Media & Makers Technology & Tools

Axios HQ: transforming an editorial format into a new business.

Axios App

It is not new that some publishers, after having invested in developing their own editorial platforms and adTech tools, have started a side business by licensing those solutions to other media companies or clients in other industries.

For some of these companies – the most renowned names are always the same: The Washington Post and The New York Times -, their tech assets are as much valuable as their editorial talents.

But you do not need to be owned by Jeff Bezos or Marc Benioff to be a tech-savvy publisher. For the Schibsted Group, operating the most important newspapers and magazines in the Scandinavian region, technology is part of their reason why: they see themselves as a technology media company, with over 200 developers, a commercial arm to license their intellectual property, and a strategic arm investing in media tech startups.

Less common is to monetise a publisher’s business experience: from London, the consulting arm of the Financial Times, FT Strategies, supports other publishers developing their subscription strategies. They provide expertise in improving customer engagement and retention, and advanced analytics methods to learn more out of traffic and audience data.

A new road to business development is the one that Axios is taking in 2021, when it will rollout a commercial solution mixing content management and an editorial format based on their “Smart brevity®” USP, introduced in 2017 and protected as a trademark.

Before diving deep into the “Smart brevity as a service” offering, let me spend a few words about Axios.

New to Axios? Here what you need to know, in a nutshell.

  • Axios is a champion of digital journalism, founded in 2017 by veterans from Politico, The New York Times, Bloomberg.
  • Its core product is newsletters: it publishes 22 of them, all free to subscribe and funded by sponsored advertising.
  • Also, it launched two daily podcasts in 2020: Axios Today and Axios Re:cap and has been also producing a TV show for HBO, “Axios on HBO” (you might have seen segments of this interview to president Trump, that got viral on social media, with over 30 million views in 24 hours after release).
  • Axios is making money and is profitable: it made 58 million USD revenues in 2020 and is going to score the 100 million mark for 2021.
  • Where does this revenue come from? In an age where all publishers go for paid subscription business models, it can surprise that Axios is nearly entirely dependent on advertising: 85% of revenues comes from advertising, of which 50% from sponsorships of its newsletters; the remaining 15% comes from events, licensing, and its HBO agreement.

Smart brevity and newsletters.

A method, a format and a formidable example of how product, design and editorial work better when they go hand in hand.

What is the “smart brevity” and how does it work?

Axios developed the “Smart Brevity” format to fit the way we consume content on digital – scanning text, skimming things, going through feeds -, but solving the biggest pain points digital readers have.

What are these pain points?

Readers, presented with headlines and short teasers, are constantly encountering the “Do I care enough to click?” problem. And once they click on a heading and change context, they then have to decide, “Do I care enough to read?”, when most news articles require anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour to consume.

Axios fixed both readers´ problems by synthesizing what happened and why it matters in around 200 words: it does not pretend you to click somewhere, if you are happy with what you have learned from those 200 words. Described like that, it seems just an exercise of concision: no wasted words and no wasted space.

It is more, and it is not only about a writing style, but about design and product.

Smart brevity is not only about concision and bullet points, but a clear, repetitive structure that forms habits.

A typical Axios newsletter has six to ten “cards”, each summarizing a noteworthy news item. An image or a chart provides the visual complement to it.

Readers can skim the newsletter, or the website (that actually combines the newsletter cards into one seamless feed) or the app (made, as well, as a combination of newsletters) until they hit stories they enjoy, read the whole thing top-to-bottom, or any other path they choose.

Each card follows the same structure given by a super-short intro and a series of standard paragraphs whose most common headings and sub-headings are:

  • Driving the news
  • Why it matters
  • What’s happening
  • The big picture
  • What they are saying
  • Go deeper
  • By the numbers
  • For the records
  • What to watch
  • Yes, but…
  • The bottom line

The card structure works like a template and its repetitive pattern provides a familiar habit-forming context for the newsletter subscribers.

Compared to other newsletters, Axios adopts a different playbook: the goal is not to drive users elsewhere, nor to increase the time spent reading — a bit of a holy grail in the newsletter world -, but to engage readers and get them loyal, possibly cross-promoting other Axios newsletters.

What speaks for Axios ability to engage is that their community responds: user surveys get a 10 percent response rate. Their vanity metrics are also way above industry standards: they average an open rate of 45 percent.

Content and product.

Think the card like the “atomic unit” of Axios digital product experience.

The user experiences for the inbox, mobile and web, builds upon the cards.

  • A newsletter combines a series of cards by topical interest (vertical).
  • On the website, the newsletter cards fill the vertical sections together with other cards made for the website (newsy content with shorter life cycle).
  • The mobile app works like an aggregator of newsletters, with minimal additional content: if you are a newsletter subscriber, you can choose to read the cards in your mail inbox or in your app; the main stream combines cards as a timeline (most recent to less recent).
  • They have eliminated videos from the user experience, in favor of charts and illustrations.

The whole point is immediacy.

No subtle ways to trigger additional clicks, induce additional navigation or let readers stay longer onsite. The design does not abuse the habit-forming design principles of Nir Eyal´s book “Hooked”. Readers are loyal because they are happy with the core proposition of the “smart brevity”.

The “smart brevity” as a business solution for non-media clients.

That the “smart brevity” format had a potential to go beyond media, that was something the corporates sponsoring Axios´ content saw first – often big corporates like AT&T. Dozens of companies approached Axios for a way to “create an Axios-style newsletter” for their own businesses.

So, the product team at Axios went back to investigating the corporate internal communication pain points, and they saw a problem even bigger than the one people are having with news consumption, and getting bigger with the pandemic.

With entire workforces working from home, many intranets revealed not fit to the purpose and the chaotic usage of Emails and Slack (*see the footnote) put a pressure on optimising communication.

Most tools do not solve the issue of “how” to communicate, nor “how” to write: they provide alerting services, automatic tagging and sorting, automated prioritisation, sometimes pre-formatted forms – like the Microsoft Teams plugin to handle remote standup meetings – but the email itself remains a blank canvas, and too many poorly written emails come out from the mailboxes (including mine, mea culpa).

So, the Axios teams tested the idea first providing editing services and training in “smart brevity”, then with a software solution giving users a space to write their company-wide memos, with real-time feedback on their writing and a structured list of headings inspired by Axios but tailored to the corporate context.

As a result, company emails are more standardized, more concise and better fit a distributed workforce, accessing internal communications increasingly from their mobile.

The software solution goes together with consulting and training, so to drive change in how the companies communicate. Email analytics is part of the software, too.

The first customer cohorts Axios is approaching starting Feb 2021 are HR and Internal Communication departments, Corporate and Investor Relations. 100+ customers in the USA have been testing it since 2020.

To know more about the rollout and get inspired, best thing to do is to visit:

Talking about Slack, this is worth reading: