Interview: Aaron Levant's NTWRK Uses Shoppable Video Content To Connect With A New Generation Of Consumers
With shoppable programming dedicated to gaming, music, sports, and more, Aaron Levant hopes NTWRK can become a kind of QVC concept for Generation Z
After creating two successful events that blended the trade show concept with consumer-facing content and shopping, Agenda and ComplexCon, Aaron Levant launches NTWRK, a shoppable content app. With a programming schedule inspired by traditional television and a live shopping concept that recalls established channels like QVC and the Home Shopping Network, the content aims to reach the devoted fanbases of verticals including gaming, music, sports and media.
We spoke to CEO Aaron Levant about how NTWRK combines the shopping experience of the past with new retail strategies inspired by the mobile behavior and preferences of Millennials and Gen Z.
PSFK: Could you start out by speaking about the broader trends that you're seeing in the marketplace today, that you're leveraging in your work?
Aaron Levant:There's so much going on. I don't know how you want to define marketplace, but I'm constantly looking at everything that's happening across multiple different industries—media, retail, fashion, toys, CPG, other types of technology and innovation.
What I'm seeing is lots of fragmentations, lots of innovations, lots of entrepreneurs finding new interesting ways to do things. Other than, let's say, the media world, where you have Google and Facebook consolidating most of the control around taking information to consumers digitally. Then in e‑commerce, you have a big consolidation around Amazon. I'm seeing a lot of young and small interesting companies doing a lot of innovative things.
Other than those three examples, I see the opposite happening where instead of one organization controlling an entire marketplace, you're seeing a lot of small companies coming and fragmenting the market share and using this new Internet‑based ecosystem to do a lot of interesting things.
You mentioned the media landscape. Could you talk a bit about how you see the content landscape today and how it's changed over the last few years?
Now brands can build their own audiences, individual influencers or celebrities can build their own audiences. In many cases, I've seen lately that brands, especially strong ones, have a bigger audience than publishers.
That's one of the biggest changes—a traditional publisher in that sense doesn't have the control or the gatekeeping ability in relation to the audience like they used to.
In the past, consumers may have wanted a separation between the content and the commerce aspects or found that intrusive. How do you think that consumers' perceptions of the combination of content and commerce has changed?
It depends on which consumers you're going after. At the end of the day, everyone's selling something, or everyone's being sold to in whichever environment they're in. Unless you're in a opt‑in subscription‑based environment like Netflix. Of course, you're seeing more and more of that where affluent consumers can choose to opt out of advertising.
The consumers of, say, a company like NTWRK are a consumer who actively spends time reading about products and things that they're interested in and websites like Hypebeast that are solely focused on consumer products, whether those be fashion, or sneakers, or things that they want to buy.
They're intentionally navigating to media companies that talk to them about products they want to purchase, cultural artifacts and things that they enjoy or collect. I'm taking NTWRK into a space not just in street culture, but across all genres of pop culture. We're going after the crazy fandom‑obsessed fans who love to collect things that engage with their interests.
They're actively navigating to those things, whether they be on websites, like eBay and StockX, to find the things that they love or a more editorial‑based site in whichever pop culture genre they're interested in.
What NTWRK does is give them just a deeper engagement on some of those things that they love and are obsessed with and also allow them to buy it at the same time.
We're not necessarily trying to pull a quick one on people and pull them in with some engaging content and then spin around and try to sell them something, much to their surprise. We're very transparent about what we're doing, and the audience we're engaging with wants that.
Could you talk a little bit about what led to the founding of NTWRK and what gap you and your team noticed in the marketplace?
In the past, I've been engaged in building platforms that are all about aggregating multiple brands, media companies and personalities into these interesting platforms mostly in the physical space. I built a company called Agenda that was all about action sports, streetwear and lifestyle brands.
I built a platform called ComplexCon in the past that was all about a street‑culture focused Comic‑Con look alike. That was a fun project.
What I saw with those physical platforms is that, engaged as those fans were who actually physically showed up, there was obviously a much bigger opportunity in the digital space to throw in this aggregation platform that I've done in the physical sense in the digital world.
I also saw other things that I've done in the past that were more focused on these very specific niche markets. I saw a lot of people becoming peer players, whether that's in beauty, sports, fashion, streetwear or entertainment.
I also was obsessed with the idea of not only being an aggregator and a peer player, but then cross‑pollinating multiple subcultures of a pop culture into one platform. I saw an opportunity to create what I almost felt like was an HBO-esque platform but in the retail space.
