This travel site generated a billion video views and is moving into the U.S. market

Culture Trip didn’t start out as a travel site, per se. When it launched in 2011, its focus was on exploring global cultures and explaining them to an English-speaking audience. “How do we get people to learn about Polish film? How do we get them to learn about French poetry? And why are those things important? That’s what we were focused on back then a lot more.”

That quote came out of a conversation I had with Ewa Zubek, who’s now Culture Trip’s social media director but started out as the site’s managing editor and first full-time employee. A few years ago she was living in Brussels when she met Dr. Kris Naudts, a Belgian psychiatrist who had grown bored with the profession and wanted to try something new. “He said, ‘Oh, you want to be a writer? Check out my website that just launched,’” she recalled. “‘It covers culture and cool places around the world.’ I thought it was a great idea so I did some ad hoc freelance writing for the site.”

Eventually, after the site received an angel investment, that role segued into a managing editor position, and Zubek set about erecting what she called a “hub network” of freelancers spread all across the world. “At that time I was the only person managing like 30 writers or so, which was pretty crazy,” she said.

Monitoring the site’s web traffic, Culture Trip’s editors noticed pretty quickly that articles highlighting local attractions, beautiful sights, and restaurants were really taking off. “One really fascinating social phenomenon we discovered along the way was local pride,” she said. “People are surprisingly proud of the place they live in. If we wrote about restaurants, we’d send that article to the restaurants we wrote about and say, ‘hey, check this out, we just wrote about you guys,’ and they would be like ecstatic. They’d be like, ‘I can’t believe you wrote about us. You wrote about our city This is so amazing. We’re going to share this.’ And they’d share it with their network.”

The success of these early stories led to a tonal shift in the site’s coverage, and it placed increased emphasis on content that would appeal to travelers who were visiting a particular city or region. Suddenly, you started seeing more articles on the best “secret” cafes of Paris and the best island tours in Thailand. Zubek traced the successful audience growth to the idea that there weren’t many other media outlets providing such a comprehensive spread of coverage across the globe. “Travel has been really, really slow to come online,” she said. “There’s Lonely Planet which is obviously amazing at print guidebooks, but their website does not match that quality.” Most other travel news sites, she said, rely on user generated content or being spoonfed content from travel companies looking for free coverage.

The reason for this, she said, is that it’s quite hard to find on-the-ground experts in all the regions a travel site would want to cover. Culture Trip solved this by constantly growing and nurturing its freelancer hub, which now spans across 200 cities and countries. I asked Zubek how the company manages such a large group and how it handles developing and doling out content assignments. “Every writer that we have on the roster can pitch articles,” she said. “But we also have what we refer to internally as minimum viable content, which allows us to cover the whole ground. If we notice we don’t have an article on cute cafes in Paris, then we’ll send that out as an assignment to a writer in Paris who’s suitable to cover that topic.” Her team also closely monitors audience analytics and will often spin off article topics based on stories that are trending. “We share some of that information with our writers. We might say, ‘this month our audience is absolutely loving autumn, or absolutely loving languages, so what sort of ideas do you have that we can write about, that you guys can cover from your local perspective that will resonate with those themes?’”

Late last year, Culture Trip raised a $20 million Series A round, and this allowed the site to ramp up its content production. This was also around the time it got more serious about producing platform-specific content, especially with video. Zubek, who had transitioned from her role as managing editor to social media director, began thinking about how the site could move beyond text, and this coincided with Facebook doubling down on its video offerings.

Zubek started by tapping into Culture Trip’s hub network, expanding it to include videographers. “The videographers are based in 30 countries around the world,” she said. “We can get original video that nobody else has and edit that into great social videos.” Rather than posting the same videos across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, Culture Trip produces content that caters to each platform’s strengths. On Facebook, Zubek found that first-person action shots with very little dialogue perform well with the social network’s silent autoplay. A video posted two weeks ago, for instance, features a first-person shot of someone going down a toboggan roller coaster in the Swiss Alps. Other than a few exclamations of “whee!” and a little bit of captioned text, the main focus is on the ride itself. The video has close to 900,000 views.

On Instagram, videos don’t contain any captions at all, and they’re often drone footage of “epic” (Zubek’s word) structures, both natural and manmade. A video uploaded in early October, for example, features drone footage of an impressive glass elevator in the Alps. Culture Trip’s YouTube channel, on the other hand, contains more traditional longform video, the kind you might see on a cable TV travel show. In some of those episodes there are on-camera hosts who narrate the video. “We’re also in the midst of planning out a longer series that would probably only appear on YouTube,” said Zubek. “Something that’s a bit more episodic.”

This platform-specific approach to video has paid off. Zubek told me Culture Trip has generated a billion video views in the past year.

That’s not to say video is the only native content Culture Trip is producing for individual platforms. Almost by accident, Zubek tested out posting an illustration to social media, and after it took off she began commissioning drawings and infographics from artists. Culture Trip has seen particularly strong engagement with these sorts of illustrations on its Pinterest page. “I feel like [Pinterest is] a really underestimated platform for a lot of publishers,” she said. “But we have seen really great traffic returns. It’s our second biggest platform for social traffic just after Facebook.” A common theme with these Pinterest illustrations is for the illustrator to take a particular food category (for instance, cake) and then show all its different cultural permutations across the world. “I’m not sure why [it’s so popular]. It must be the vertical shape and the fact that you can just save them and look at the graphic on your phone.”

