winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
The founders at Casper Mattress are betting big on a content hub about sleep—without any branding ties.
Sep 1, 2015

The executive team at Casper Mattress, a startup that last August received $13.1 million Series A funding, decided to approach their content marketing by going bold—as in, bold headlines, on a dedicated website. Called Van Winkle’s, its ambition is to stir conversation about sleep, to transform it into an editorial category all its own, without any overt branding ties to Casper.

A good idea? Perhaps. When we spoke to Cleveland Clinic’s digital director, Amanda Todorovich—who helped drive traffic to the Clinic’s content hub, Health Hub, past 1 million unique views per month—she told us that posts about sleep regularly generate more traffic than other topics. “Everyone’s always looking for more ways to get sleep,” she said.

We spoke to Van Winkle’s editor in chief, Jeff Koyen, about the challenges of a pure journalism play and the expectations the sponsoring brand brings to it.

Content: What was behind the creation of Van Winkle’s?
Jeff Koyen: The inspiration for it happened before I came on board, but I can say that the Casper founders are very smart, very ambitious guys, and they don't like to do things conventionally, so I believe there was a conversation and the idea of doing a very unconventional content marketing play came into focus. Then, over the course of a little time as they got developed, I was brought on board. I pitched my vision for Van Winkle’s as an independent, autonomous editorial venture and they liked it.


What are Van Winkle’s editorial objectives?
My objective is to create a new editorial category around sleep, much in the same way that, in the '90s, food came online as a new editorial vertical. Before that, food writing was a very specialized thing. And before that, you could look to fitness, you could also look to shelter. These were editorial categories that sort of were specialized, and no one gave much thought to as broad cultural dialogue.

I see that there's no real Casper branding on the Van Winkle’s site. Why?
That decision came about very naturally. We are not branded content. We are journalism. My boss is the CEO, so we are not a division of marketing. We're not a division of social or acquisitions. We are actually a standalone division under the founders.

“My objective is to create a new editorial category around sleep.”

—Van Winkle’s EIC Jeff Koyen

To have this sense of independence and to genuinely be able to run the journalism that we're running, to explore these issues without oversight, was a very bold decision by the founders. That was part of the pitch when I came in the door, because I'm not a marketer, I'm a journalist. I didn't want to do Red Bull Music. I wanted to do a standalone enterprise, and they, much to their credit, never blinked.

Does the Van Winkle’s editorial need to keep Casper's brand values in mind?
There is a company blog that is very much on point. It's funny, it's clever, and it's highly engaged with the Casper audience. My job is actually to be a bit of a counterpoint. So, we could explore sex and drugs and talk about controversial subjects. We could curse. We could do what we want without it impacting the Casper brand. If we were under the Casper brand, with the Casper logo on top, we would naturally have to be aligned with messaging. We'd have a CMO and a VP of marketing making sure we were all on point. I'm never going to insult or affect the Casper brand, but that's not what I worry about every day. I worry about the Van Winkle’s brand, and what we're doing as journalists.

So you're merely accountable to metrics and analytics.
We want eyeballs, we want users, we want uniques, we want engagement, but we're not converting sales. There's one link to Casper on the website and that's more of a disclosure than anything else. At no point are you going to see an embedded link in a "Five Tips for Hacking Your Sleep” story that links to go buy a mattress. That's not our metric of success. We want to see X number of people reading that article and sharing on Facebook and sharing on Twitter. Very traditional publication.

“I think there's an opportunity for bold brands to do this, to create real journalism.”

What is the ultimate benefit of Van Winkle’s to Casper Mattress?
The idea is that by creating more dialogue in a new category around sleep, it elevates and accelerates the buying process. More people, in general, will want to buy mattresses. They'll want to pay attention to their home life. They'll want to get better stuff for their bedroom, and Casper will benefit from that. Our rising tide may elevate all the ships, including the competitors, but Casper believes strongly that they are there for our audience to benefit from that, to be there waiting with the products that the audience decides they want to buy. It's a very high-level brand play, a very high-level conversion play.

Van Winkle’s has a products section. Is there a plan to monetize that?
Monetization goals for Van Winkles are not a top priority. I have my P&L, I have my budget. I'm a longtime Editor in Chief and I've been a publisher so I'm very attuned to revenue, and I would love for my department to be standalone with revenue. So, we will eventually probably put ads on the site. We'll get some programmatic ads in there. For the product section we will, eventually, set up e-commerce so every link off to Amazon has an affiliate link. We're not taking Casper products and putting them on our site.

Are brands going to be saving journalism in the future?
I think there's an opportunity for bold brands to do this. I think there's an opportunity to create real journalism, and it's basically a new model of patronage. Rather than Carlos Slim who owns, whatever, 35% of The New York Times, I am published by Casper. It's up to me to maintain journalistic integrity. It's up to the owners to have the boldness and the vision to let that happen, because it's scary. Journalism is scary. It's messy, it could cause problems, you could piss off the wrong people, but if you do it right, those things become an asset, and they become feathers in your brand's cap. It's not going to be right for everybody, but the one's it is right for, I think it's a huge opportunity that brands can reap rewards from.