Monthly Archives: July 2012

Growing a book

A lot of CEOs have this idea that they want to publish a book. And that can be OK. But there are some problems with books. For one, as an economic model, they make Soviet five-year plans look good.

A book takes a huge investment of time and effort over a year or two at least. During that time, only a few people around the author and book publisher read the book. Then, all of the sudden, this big body of work is wrapped in a cover and tossed out to the public, usually with minimal marketing. Then everyone hopes the book catches on. It can be a little like fishing by rowing out to the middle of the lake and hoping a big one jumps into your boat.

A better approach to books might come from some thinking we’ve been doing around branded journalism.

The advice goes something like this: Don’t think of a book as a stand-alone product. Think of it as an end product — the final packaging of a lot of work that’s made its way out to the public over a couple of years.

This can be especially effective for a big-idea or high-concept book. It might not work as well for a book that’s more of a narrative story, like a biography or history. The basic concept is to expose the research and thinking all along the way, getting the public involved and winning followers. It’s growing a book rather than just delivering one.

One example of how that can work goes back to The Long Tail. In 2004, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, wrote a story about the Long Tail concept for his magazine. The article generated enormous buzz. Anderson then created a Long Tail blog to tease out more Long Tail ideas and get conversations going with readers. Along the way, Anderson gave talks about the Long Tail at conferences and colleges.

As Anderson wrote and conversed and researched, he collected all of that and started building a book. That book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, came out in 2006. By that point, The Long Tail was a brand, and the book was just one important expression of it.

It also became less important to Anderson that the book itself make a ton of money. Profits from the book would be a bonus, but the whole brand was more important — the brand could drive revenue through speeches, ads on the blog, ads in Wired, and so on.


This is where book publishers have a problem. They only have a stake in the book. Book publishers might do better if they got out of the business of “books” and into the business of “ideas” — or maybe something you might call “branded concepts,” like The Long Tail or The Innovator’s Dilemma or The Tipping Point.

A publisher could contract with an author for a two- or three-year journey that would spin out web content, speeches, TV appearances, tweets, and finally a book — all managed as a whole, with revenue coming from multiple sources along the way. It would be something of a Live Nation approach to book publishing.

I don’t know of book publishers thinking that way. That’s an opportunity for companies to do exactly that in the realm of branded journalism.

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For writers: try acting

By my good friend Andrea Chalupa — some interesting advice for writers of all kinds, even those writing for business: Take an acting course.

Nike and its anti-olympics content

As the Olympics start, Adidas is a sponsor and Nike is not. So Nike is fighting back with a form of content, and that content is us.

Nike has been working at this for a while — using the Internet and Nike-based technology to let everyday athletes upload their data onto a Nike-funded web site to “compete” against similar athletes all over the world. For the Olympics, Nike seems to be using this approach to position itself as the sports company for all of us…while Adidas is the sports company for the elite few. Short films are going to hammer that point home.

It’s not exactly journalism — it’s more like defining an owned-content platform that athletes can use. An interesting way to counter the exposure Adidas will get these next few weeks. And it probably won’t cost Nike the $156 million Adidas would’ve paid to be a sponsor.


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The Two VC Blogs That Work

Silicon Valley’s venture capital firms, as The New York Times points out, have discovered that they need to market themselves. But, as with lawyers, VCs can’t really advertise without coming off like sleazeballs. Many have worked with PR agencies — Kleiner Perkins started retaining OutCast Agency years ago. But the effect of courting the press has its limits in an era of dying publications and constant layoffs of journalists.

So what we’re seeing now is a surge in VC blogging. And in that realm, the strategy that seems to work best fits with the idea of branded content — that is, create content of value that’s not overtly trying to market the firm.

Two VCs in particular have managed to create blogs that people in the tech industry actually seek out and want to read. (Many of the VC blogs do not, at this point, fall into that category.)

One is Ben Horowitz, who cofounded Andreessen Horowitz with tech superstar Marc Andreessen. The other: Fred Wilson, a principal of Union Square Ventures in New York.

Horowitz over the years has made a name for himself as a first-rate coach of young CEOs, and he uses his blog to address just those kinds of people — CEOs and people who want to be CEOs. His blog, called ben’s blog, is a stand-alone entity. It was created on its own, not as part of the Andreessen Horowitz web site — but it is linked to from the firm’s site.


Horowitz is a good writer, and he writes the blog himself — and it shows. The blog feels authentic, and those who know Horowitz know it’s how he thinks and talks. The blog is a lot like a good magazine column — philosophical and helpful. The blog has been a huge boost to Horowitz’s image, and helps convince entrepreneurs to seek investments from Andreessen Horowitz.

On the other coast, Fred Wilson has been writing his blog, A VC, for a long, long time. His was the first VC blog I knew about or read, and I’d say that his blogging reputation preceded both his investing reputation and any kind of brand recognition for Union Square Ventures.


His blog is a mix of his views on all things tech and tech news that he puts in context, with occasional guest posts and other items. As with Horowitz, Wilson writes his blog and it’s very much his personality. The blog stands on its own, but the Union Square site links to it and features it. In fact, the Union Square home page has become a front page for blog posts by the various partners.

The Horowitz and Wilson blogs work because they are authentic, well-written, thoughtful and, above all, useful. And they’ve created brands for the authors and their firms in ways PR never could.

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Hey, Universities: Online Courses are Branded Content!

The New York Times today published the sixteen-zillionth story about free online courses that universities are shoveling onto the web. Almost all of those stories treat the online courses as if they are — or will soon be — a low-priced web-based version of attending college classes. And that’s dead wrong.

The online courses are branded content. And if universities thought of it that way, they’d be smarter about the race to put stuff online.