What I mean by that is HBO is a brand that's known for creating amazing content, but underneath that HBO umbrella is a lot of diverse offerings. Someone who may watch Girls may not like Game of Thrones, but may like John Oliver, for example.
You know that all of those things have an amazing case‑level quality. I wanted to take that ideology and apply it to this QVC-meets-Comic‑Con format where different days of the week we could be attuned to vastly different consumer bases, but always known for putting out very high quality of content, products and delivering stuff in a new innovative way.
In terms of speaking to the white space, or the gap in the market, I didn't feel that anyone was doing that because everyone's become so focused on being specialists in their very focused psychographic or demographic of who they're catering to.
I like to, maybe, mix multiple categories up in a blender, but again, always be known for doing high‑quality things. I felt like that was the opportunity that I felt no one else was doing.
Then in general, this idea of these video commerce companies that are largely based in linear broadcast television, QVC, HSN, EVINE. Over the years, I've seen multiple companies talk like they were going to be MTV meets QVC.
It was, maybe, over 10 years ago this advertising company called Drill the Five had tried to launch something called Honey Shed that I thought was interesting but probably too early.
An e‑commerce company called Karmaloop tried to launch a cable channel a few years back called KarmaloopTV that didn't work out. There's been multiple people itching at this idea of a millennial, GenZ-driven video commerce company. Many have failed.
There's an interesting time where we're at right now with mobile technology—this was the right time to launch this platform.
I'd seen an interesting TED Talk many years ago. I'm forgetting the name of the speaker of this talk, but he launched a product just like YouTube. It was a little too early because it was before there was massive broadband adoption in U.S. households.
YouTube came out, maybe, three years after him with almost the identical product. It worked because it was about timing. Timing had a lot to do with this opportunity as much as the concept.
Why do you think the time is right now? How will you succeed where, maybe, other players in the past have not?
Where we're at with mobile technology adoption in the U.S. and the way that people are consuming content via mobile, because our company is mobile‑only for right now, and the delivery mechanisms of being able to have livestreaming video content that is actually adaptable to a broad audience and having native integrated commerce—those things are fairly new concepts that are actually workable to a massive audience at this point in time.
From a pure technology standpoint, with the way we want to distribute this platform, the timing is right. With a mass interest in consuming limited products that are driven by some of your favorite personalities, influencers and celebrities, the temperature was right.
You mentioned you envision NTWRK as HBO, whereas a consumer who's tuning in to watch Girls may not be interested in, say, Game of Thrones. How do you anticipate NTWRK tapping into these different pop culture fandoms and creating connections with these products and brands?
At scale, our goal is to build almost a traditional, linear television programming schedule, where we're known for, let's say, Friday nights could be about sports. Wednesdays could be about beauty. Tuesdays could be about gaming. Mondays could be about comic book and mainstream entertainment, and one night could be about sneakers.
We get these core fan bases. We're doing one premium opportunity for them every week or every other week. We're not necessarily pulling on them on a daily basis for just beauty, just sneakers, or just sports, where maybe a pure player in any one of those categories is constantly pulling on the same audience for the same thing.
Instead of opting to do one vertical and constantly beating that drum and aggregating anything that falls in that vertical, we'll opt in to do only the most premium opportunities for whichever set vertical on a less‑iterative base.
That speaks to a way we hope to build an audience that engaged with us over a longer period of time. Le's say, if you're into beauty, or you're into sneakers, instead of pulling on you every day, we may be pulling on you every week or every other week.
When we do try to pull you into our platform, you know the opportunity we're offering is, hopefully, amazing, very well‑curated, and very premium. Consumers will like that experience. We're not trying to message them, text‑notification them, email them, and acquire them as a customer every single day. That can wear thin on people.
A company, like Netflix does a good job using segmentation, targeting and data. To pull on me, they know I like comedy specials and documentaries. They only come to me when they have those things, rather than pull on me every day when they have something new, which I'm sure they have quite a lot of new stuff on a daily basis.
We hope to use the same level of intuitive data segmentation and targeting to pull on our customers to come into our world only when we have something meaningful for them.
How will NTWRK balance the content and commerce aspects? For example, will someone still want to tune in to watch the content even if they're not interested in buying the products?
Absolutely. Our number one challenge and goal as a company is to make sure that the things we're putting onscreen are interesting, regardless if you want to buy. At scale, the vast majority of people, and even in the early beta phases, where we're at right now, the vast majority of people are watching and not buying.
