In the next in our series exploring how online publications around the world work, Accent chatted with Frederik Frede—the founder of Freunde von Freunden, a Berlin-based magazine well known for its interviews with creative professionals.
Frederik shares how his design background supported him in developing the publication, how to create attractive and original advertising, and the way video production promotes commercial success of the business.
Though it’s now a top destination for learning about creative professionals around the world, Freunde von Freunden had humble beginnings. Established in 2009 as a design project of MoreSleep studio, the first stories were just interviews of local friends and family of the team (the publication was founded by Frederik Frede, Timmi Seifert, and Torsten Bergler). But people loved it, and by 2011 the publication had gained enough traction to be highlighting interesting creatives all over the world. Now, in addition to the popular online magazine, the team has opened FvF Productions, which works on stunning videos and special projects for brands like MINI, Sony, Siemens, Vitra, Airbnb, and Nike.
The FvF editorial team is comprised of 10-15 people, including German and British reporters, photo editors, video experts, a project manager, and sales and marketing experts. We also collaborate with dozens of freelance writers and photographers, and spend a lot of time creating detailed briefs so everyone is on the same page and understands the quality we’re expecting. We worked really hard to perfect these processes, which was rather tricky given that I have a background in design and not publishing.
We publish several different story formats, which each have a different process. There are short posts for the Journal section, which take almost no time to create, all the way to in-depth interviews and interactive stories packed with video, pictures, and playlists. These take a lot more planning and can require several months to complete.
The team stays in touch using Slack, works on articles in Google Docs, has to-do lists and a publishing plan in Google Sheets, and shares files and information via Dropbox. The site is powered by WordPress. We’ve tried Basecamp in the past, but found it wasn’t particularly useful for us. When we do need project management—especially for projects for our design studio, MoreSleep—we’ll use Trello to make the division of labor and the process transparent.
Almost 70% of the articles on the website are made in partnership with our sponsors. Some of my favorites have been our collaborations with Siemens, OTHR, and Vitra. We create custom ideas for each client that combines our content and design expertise with the client’s goal, ultimately helping them connect with the creative audience that comes to FvF.
We do our best to make these pieces authentic and useful, which may sound obvious but it’s pretty challenging. You have to find the approach that incorporates the sponsor in a natural and transparent way in order to be successful. Irrelevant advertising content won’t work because readers spot that insincerity immediately. We strive to always be true to our brand, so turn down any projects that don’t seem like a fit—and clients are attracted by our authentic approach and the way we communicate with our readers.
It’s important to get good at saying “no.” Accepting every sponsorship that is offered will hurt your reputation. Luckily, I don’t have any dreadful stories of failed sponsored projects, and from my experience, communication, transparency, and equal expectations on both sides are the main reason for our success. We are passionate about our work, and we never compromise.
As I mentioned, I have a design background, so when FvF launched we really focused on design. The main source of inspiration for us was Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, which featured Andy’s friends and peers. That’s why we started by talking about our artistic friends. We were also inspired by “The Big Picture” section of The Boston Globe. Besides telling amazing stories, it was one of the first websites with infinite scrolling. Facebook’s newsfeed was interesting to us for similar reasons—when we started up, websites and blogs with infinite vertical scrolling were a completely new experience.
Being a designer, I’m still unable to give constructive feedback on the content itself—I can only say whether I like a story or not. But I strongly believe that an interesting story is the core of our product. So, to make sure the articles were as good as the design, we hired talented reporters who cared about quality writing and telling stories that mattered.
FvF Productions is our creative agency most well known for our video production work for large, corporate clients (like our long-term collaboration with MINI Germany). We knew we wanted to make video content from the start, but found it was a bit too complex initially since we would need more people, better skills, and more investment to succeed. After several years we had the money to start doing just that, hiring two producers, one film editor, and numerous freelancers. Now video content is our biggest revenue stream.
One of our projects I’m most proud of is a promotional video I directed for Sony Music. It sticks out because our team got to travel to New York. Producing in the city was a complex process, especially because we were arranging things remotely from Berlin. We had to collaborate with friends and companies who were more familiar with the area and hire a bunch of local people to help us out: a production assistant, an operator, and makeup artist, a stylist. All in all, we had about 20 people to coordinate with including the client’s representatives (and the client being there just increased the pressure). We had to get special permission to shoot in the streets of New York because of the busy traffic. The whole process took about a month, with two weeks of prep, 2-3 days of shooting, and a couple weeks of editing. While it was a lot of work, the final product turned out really well, so it was worth it.
Attracting an Audience
When sharing our content, we think through all the distribution channels and look for ways to combine approaches for the best result. It’s important to us to tailor the content to each social network, figuring out the right way to tell stories on each medium. Doing so has led to a lot of natural growth in our community—we’ve never had to buy subscribers or pay for ads. But we also have to be careful not to overwhelm ourselves. Social media takes a lot of time and our team can only handle so much at once. So, for example, even though there’s a lot of potential in Snapchat, we decided to stop using it so we could focus our efforts on other social media channels.
To measure traffic, we use Facebook’s analytics tools and Google Analytics. That said, we’re not just focused on getting as many likes and clicks as possible at any cost. The key to us is publishing good stories that resonate with people, so we focus on the quality of our readership over the quantity. We want our readers to spend more time on our website, not just click and then leave instantly, so we look at metrics like time on site. (On average, the visitors spend about 4 minutes reading our content.)
We think good quality content will help the brands we work with achieve their goals of gaining access to our audience, increasing awareness, and improving their reputation, so we never chase clicks or KPIs at the expense of quality.
The Future of FvF
We plan to launch a print magazine and we opened a new space in Kreuzberg for more events. We’re also hoping to open spaces in other cities in Europe.
In terms of digital strategy, I love following all the new innovations, but haven’t seen anything recently that I think is valuable to FvF. For example, VR and similar technologies that bring people around the world together are exciting, but I don’t think it will help us better share the lives of creative people.
The key to us is publishing good stories that resonate with people, so we focus on the quality of our readership over the quantity
Frederik Frede, FvF founder