Here’s the big, gigantic elephant in the online courses room: You can’t take, say, MIT’s online courses and get an MIT degree. The same applies to all these traditional universities, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. If it did, and people could get a respected degree over the web for a few thousand dollars rather than going to a college for $100,000, we’d have an Innovator’s Dilemma moment in education — the cheap newcomers would disembowel the traditional players.

Which is exactly why it won’t happen soon. The established universities control the Higher Learning Commission, which would have to accredit online universities. (More detail about this tension here.)

So if the online courses aren’t really courses, what are they? They are content — a way for universities to give something of value to a larger audience and build respect for their brands. The content can boost a university’s current brand by luring real, paying students, and it can lay groundwork for a future brand in online education. But it is brand-building content, not college courses.

If universities think of it as content, they might package this stuff with a little more pizzaz, and more carefully curate what they put out there. Lectures by a boring professor sitting on the web for all to see is brand damaging. So is a lecture filmed in a hall that has 600 students jammed in. Until it becomes possible to skip college and build a great career on a web-based degree, universities should put some marketing folks in charge of their branded content.

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I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s magnificent, epic biography of George Washington. While finishing the part about the adoption of the Constitution, I realized that The Federalist Papers were a brilliant execution of branded journalism.


Branded Journalism, 1787 Style

Tourneau Minutes: Making of a Franchise?

Leading up to this summer, my colleagues at VSA and I did a fun project for Tourneau, the high-end watch retailer. We created a print and web magazine out of thin air, called Tourneau Minutes.

I ended up wishing it could’ve gone a step further, because I worry we missed an opportunity for Tourneau (and us) to create a branded-journalism franchise.

Tourneau’s idea was to put out something better than a catalog — something people would want to read and look at and pass around even if they weren’t in the market right then to buy a watch.   Since it sits in the middle of the industry, selling all the top watches, Tourneau is — in a kind of hilariously ironic way — the Switzerland of watches. So it could credibly sponsor a watch magazine.

In my mind, the right approach would be to create a Cigar Aficionado of watches — Watch Aficionado, if you will. Cigar Aficionado is a lifestyle magazine — it’s not so much about cigars as about the kinds of people who smoke high-end cigars and the lives they lead. It actually makes cigars aspirational (in a marketing, not pulmonary, context).

So the idea was for Tourneau to make a magazine that was similarly about the kinds of people who wear high-end watches and the lives they lead. The more the publication was like that and the less it bore the marks of marketing…the better the chance that the public would embrace the magazine. If Tourneau could help widen the interest in high-end watches beyond the usual suspects, some of them would come to Tourneau to buy. That would make the investment net positive.

If done well, and maintained over enough time to prove itself, such a magazine could become self-sustaining. As Rapha has shown with its magazine, a sponsored publication can actually become impactful enough to lure advertisers who might even be competitors — a sign of a truly successful branded-journalism product in a satisfying in-your-face way.

This first issue, out this summer, is a lovely design, has some beautiful images, and some good writing. (OK, I wrote one piece, too — about time and baseball.) But it didn’t quite reach the level of great branded journalism. First tries rarely do.

Tourneau is taking the next Minutes magazine in-house. I hope they invest in real branded journalism and don’t slide back toward catalog. We’ll watch and see.

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Rapha and Passionate Branded Content

If the Tour de France is leaving you hungry to see crazy cyclists pumping up unforgiving terrain and crashing in ways that leave most of their skin on the pavement, you might want to check out the web site of cycling apparel company Rapha.

Rapha is a testament to creating great content to connect to a small but passionate audience. Rapha’s content is not chasing after page views or “likes.” It’s not even there to pitch Rapha’s clothing line. It’s there to inform, entertain and thrill die-hard cyclists. Just take a look at the collection of short films Rapha commissioned — certainly at no small expense.


Die-hard cyclists have responded by embracing Rapha as one of their own — and buying Rapha’s clothing.

Rapha was founded in 2003 by a couple of cycling fanatics, Simon Mottram and Luke Scheybeler, who still run the company and lead product design. Interestingly, one of the company’s key members — listed on the company fact sheet right below Mottram and Scheybeler — is a veteran cycling journalist, Guy Andrews. He now runs a magazine Rapha created, Rouleur. Notice that nothing on the web site’s front page says Rapha. Nothing! The way it identifies itself is, “The world’s finest cycling racing reportage.”

Passion, dedication and authenticity are keys to branded content. They’ll build an audience, and the audience will buy because they love you.

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Off the Twitter Cliff

This is pretty brilliant. You want a reason brands better do something beyond social media marketing — look at the “audience” my brother Scott, a partner at Breakaway Ventures, bought for $91.

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The Opening for Branded Content

This is from a deck we’ve been using at VSA to talk about branded journalism.

“Branded journalism” is fast becoming a vital, exciting way to build and activate brands.

— Effective owned content has to be GREAT content — credible, useful and/or delightful, absent of corporate-speak or marketing-speak.

— It has to be good enough so people want to own it, talk about it, share it.

The opening for brands right now

— Business publications keep cutting back. With fewer outlets, fewer print pages, and smaller staffs, the focus is increasingly on news, not trends, visions and big ideas. Credible, thoughtful content is waning.

— C-level executives, customers, business people and consumers want trusted resources that rise above the noise. They used to rely on mainstream media. Now there’s a gap waiting to be filled. (A recent Edelman Trust Index found a “flight to credentialed spokespeople.” CEOs are trusted by 50% in 2011, up from 31% in 2009.)

— Great writers and editors are available. Experienced reporters, columnists and editors are gone (or have fled) from the major publications — but they’re still around, and many are available to create great content.




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