Tag Archives: branded content

A Proposal for Transparency

While sitting at a panel discussion about branded content at New York University recently, it occurred to me that all brands that create content should do one particular thing on their web sites: post a statement about their content philosophy.

The panel and the audience talked a lot about issues like trust and authenticity. Some practices in branded content — like placing stories that look like journalism but are really marketing — are threatening trust in any kind of content. If the public can’t tell journalism from marketing, they’ll wonder if anything they’re reading is true. Regulators are looking at this issue, too — but the real danger for brands is less from regulators than from public attitudes. 

The panel was a living representation of why the public is having a hard time knowing which content is coming at them with what purpose. It featured a top communication executive from Prudential, at top communications executive from Verizon Wireless, and a New York Times reporter. All of them play a role in producing content, and you might find any of that content in a Google search or a Buzzfeed list.

Each of the panelists detailed his or her approach to content, and all were different. The Times tries to produce impartial, objective content. Prudential creates content aimed at helping people and professionals understand financial choices, and while it’s not really pushing Prudential products, the content comes from a Prudential point of view. Verizon Wireless creates content aimed at stimulating the wireless market and the use of mobile stuff. 

Other companies have different ideas. I do some writing for Cisco’s site The Network, and a lot of other veteran journalists do, too. The Network tries to produce impartial, objective content about technology, and generally asks its writers to avoid writing about Cisco. 

So, really, how is a reader to know what’s going on with any piece of content? One way would be to tell them. Be transparent. 

All of these companies producing content should take the time to think through what they’re trying to do and why they’re doing it — a philosophy. They should write it down as simply as possible — no more than a few sentences. Post it on the home site, and make sure every story produced contains a link back to that posting so that if a reader encounters the content on Buzzfeed, there’s a way to click and find out who produced the content and why. 

Companies that are trying to fool people into thinking that marketing is objective content won’t like that idea. It gives them away. But companies like Verizon Wireless, Prudential and Cisco should like the idea because it helps build trust. It’s OK to have a point of view or a purpose to your content — as long as the audience knows what it is. That’s authenticity. And people appreciate it.

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The Difference Between Journalism and Advertising

There’s a ton of confusion these days about the line between advertising and journalism. In fact, a lot of players on both sides of that equation seem to be doing everything they can to confuse the difference. Earlier this month, the managing editor of Gawker Media, Tom Scocca, let loose a hilarious fit of truth-telling. He wrote on Gawker:

“The ad that doesn’t feel like an ad — this is the grail right now, for everyone, Gawker Media very much included. So we get the occasional humiliating advertorial post, with straight-up garbage dressed to resemble actual content, through which the advertiser (or the publication) tells the reader, ‘We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste.’”

But actually, I think there is a clear distinction between advertising and journalism — at least in the broad definition of journalism as anything you’d find in newspapers and magazines from The New York Times to Vogue. My version goes like this:

— Advertising is something a company wants to say, regardless of whether it’s useful, informative or relevant to the audience.

— Journalism is useful, informative and relevant to the audience, regardless of whether it’s something a company wants to say.

By definition then, advertising is usually content a company has to push at the audience — often by paying for placement. Journalism is content that people seek out and pull to them.

But there’s an interesting twist to this these days, thanks to the democratization of media in the digital age.

Just a generation ago, journalism almost always meant content generated by journalists, who were deputized by the mainstream media. The idea that companies could create journalism was laughable. Or, if journalists created stuff for companies, they would be shunned by their peers. When I was younger, if a journalist moved into PR even for a second, the journalistic code dictated that he or she could never return.

In the digital media age, that’s changed. It’s become possible for companies to generate journalism, and for the audience to accept it. A number of times in this blog, I’ve highlighted Rapha’s Rouleur biking magazine as a prime example of this. I’ve also noted Kaspersky’s ThreatPost blog.

Those are successful journalistic endeavors because the companies behind them understand the difference between journalism and advertising. They are creating content that is useful, informative, and relevant to their audiences, regardless of what the companies want to say.

And here’s the interesting double-twist: When companies let go and actually create good journalism, the audience appreciates it. The good journalism can do more to build goodwill for the brand than advertising that masquerades as pseudo-journalism.

See, Gawker’s Scocca was right about the audience. Most people are smart enough to know the difference between journalism and advertising. And when companies try to fool the people, the people either ignore the companies, or feel insulted because the company is saying, “We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste.”

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Contently: New Way for Journalists and Brands to Find Each Other

One of the most interesting things about the new web service Contently, which launched today, is the introductory statement on the site: “Contently powers content creation for cutting-edge brands and forward-thinking media companies.”

Just a year ago, no site like this would’ve included the words “cutting-edge brands” as part of the equation.

Contently is a site where freelance journalists can, essentially, hawk their wares. They can create a profile and aggregate their work, and even use the site to take payments through PayPal. Presumably, if the site draws in enough journalists, entities in need of good writing will come to the site to find a good writer.

In the past, the gigs freelance journalists were looking for involved newspapers, magazines, news web sites, and the occasional gray-area publication like an airline magazine. And when corporate brands went looking for writers, they generally didn’t look for journalists — because the brands weren’t creating content that was journalistic. Brands pumped out marketing — a kind of writing that acts like kryptonite on most journalists.

All that’s changing. Journalists and brands are meeting in the middle, to benefit both. Brands are finding that journalistic content works — as has been described in a number of posts on this blog. And journalists are finding that they can cut deals with brands to do credible, authentic work that’s not anything like marketing messaging.