Zubek created dozens of boards for Pinterest based on content categories (food, animals, street art) and individual regions (Greece, New York, France). She said that users search through Pinterest in the same way they search Google, and a person who’s planning a vacation or honeymoon will often fall down a rabbit hole while scrolling through region-specific pins. “We don’t really have much competition. It’s very surprising we’re one of the few outlets that do travel infographics on Pinterest.”

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For Instagram, Zubek has leveraged the popularity of hashtags on the platform to built up a large repository of user generated content that her team can pull from and feature on the main feed. Every single post encourages users to upload images using the #culturetrip hashtag, and to date over 250,000 photos have been posted with it. “We only feature the best of the best,” she said. “We only post two to three photos a day, so they have to be amazing. Out of that quarter of a million, not many actually make it to the page. But we actually make an effort to go into Instagram and look at who’s hashtagged us and even comment ‘thank you’ as a sign of recognition.”

Culture Trip actually has three separate Instagram accounts; in addition to the main account, there are also ones dedicated to both food and books. I was curious about that last one; why literature in particular? “I think it was more coincidence than anything else,” said Zubek. “When we were posting photos of libraries and books around the world, people really liked the symmetry of them. They liked the cozy feeling they get from them. It just really sort of really exploded. It got to 50,000 fans within a year or so.”

Of course a large audience and massive view counts don’t matter much if a company isn’t able to effectively monetize them. For that, Culture Trip has relied heavily on Ben Shacham. A certified accountant, Shacham was working as a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers when he met Kris Naudts at a tech conference. “I watched Culture Trip grow, initially from afar, and every time I pulled up with Kris once a quarter or something, the traffic for the site had doubled.” When the company secured its initial seed round, Shacham made the leap and came on as the site’s second full-time employee. As director of operations, his role was to figure out how to make money.

From the very beginning, Shacham recognized that Culture Trip wouldn’t heavily rely on programmatic display advertising. “I could see this advertising model the media world is hooked on just wasn’t going to work,” he said. “So we immediately set out to think with a clean sheet of paper. How else can we make money?”

Ultimately, he settled on two business models: branded content and ecommerce (Culture Trip also leverages display advertising, but he said the company is looking to phase that out).

To produce the branded content, Culture Trip uses its already-existing hub of content creators. Shacham told me he doesn’t subscribe to the church-and-state approach of keeping editorial and advertising separate. Because the emphasis is on quality, he said, the content is treated to the same standards whether it’s an ad or a normal piece of content. “The content has to work from our perspective in the sense we have to feel proud of it,” he said. “Because what works for the advertiser works for the audience. If that’s what you’re selling, if that’s what you’re trumpeting, then you don’t need a church/state divide, because it’s just simply saying, ‘do some of this, but for me.’”

After settling on a piece of creative, Culture Trip will often guarantee certain audience numbers for the content, through both organic and paid distribution. Shacham described to me an arrangement the site had with a European tourism board. “They wanted to raise awareness of their destination and bring it to our audience,” he said. Culture Trip created a series of articles and a video highlighting the best attractions to be found in the region. “In this particular case I think we promised them 80,000 readers of the article and 100,000 views of the video on Facebook. And I think we ended up delivering 100,000 views of the article and 1.6 million views on the video. We completely blew away expectations on what we could do. You look at the comments, and people aren’t like ‘oh, this is a paid advertisement.’ People were like, ‘oh, I didn’t know that about that place. That’s incredible.’ We delivered an amazing result, and the brand has come back this year and said, ‘let’s work with you again because we loved it.’”

Culture Trip has also secured affiliate partnerships with travel companies in which Culture Trip receives a cut of any booking that originates from its website. An article titled “11 Scandinavian Hidden Gems You Need To Experience,” for instance, discloses a partnership with a ticket booking website called Get Your Guide. Every single subsection of the article contains links to specific tours and other events that can be booked on the Get Your Guide website.

I asked Shacham about the scalability of a business model that relies on producing branded content from scratch. Despite the poor UX of display advertising, it at least easily scales with increased traffic and requires relatively little extra work from the website carrying it. “The constraint, I would argue, is not in our ability to create the content,” he said. “Our constraint is on the work that’s involved with the advertisers. Because there’s a lot of back and forth that needs to happen. And sometimes it goes from the agency to the client, and from the client back to the agency and then back to you. You can go through 12 iterations before they’re happy.”

For now, he said, his main concern is ensuring that Culture Trip has a large enough audience that advertisers can get the reach they’re willing to pay for. “There’s no point talking to a huge brand that has millions of dollars to spend but only allowing them to spend a few hundred thousand dollars because you don’t have enough scale to offer them. We’ve been slowly winning that battle; we went from 2 million unique visitors a month a year ago to today where we have 10 million, and I think we can actually hit 11 million visitors this month.”

Recently, Shacham moved from London to New York to help build out Culture Trip’s U.S. operations. To start, these efforts will focus almost entirely on constructing a comprehensive guide to New York City itself. “How do we take the New York section and make it the best on the planet?” he asked, rhetorically. “How do we make it better than any of our competitors? What makes New York so special and how do we cover those things to really inspire people about this place? I see my role as setting those strategic directions and setting the structure of our teams to go and deliver against them.”

With hundreds of articles already published to Culture Trip’s New York section alone, it’s only a matter of time before every subculture, hobby, restaurant category, and tourist attraction is covered. If the first half decade of Culture Trip’s existence was about covering as wide a geographic spread as possible, its mission now is to dive deeper into the world’s most sought-after cities. New York is just the beginning.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com