If the name Pictoline rings a bell, it’s because you might have seen the outlet’s bright, funny graphics pop up in your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds more and more over the last two years. Identifiable for its short visual explainers — called “bacons” as a nod to the company’s pig mascot — distributed across social media platforms, the Mexico-based company has found a successful business model in sponsored content to undergird its labor-intensive art.
Pictoline was founded in 2015, when it burst into the social media scene with animations and comic-style short explainers like spot news, cartoon posters, and data-driven visual stories that quickly gained it a massive audience (their Facebook page, for instance, boasts over 2.5 million followers).
The media landscape in Latin America presents little competition: While many legacy media outlets cling to traditional business models and up-and-coming digital native players struggle to make money, Pictoline has proven not only sustainable but also profitable: In 2016, it earned around $1 million USD in revenue, one of its cofounders Gustavo Guzmán told me.
Pictoline’s popularity comes from its focus on cutting through the excess of information available online, according to cofounder and artistic head Eduardo Salles. When it came to competing for people’s time online, images turned out to be the perfect resource.
“Illustration tends to be conceived as a complement of text, as a nice add-on. For us, images are more than that: Our illustrations are the content itself,” he said. “But not all images are made equal, and Pictoline has resorted to several formats: posters, political cartoons, animations, cards, comic-style vignettes, infographics, GIFs, platform-enabled content like the carousel on Instagram.”
Salles recalled a conversation with BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith that stuck with him, about the favored mediums of outlets in the United States: “Ben told me that they jumped from text to video, and that illustrations were a middle step they just skipped.” In Latin America, with 3G connections and slower Internet speeds, images load faster than videos, Salles said; understanding that was a major factor in Pictoline’s success.
Pictoline covers a lot of topics: pop culture, how the brain works, ecology, local and international politics, art, and daily trending hashtags. They convey a combination of breaking news and time-sensitive information, together with evergreen posts. Their productions lean progressive — anti-Trump, feminist, pro-LGBT — and attract a largely millennial audience. Pictoline’s founders don’t expect it to become a media outlet, but a company that designs visual information for different purposes, like brand awareness or education.
Since Pictoline isn’t itself a reporting outfit, it relies on other news media sources for their stories. The material that feeds their posts can come from social media, news outlets from the U.S. and U.K. (Wired, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, and so forth), Spanish-language publications (El País, Animal Político), academic and scientific institutions like NASA, Harvard, or the Smithsonian, Google Trends, and also informal channels like WhatsApp groups and regular “people on the street” in Mexico City.
So far, they’re collaborating with two partners for editorial content creation: UNICEF and The New York Times. Working with New York Times en Español, Pictoline was responsible for an early 2016 animation explaining the New Hampshire primaries in the U.S. and an explainer on Super Tuesday. It produced illustrated cards for the “36 Questions That Lead to Love.”
Most recently, Pictoline and the Times collaborated on a graphic story about the crisis in Venezuela and the Times’ correspondent Nick Casey being banned from the country. Salles said that they chose the Times as a partner because they share similar commitment to fact-checking, bolstering the organization’s credibility. Pictoline works with UNICEF, Salles said, because it admires the institution’s mission of supporting children’s rights around the world, and has helped UNICEF with its “Stickers for Syria” campaign, aimed at raising money and awareness.
It’s business time
The majority of Pictoline’s revenue, however, comes from producing sponsored content. (It’s also made additional revenue through the publication of a picture album, and has plans for an educational summit next year.)
Pictoline has tested several revenue sources throughout its existence, but sponsored content has proven to be the most successful. Pictoline is able to operate like a creative agency, according to Guzmán, who is in charge of the business side of the company, as well as data and development. Pictoline offers the advertisers it works with a branded illustration, distribution of this piece of content across its well-subscribed social networks, and rights to the illustration for the advertiser to post on their own channels.
“The process usually runs really smoothly,” Raúl Pardo, a Pictoline illustrator, said. “We have developed an instinct. We are very reactive to social conversations, and we catch fast where the wind is blowing.”
The same team that produces non-sponsored content is also the one comes up with the sponsored ads; they say they don’t feel a conflict in working on editorial and branded posts at the same time. The entire team is small considering its workload: 16 people total work at Pictoline, including illustrators, editors, writers, social media strategists, developers, and salespeople. They produce at least four pieces of content each day, which add up to over 1,500 pieces since Pictoline first launched. (The tally includes editorial posts as well as paid posts.)
Pictoline first began its sponsored content efforts last April. So far, they’ve partnered with eight “founding members” to produce branded content: Samsung, Coca-Cola, Nissan, Mastercard, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, Heineken, and AT&T. Pictoline and the founding members agreed that Pictoline would produce three graphics per brand, to be posted no more than once every 15 days on its channels, so as not to “overwhelm” the audience with ads.
Pictoline has a track record of making its own editorial illustrations go viral. But it also offers its advertisers reports that show relevant data on how each branded post circulated on the Internet — not just number of shares and total reach, but also engagement and performance over time, as well as comparisons to similar posts from competitors like Playground, Vice, BuzzFeed and Cultura Colectiva.
To collect and present this data, Pictoline built its own in-house tools (as a result, the company’s developers have been working more closely with the business side than with the editorial team). One of these proprietary tools (called “Image Tracker”) links up with Facebook to show reports which advertisers can export. Pictoline has also built data curation tools to detect what’s trending online (a tool called Newsroom or Zeitgeist), as well as their own CMS called Tenderloin.
Given their accomplishments in Mexico and throughout Spanish-language Latin America, Pictoline’s plans for the future revolve around going international. After a failed attempt to move their offices to Austin, Texas (they came back to Mexico City — more affordable), they remain bullish about the possibility of conquering a U.S. audience, whether that means targeting the entire population more broadly or focusing on the Hispanic audience there. Salles said Pictoline is also interested in expanding into Portuguese-speaking Brazil, and Guzmán also mentioned Mandarin-speaking China and Hindi-speaking India — all big markets with sometimes slower internet connection, where images can be less data-consuming to share than videos.
The company is also launching an “ambassador” program to bring talent from other countries to Mexico. Through this program, they invite guest illustrators from other countries (Latin America, the U.S., Europe, and Asia) so that they can collaborate with outside talent on new ideas, and these ambassadors can learn from Pictoline’s approach in return.
“We would like to become global by the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018,” Salles said.