How Complex Networks' new digital channel found fertile ground in the heartland

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Long known for sneakers, hip-hop and fashion, Marc Ecko's media company tried a new look in its outreach to middle Americans.

Atlanta influencer Abbey Casey knows how to clean a freshly killed turkey. She starts by cutting off the feet, then the tail, and works her way into skinning all feathers from the breast. "It should come off like a glove," she says, wearing a white tank top and a camouflage cap. It’s a process to take seriously if you want to cook your spoils a certain way, or to mount the bird to your wall.

It’s not the sort of video lesson one expects from Complex, the urban style magazine founded by fashion designer Marc Ecko in 2002. But it’s typical fare for Rated Red, Complex Networks' multiplatform digital video channel that targets heartland millennials with short documentaries, reviews, how-to videos and even scripted shows.

Complex Networks launched Rated Red last April, after being acquired by Hearst and Verizon in April 2016, in an attempt to grow readership in the so-called flyover states that coastal media companies—which is most of them—have historically overlooked. (According to Politico, 73 percent of all internet publishing jobs are concentrated along the coasts.) Those underserved audiences were hungry for content that felt relevant to their lives and interests, said Todd Schwarzschild, channel leader at Rated Red, and Complex Networks saw an opportunity to provide it—even before Donald J. Trump’s election spurred widespread self-reflection among the media.

"No one has ever paid attention to them," said Schwarzchild. "No one has really gone there and asked them what they think is cool."

Schwarzchild describes Rated Red as the "first network that speaks directly to heartland America." While there are other publishers who might take issue with that statement, Rated Red’s success in its first year suggests the audience was certainly underserved.

By producing high-quality video centered on topics such as gun hacks, tech in the military, the latest zombie VR game, ice racing, motorcycle gadgets and America’s best rodeos, Rated Red has already brought in more than 500 million video views and 1.2 million Facebook followers. To put that in perspective, the network now has more Facebook followers than all but two of Complex Networks' other sites: Sneaker-enthusiast site Sole Collector, which has 1.8 million, and Complex itself, which has nearly 4 million.

"We are one of the fastest growing properties at Complex," said Schwarzschild. "To go from zero to 1.2 million followers in a year, I couldn’t have predicted that."

One key to Rated Red’s success was Schwarzschild’s decision to base the network in Nashville. By working in one of the South’s most culturally vibrant cities, Rated Red has found it easier to partner with the key micro-influencers that speak to its targeted audience. For instance, Rated Red has partnered with Jeremiah Forsyth, also known as Alabama Boss, for several reoccurring video segments. Forsyth, a self-proclaimed "high-tech redneck and comedian," saw his following grow to more than 800,000 on Vine before it shut down, and now has more than 240,000 followers on Facebook. In one video, he shows deer hunters how to plant food plots with a 12-gauge shotgun. In another, he turns bright red as a Nascar trophy girl teaches him how to do her job.Then there’s the time he went hunting for a Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino. That saw video alone has generated more than 43,700 views on YouTube.

"It’s all about authenticity and understanding what an audience cares about and wants," said Schwarzchild. "When you tap into that secret sauce, and you put it all together, how can you lose?"

Rich Antoniello, CEO of Complex Networks, believes Middle America is a large opportunity for publishers and advertisers, and that too many stay away because it’s not considered "sexy." But coastal media executives would know better if they took the time to educate themselves about the middle of the country, he says.

"I think people would be surprised that the audience is not as red as most people would think," he said. "We speak in their voice to them, but this is not like a Fox News for young people type of thing. That’s not the play at all. It’s all cultural."

That mentality is consistent with Complex Networks' mission statement, which is spelled out on its website: "Expose the true face of modern America. Armed with the internet, we defy the stale conventions of the past by shifting the world’s attention to the movements within convergence culture."

Complex announced a slew of new shows and documentaries for Rated Red at its upfront presentation on April 24. Among others, "Going Cambo" will be a drama about a 20-something survivalist in Alabama who prefers hunting in the wild to playing video games; the documentary "The Infidels" will follow a group of war veterans coping with civilian life by riding stunt bikes illegally in Arizona and "Unsigned" goes behind-the-scenes with music stars in Nashville.

"Everyone’s money is green and I think people forget that sometimes," said Antoniello.