Group Nine Media says it got 114M social engagements last month

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With last fall’s formation of Group Nine Media, four digital media organizations (Thrillist, NowThis, The Dodo and Discovery’s Seeker) came together under a single corporate umbrella. Now the company says it’s seeing real success connecting with readers and viewers, with 114 million social media engagements in May — up from 70 million in January.

As Group Nine CEO Ben Lerer (pictured above) put it, “We smoked it.”

But how meaningful is that number, especially since it includes everything from likes to comments to shares?

“Every engagement isn’t created equal,” Lerer admitted. Still, he argued that “more engagement is better than less.” And he said the numbers show that “people aren’t just sitting on their phones and aimlessly scanning” on social media: “People are stopping and paying attention and taking an action at an enormous scale.”

This also ties into one of frequently repeated mantras in online publishing — the need to focus on engagement rather than pageviews.

In this case, Lerer said he isn’t trying to make the argument that “We’re not big, but we’re good.” In fact, the company points to data from video analytics company Tubular showing that it’s one of the top 10 media and entertainment properties online, with more than 3 billion views on Facebook alone in April. (And while Group Nine ranks eighth out of 10 when it comes views, it has the highest engagement rate among the properties in that top tier.)

“Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, look, we’re big,’ we’re unpacking: Well, why are we big?” Lerer said.

He added that the focus is less on having a few big viral hits, and more on “raising the floor” so that none of the publications are spending time on content that doesn’t get significant engagement.

“We’ve always talked about the idea of not having virality be a strategy, but having it be an outcome of good strategy,” he said.

And just as all engagement isn’t created equal, the same is true of the various properties that make up Group Nine. Different publications do better on different platforms — for example, Seeker performs better on YouTube while NowThis is stronger on Facebook.

Lerer said that while he wants to ensure that “the editorial soul of each brand lives entirely at that brand,” the company is also working to “create a center of excellence to take those learnings and transfer them to the other brands so all the brands get smarter.”

This leads to another big question: Is it dangerous for a media company to rely too heavily on other platforms for distribution? Lerer said publishing on social media is important for reaching users where they are, rather than trying to “swim upstream” — but he also said there’s opportunity for real ad revenue, both in the present (“We happen to be focused on making large amounts of money on these platforms”) and in the future.

“I don’t think that the advertising solutions that exist on these platforms and the sort of profit sharing and partnerships that exists between distribution platforms and content creators … are the ones that are going to exist in the future,” Lerer said. “I think there will be more value coming downstream to content creators as time goes on.”