Still I don't think back then that we could have ever imagined that a year and half later we would have 17 product categories where we publish our statements on. Also that we would be selling several million products a year in our own online shop, on Amazon and also offline in more than 600 outlets. Funnily enough the most successful product category is paper products with postcards on top of them. You can't escape your roots!
To what do you attribute your success? Quality of ideas and design? Speed of execution? What else?
Ben: It is definitely a mixture of attributes. The quality aspect is a key factor in our success. We have grown to understand how social media storytelling works and have subsequently invested a lot of money in a content and design team as well as into building our brand. We measure quality on how we can maximise the multiple on every fan by creating viral effects. This is only possible if you provide quality and engaging content. And by being perceived as a brand.
Also our reach of around 35 million people per month enables us to identify trends quickly and then capitalise on them via new social media pages and new brands.
Kerstin: The success of our e-commerce model is a result of analysing the interactions on our content and identifying the most popular statements that fit on products. This minimizes our product risk and makes them highly successful in the market, as they are kind of pre-tested already. In some instances a single design can make more than 150k EUR revenue a year in the meanwhile we sell on several hundred designs. To achieve this though requires a strong combination of statement and again design. We also spend a lot of time and money in product development especially ensuring the quality of details such as fabrics, paper, etc. Nothing happens randomly. We are highly data and quality driven in all that we do.
As you can imagine this is not possible without having a great team. On the one hand Ben and myself have fifteen years of experience in the media, Ben on the creative and content side while I am more experienced in general management, business model creation and marketing topics. It is definitely an advantage that we both have a media and start-up background and different talents. We are also lucky that we found great team members that share our passion. Having an agile team is really essential.
How important has Facebook been to your growth? Have you had success on other platforms?
Ben: Social media networks are still our main publishing platform. In the beginning Facebook was the only platform we used. However as Instagram has grown, so we have seen a lot of success there too. This is in spite of the fact both platforms are used in different ways by the target group. In terms of achieving viral success Facebook is the most important platform. This is also due to the fact that Instagram doesn’t have this option of sharing content. On the other hand the amount of interactions with our content are significant on Instagram. We also see, that slightly different content works best on the two platforms. Pinterest is important to us too. It is a great branding tool for our products and our ad clients.
At this point had you hatched a monetisation strategy? Was it always going to be about developing offline product to sell?
Kerstin: The company, and therefore the business model, didn’t grow based on a business plan, but on a lean startup style model of prototypes, experiments, learnings and passion.
From the very beginning we were convinced that we could monetise content via social media if we had good a vital community generating enormous reach. Through trial and error we created proof of concept that you can convert fans into a database of clients by generic reach. Secondly we understood that it is possible to build pure social media brands. Thirdly, by transforming our online product success into an offline business model, we were able to sell millions of products in real shops. And lastly we used this knowledge, and the assets we gained for our brands, to promote other brands using our native advertising possibilities. And we showed that we can create social media strategies for our media clients that work as effectively for them as they have done for us,
Tell us about your native advertising experiments. Do you think that these could be a significant revenue source for you? Are there other revenue options you could pursue?
Ben: Our first experiments were for clients like Jaguar in 2014. At that time it was not clear if Facebook would tolerate branded content. Therefore we were very careful not to risk getting blocked. With the roll out of the branded content tool this year, we started officially to market our reach to brands in a pure native advertising model. Big brands like Mastercard, Vodafone, Nestlé and partners like Group M trust our campaign model and benefit from the guaranteed reach we can deliver to promote their brands and products. Media is already a two-digit percentage of the overall revenue in the first year and therefore a significant revenue stream. We have a network of social media brands and are able to scale it to the next level.
Do you have plans for international expansion?
Kerstin: Definitely. We already have English language content and we did some experiments in Spanish that showed us that an international roll out is possible. Also we market our products via Amazon to these countries and have started to understand more about how we can scale there. In the last two years we have concentrated on building our business model matrix in the German speaking market. Now we are ready to expand internationally and open to discuss it with potential partners.
You have managed to build a millennial audience and make money from them. That’s the Holy Grail for many mainstream media companies. What advice would you give them?
Ben: If you want to reach out and create awareness for your brands with millennials, social media is the only place to be. Use the provided data and tools to find out what triggers best and what inspires millennials so much that they engage with your content. And experiment as much as you can to create learnings that lead to great content and products
Kerstin: Most important is: get started and start small but smart. You don’t have to own the platform to build a business model. Concentrate on building sustainable assets that lead to revenue streams rather than fight with technology. You always can professionalise in a second step.
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