In today’s world of influencer marketing, companies and brands are searching for new and innovative ways to connect with their audiences and customers. One of our Manatt Venture Fund portfolio companies, Donut Media, is doing just that. Donut Media, an auto-enthusiast digital media company, is led by CEO Matt Levin and has developed a loyal and passionate following. The company has grown exponentially to over 1.8 million Facebook followers, almost 1 million YouTube subscribers and almost 150,000 Instagram followers. Part of Donut Media’s success has been driven by the engaging and authentic talent who host the company’s successful content lineup, including such shows as Up to Speed (my favorite), Science Garage and WheelHouse, which garner tens of millions of views per month.
We took some time to catch up with Matt and Creative Director Jesse Wood to get their perspectives on influencer marketing and their experiences navigating this landscape.
Q: We’re in an age where the amount of available content is almost overwhelming. How has Donut Media differentiated itself in order to grow so quickly and gain a loyal audience?
Matt Levin: Every consumer startup is competing for the same thing: attention. People spend on average five hours per day on their mobile devices, and have nearly unlimited options on how to spend that time. We’ve found a way to cut through that noise with content that is interesting, entertaining and relatable. Instead of trying to build the largest audience possible, we’ve methodically built a loyal following and optimized our content for sharing—so our existing audience becomes our best marketing platform. We now have a huge audience of loyal viewers, and it’s expanding at its fastest rate ever as those fans act as our evangelists.
Q: How do you approach the various distribution platforms with your content? What are some of the pros and cons of the multiplatform distribution strategy that comes with today’s digital/social world?
ML: The world is multiplatform. Being good at how one platform operates today isn’t good enough—especially because of how quickly these platforms change. The strategy that worked a year ago on Facebook is useless today.
Jesse Wood: We take the same approach to every platform by striking a balance between data and creativity. We analyze the results of every piece of content we post, creating new insights week over week and iterating through formats and execution. A format that works well on one platform might not work—or might require tweaks—for another platform. At the end of the day, it is our team of great creatives that processes those insights and turns them into original ideas. Then we just run the cycle again. Over time, we’ve used this method to develop strategies, formats and content tailored for each platform.
Q: How does your on-camera talent help with your sponsored and branded content partners?
ML: Talent is a key part of any brand sponsorship. Brands don’t want to merely sponsor another brand, they want to sponsor individuals, or a group of individuals, who they feel personify the values of the product or service. At Donut, we have a team of hosts who all bring personal perspectives and styles, and that allows us to work with a wide variety of different brands.
Q: What are brands and ad partners looking for when they come to you with sponsorship dollars?
ML: They are looking to make a meaningful impression on an audience. There is no shortage of opportunities for low-impact (or at worst, invasive) display advertising, but the opportunities to reach a large audience with a meaningful ad are limited. When we work with a brand, we fold [its] message into our content in a way that resonates with our audience and translates the brand’s message into entertainment.
Q: How do you select which brands and sponsors align with your audience, and how do you integrate them effectively into your content?
JW: We only work with brands and products we believe in. We’ve turned down numerous sponsorship opportunities, and we’ve actively sought out sponsors who make products that we like and we think our audience would like too. Starting from that point, it’s easy to be authentic; it becomes more about finding the right way to speak about the product within the context of the entertainment we’re making.
ML: It helps that we work in a category that lends itself to sponsorship. We need cars to do our jobs, and it’s easy to talk about brands around cars. We’re also very careful to make sure the advertising is additive, not invasive. When a sponsor gives us a car part to talk about on Science Garage, that makes the episode better, not worse!
Q: Your e-commerce shop recently launched. How are you using or planning to use your talent and influencers to drive more sales?
JW: All our talent is relatable and down to earth, and that really resonates with our fans, such that many of them view watching our content more like spending time with a friend versus watching “an influencer.” So when fans see our talent wear Donut apparel out in the world or in an episode of a show, it’s pretty natural that they will want it too—in fact, that’s why we started selling the shirts that originally only employees had.
Q: What’s one piece of advice for brands that want to use their marketing dollars effectively?
ML: Context matters. Millennials and Gen Z especially are aggressively anti-advertising. More and more are running ad blockers and using streaming services to avoid ads altogether. That’s why branded content makes so much sense—when you can place your advertisement on a program that is already reaching and engaging your target customer, and integrate your product in a way that is not intrusive but is additive, take advantage of it! Scrutinize the programming closely to make sure the audience is real, [and] if it is, lean on it because those opportunities are rare and incredibly valuable.