Some early metrics for you would be that we have an average watch time of over seven minutes per unique viewer, which I think is a rather long period of time compared to some Internet stats that are out there.
Somewhere between 15 and 20% of those people are converting into a purchase at this stage, which is an extremely high amount, well above our wildest expectations. I'm sure over time that will go down a little bit. Let's say over 80% of the audience is there just to watch.
When we had influencer and celebrity jeweler, Ben Baller, come on a couple weeks ago to drop a pair of his sandals, and Michael Rapaport, the actor and sports commentator, came on with him. He had nothing to do with the product. He was just there to have an interesting conversation with Ben about L.A. versus New York sports, culture, and hip‑hop. They were riffing and arguing their points and talking about their love or hate of LeBron James coming to L.A.
Out of a 50‑minute show, I would say about 12‑minutes was just them bantering about their interests and having a hilarious conversation. About 3‑minutes was actually talking about the product and selling stuff.
Our goal on a daily basis is to do that. A big part of our ideology is how do we pair interesting counterculture figures together. On our very first debut episode, we had DJ Khaled with Adult Swim's late‑night talk show host, Eric Andre.
If you've seen his show, which is quite a ridiculous, crazy show, but we paired them together. In no other world or environment would you see those two gentlemen together.
This week or next week we have Charlamagne from the Breakfast Club in New York and his new show on Showtime paired with JZA and Ghostface from Wu‑Tang Clan talking about the 25th anniversary of their album.
This week we have rapper, Mozzy, and entrepreneurial mouthpiece, Gary Vaynerchuk, coming on. Gary's dropping a case with sneaker, but I imagine the majority of the thing will be Gary doing his well‑known banter around entrepreneurialism, hustle, and love of hip‑hop.
I'm sure the sneaker will work its way in there, but I think it's a little less in‑your‑face about buying the product. It's more about these interesting conversations. I hope at scale we're doing really cool, truly Charlie Rose‑esque discussions with very interesting figures in culture, and usually from opposing disciplines.
Could you talk a little bit more about the formats that the shows will be in?
We're launching two shows in the first year. We'll call it like these are our original series that happened and we're replicating. The first show's NTWRK Live, which is the show we've started with that is the only show that's aired so far.
That show's a little bit more of our direct, almost QVC-esque format, where a well‑known celebrity comes to sell a product that is directly related to them or that they have some kind of connection to, whether it's an endorsement or they're hosting an episode.
Still, even though I compare it to a video commerce format like QVC, or HSN, or Evine, where a celebrity is going to sell something. Again, the majority of the time is spent talking about other things, also taking questions from the audience, taking questions from a host, and engaging in an interesting conversation. Then there is a proof of sale.
The second show we're launching is more like a late‑night talk show format, which I would look at that time‑tested like Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon format. Where you've got a well‑known celebrity comedian who's a permanent host fixture and different personalities who are coming out with new content and projects, whether that's movies, television shows, books, albums.
Video games are coming on on a nightly basis while they're in content of promotional cycle to promote those new content series, projects, and sometimes charities. They're doing an interview with our host.
Sometimes, they're playing songs of their new album, having some funny dancer. At the end of those transactions or those interviews as you've seen on those other show format, they usually hold up their book for the author. They say, “Go to Barnes & Noble or go to Amazon and buy their book.” Then they cut to a commercial and monetize.
Our show would be similar. Except instead of sending them somewhere else to purchase those goods or engage in that content, we would actually deliver you an in‑app purchase to be able to buy a sneaker from that musician, a book from that author, a toy in relation to that new movie or content franchise.
That does play in the late‑night talk show format. Then additionally, we'll start to launch some cause‑based stuff throughout the year. We're aligning with different brands and organizations around different causes and charities and branch out throughout different initiatives on those times, which do these meaningful topic events.
Digitally, we're able to raise money for different causes and charities and work with different celebrities around causes and charities that they're passionate about. That's some fun stuff that we're doing and also get to do some good for the world and raise some money for different organizations.
Then also, like our live broadcast, we're helping digital audiences hack into exclusive physical events. It lets us partner with different designers to broadcast exclusive fashion shows and make them shoppable. Helping digital audiences watch exclusive music showcases and be able to get the exclusive merchandise for those times and moments like that. Those are the things you can expect from NTWRK over the next year.
Would there be any in‑person activations and events eventually?
