Audience growth recipe from a Latvia-based startup that innovates Russian media using games and humor

Riga-based online newspaper Meduza has launched in October of 2014. In two years, this small startup managed to become one of top 10 most visited Russian news websites, attracting more than 5 million monthly unique visitors. How? They experimented nonstop.

The outlet was created in a result of a big scandal in Russia media. In March 2014, the owner of the leading news website fired the outlet’s Editor-in-Chief Galina Timchenko. The premise was an official warning from Russian state censors for publishing an interview with a leader of Ukrainian nationalists (this happened right before Crimea’s re-absorption into Russia) and Timchenko’s refusal to fire the reporter who took the interview. Almost the entire newsroom, 84 people, quit the outlet in protest at her dismissal, calling the move “a violation of the media law that speaks of the inadmissibility of censorship”. In October, Timchenko and a team of twenty fellow journalists started Meduza. They relocated from Moscow to Riga to impede potential influence of state censorship and prioritized developing distribution channels that are nearly impossible to block — such as mobile applications.

Meduza’s traffic grew almost twice in 2015 and by half in 2016, from 1,3 to 5 million visitors in two years. Although from the very beginning Meduza had to operate under political pressure and threat of being banned from its main audience, it’s not their dissident position that skyrocketed the audience growth. The newsroom continued to produce investigative projects that once brought into the forefront of independent Russian journalism. What created the hype were its experimental formats, along with exposing uncommon attitude towards readers and a sense of humor.

In January 2016, Meduza’s publisher Ilya Krasilshchik posted a list of 25 most popular articles published by the outlet in 2015. Nine of them were games; together they generated more than 2 million views. Meduza publishes nearly a dozen of interactive features every month, creating more than a hundred a year. It is the first Russian media to use this format on a daily basis. “A game is a wonderful way of telling a news story because it combines the topic with interactive mechanics. A timely game turns to be incredibly popular because it is an unexpected approach to a topic that interests everyone at the moment”, explains Krasilshchik.

The games have the simplest mechanics and feature different topics, from political to entertaining. Two most popular games of 2015 are called “Read fortune by Brodsky” and “Valuable Cadre”. Each collected nearly 500,000 views. The first one offers to tell fortune using the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, the second, created together with Anti-Corruption Foundation, suggests guessing the price of jewelry of Russian government officials. Meduza also uses the game format for native advertising, for example, a popular game “Do you know Russian geography?” was used to promote McDonald’s.

Meduza experiments with new formats and distribution channels to explore opportunities to interact with readers. The key word is “more”: media seeks new ways both to reach to more people and to involve them into more interactions. Editorial team works back to back with the technical team, and as a result, the outlet is very flexible in trying new technical features. For example, in November 2015 the media launched in-browsers pushes — notifications for breaking news and important articles. In three month, 450,000 people subscribed to the feature; they generate 1 million click-throughs a month (the average conversion is 5%). Other experimental projects of the outlet include explanatory cards, city guides, user chats (instead of comments), Telegram channels, podcasts, and editorial blogs.

Another important driver of Meduza’s rapid growth is an innovation of a different kind. It is the outlet’s approach to the audience. In general, Russian news media are very formal with its audience and prefer to present the news without addressing the reader or showing any attitude towards the stories. Many outlets just copy the headlines into social media. Meduza employs a different strategy. Its social media are run by editors who are free to present news in an informal, often playful and joking manner. As a result, its social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Vkontakte express a variety of emotions: from sarcasm to compassion. Here is an example of their post in December 2016: “Quite an incredible story. Head of Twitter was cut out of meeting with Trump because of EMOJI! No, seriously. American politics, 2016. Imagine the news: Vladimir Putin refused to meet with Alisher Usmanov because Vkontakte refused to make a sticker”. As a result, Meduza has a high level of reach and engagement in social media, and its Twitter account has more than 800,000 followers.

Meduza shows a particularly friendly attitude to its readers, which is an unprecedented case in Russian media that usually minimize communications with the audience. The website uses the same friendly intonation whenever it addresses the audience. Another media format that was successfully refurbished by Meduza is a daily email newsletter. “Evening Meduza” was launched in March 2015. “The shortest newspaper in the world” consists of several short paragraphs on the main news of the day. It is made without any templates, and once was even written in a form of haiku. For example, the newsletter of May 13, 2016, was called “The day that should not have happened” and ended with a line: “Sorry, we don’t have any other news for you today. And P.S. Today “Evening Meduza” has a 300th-anniversary issue. But we’ll have another excuse to drink”. In two years the subscriber base grew to 58,000 emails with an average open rate of 45% and average click rate of 16%. However, sometimes informality leads the outlet to blunders: once Meduza had to publicly apologize for an inappropriate Twitter joke that was interpreted as sexism.

As a part of its strategy to build a trust-based relationship with the readers, Meduza conducts live broadcasts from its office to answer reader questions and keeps two Medium blogs, where its editorial and technical team explain how they execute certain features, be it making games or push-notifications. The media not only shows how it works but also welcomes the audience to contribute. Every article has three buttons under it: “I know more than you”, “I have a story for you”, and “Discuss in a chat”. The reader also can suggest an idea for a game. The recent case of crowd-sourcing a story happened when Meduza sent its first weekend-newsletter in January 2017. The newsletter was devoted to readers’ favorite newsletters and summarized 250 links that the newsroom received from readers.

Meduza’a experiments enable the outlet to embrace one the major challenges brought by digital environment: a change in the role of the media. Media no longer present a monopolistic source of information. To win the audience, media have to build trust and to reach to readers in emerging environment. “Your audience is people who are happy to help you, who will respond to your words, support you during tough times, suggest new topics for investigations, and provide content for your website. How do you call someone whose opinion is very important to you? Who stands up for you, whom you turn to when it is important to say something?” asks Galina Timchenko in her TEDxTalk. “I think it’s called “a friend”.