Yeah, the three pillars. We call ourselves a new pop culture‑focused content commerce and experience company. Where that experience silo comes in is around these events that we want to create that are either 30, 60, or 90 days in duration.
They're not quite the type of events I used to do in my previous work, create these [conventions] that were coming to a city and last for two to four days. These are temperate theme parks or pop‑up museums that last not quite as long as Disneyland but longer than ComplexCon.
They have a little bit more breathing room. We want to create these experiences based around intellectual property and entertainment IP. That could be us partnering with major movie studios, record labels, anyone who has some rich history and intellectual property to build that immersive fan experience that's highly Instagrammable and shareable. It has an “exit through the gift shop” moment, and ties in with something we're going to be launching on our digital platform.
Even if a hundred thousand consumers in L.A., New York and Miami get to come see our experience, that's great. That's a lot of consumers. We're totally excited to engage with those consumers. We still have millions of people online who see these things happening on social through earned media and user‑generated content and want to engage with this experience and the products that are being dropped there.
That's what NTWRK's moment comes in to be able to help that consumer in Brazil, or Paris, or Minnesota who couldn't make it out to these things physically. We can help them access that.
That's a lot of them thinking behind this business and the experiential wings and how to create excitement using experiential to engage with digital audiences, which is the bigger opportunity for us.
Could you give us more information on the NTWRK launch and how it went?
We launched on 10/10. We've gone live already with three episodes. October 10th was our first episode. That was the first one we did with DJ Khaled. Eric Andre was the cohost.
Our first product was a Beats by Dre headphones designed by the artists, RETNA and DJ Khaled. We did a second episode with celebrity jeweler, Ben Baller, hosted by, like I said, actor. Michael Rapaport.
We did a third episode two Fridays ago with actor, Jonah Hill, in celebration of his new movie, “Mid90s,” with A24. It's the studio putting out that movie. We dropped an exclusive Champion Mid90s sweatshirt that you can only buy in NTWRK.
Today, we have Travis Barker coming on and doing something with Newline Cinema with an exclusive caps collection with “Freddy vs. Jason” in celebration of Halloween.
Then tomorrow, we have Gary V or Gary Vaynerchuk coming on and dropping an exclusive K‑Swiss sneaker. NTWRK is the only place you can buy it online and the very first place you can buy it. Then rapper, Mozzy, is going to guest host with him.
Next week, we have GZA and Ghostface Killah from Wu‑Tang Clan coming on in celebration of the 25 years since their first album. Clarks Shoes has done an exclusive shoe for us and also some exclusive merchandise around that. Then Charlamagne the God is interviewing them.
Those are some of the things we're working on. Probably the last thing I'll mention is, the following week we have e‑sports team, FaZe Clan, is coming on, doing some exclusive product drops with us.
I believe after that, we're doing a culinary drop of a cultural phenomenon hot sauce company called TRUFF. The Food God, Jonathan [Cheban], is coming on and hosting that, if you're familiar with him.
Wow, that's an amazing lineup so far. Did you have consumers who are tuning in for seven minutes, which considering today's attention spans is a super long time. Do you have any sense of how the consumer response has been so far?
That's been a pretty good indicator of response. The metrics they have and the data, which is the watch time, the engagement. How many people are coming back and buying across multiple episodes or how many people are purchasing versus viewership?
The comments we're getting at social media, viewer response is starting to shift towards products. We're getting a lot of cool unboxing videos and people sharing that experience. That's a good indicator that people like what we're doing.
So far, the feedback has been amazing. People like this new interesting format. I would encourage you to go check it out. We capture your payment and shipping information before you watch. Therefore, when you're watching, if you decide to purchase, there's no swipe up and click away into another environment.
It's all happening seamlessly. There's no disruption between the content and the commerce. That's truly our unique technology value proposition at this point. So far, we're enthused.
Of course, we're always looking to iterate, improve, get better, make the content more engaging and make the retail more seamless. It's always a learning process.
Is there anything that you wanted to tell us about NTWRK?
Right now, I guess the only thing I would say is it's iOS only in the first few months. Then we'll be rolling out an Android version later on. There's a couple people bummed at us because we're not Android from day one. We wanted to get iOS right. Hopefully, your Apple products users can check us out. Coming to Android soon.
Aaron Levant's NTWRK app is building on the established retail experience to create a new, mobile-first shopping journey unlike anything else. For more ideas from similar inspiring brands, see PSFK's reports or newsletters.