As Contently founder Shane Snow told Columbia Journalism Review: “We thought if we could connect good professionals who are now out of work with publishers who care about professional quality work, not SEO, content-farm stuff, then we could create a business out of that.”

If Contently can create that marketplace, it could give a lift to branded journalism.

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OMG! Branded Content Lessons From Nine West!

A show called “You’ve Been Prom’d” with Kelly Cutrone is not exactly my cup of saki. (A total makeover for the MOST IMPORTANT NIGHT OF MY LIFE!? OMG! And by KELLY from THE HILLS!? OMFG!)

Anyway. That’s not the point.

The point actually is: Nine West is doing some interesting stuff in branded content here. A New York Times story today details the brand’s plans for an online video channel called, appropriately enough, Channel Nine. It will feature a handful of shows that look and feel a whole lot like the typical TV reality show. One is Cutrone’s “You’ve Been Prom’d.” Another features “Megan & Liz, twin sisters from Nashville” who “share their best shoe tips and tricks.” It will also have bloggers with names like Saucy Glossie. (Is that a Muppet?)

The full channel isn’t up yet, but from the previews, this looks like it’s going to be real content, not marketing drivel. The site itself is, to the company’s credit, barely branded by Nine West — only at the bottom does it say “Powered by Nine West.” The shows are about fashion and shoes, not about Nine West shoes — though Nine West shows up as product placement. (No doubt there will never be a shoe on Channel Nine that’s not from Nine West.)

The company is saying all the right things about branded content. To quote the Times, quoting Richard Dickson, president and chief executive of the Jones Group’s Branded Businesses:

The video channel “will be a way for us to bring original content and entertainment to viewers” and build an online community around Nine West, said Mr. Dickson, who also oversees other Jones Group brands, including Stuart Weitzman. “We want to rewrite the rules of fashion marketing so it’s not just about a shoe, it’s about a conversation.”

Generally speaking, fashion brands understand branded content as well as any industry. Though the content itself might not exactly change the world, every brand could learn from the kinds of things Nine West is trying.

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Two Rules for Branded Content, Violated By Many

If a brand is going to spend a lot of energy and money on content, it really ought to consider a couple of things:

  1. make sure the content is something the world, or some specific segment of the world, will really appreciate and think is special;
  2. create content that leverages what the brand knows or does.

This week I learned about a branded journalism site operated by chip maker Intel, called Intel Free Press. I heard that it’s a tech news site, and I got a little excited. I’ve known a lot of the Intel communications team for a very long time, and they tend to be thoughtful and insightful people geared toward the long term. A lot of tech news on the web has become quick-hit stories, how-tos, and shallow analysis. I had hopes that Intel might’ve funded something different — maybe a site of really interesting, longer-form stories exploring new ideas or issues in technology.

Instead I found a site of…more of the same. I’m not saying that Intel Free Press is bad. It’s got some good stuff. But it’s not different. It does what most other tech news sites do. And given that other tech news sites are in the tech news business and Intel is in the chip business, it’s a good bet that other tech news sites do it better than Intel.

A sure sign that Intel is not doing anything special is that I — a big consumer of tech news — just now realized Intel Free Press existed. It launched in the fall of 2010.

As for point No. 2 above, Intel makes the microprocessors that drive most of the planet’s PCs, laptops and servers. It has a huge R&D lab. Intel inherently knows a lot of inside stuff no web news editor will ever know. I wish Intel Free Press would tap into that and tell me things no one else can.

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(When the site launched, the editors did an interview with blogger Tom Foremski. They told Tom: “Our goal isn’t to compete with other news sites, we aren’t going to do a deep dive into the technology or benchmarking our chips. It’s about telling stories that haven’t been told yet. For example, a story on our VP of Investor Relations.” Hm. It’s one thing to tell a story that hasn’t been told, and another tell a story that really doesn’t need to be told.)

I don’t mean to hammer on Intel Free Press — it’s just a handy example of what a lot of brands are doing in content. Many seem to want to create web sites or publications that are a lot like existing web sites or publications. And they don’t understand that what they know — what they are experts in — is valuable, especially if presented in a credible, authentic, non-salesy way.

Earlier posts cited newcomers such as Rapha and old-timers such as Merck as examples of great branded content. High-end cycling apparel company Rapha funded great storytelling about hard-core cycling. Drug company Merck funded a guide to drugs a century ago when no such credible guide existed.

In each case, the project was great because because the company found a hole in the market, and threw its expertise into the mix to help bring the public something of unique value.

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Investing In Community Through Journalism

For each kind of company or organization, there’s a matching kind of journalism that, if it thrives, helps the company prosper. Hollywood is helped enormously by movie reviews and celebrity tabloid crap (which, oh my God, I hesitate to call “journalism,” but whatEVer). Technology companies need tech journalists to air new ideas and share advances.

Journalism has a lot of social functions that we don’t readily recognize. It’s an important way a community — geographic or based on interest — talks to each other and builds bonds. It’s part of a community’s glue, along with things like live gatherings and, these days, social media.

So if you’re guiding a company or brand, and you look up and realize that the journalism your community needs is non-existent, or not as good as it could be, or crumbling, what might you do?

Most brands, of course, do nothing. Smart brands, though, would understand the gap and realize the benefit of helping to close it.

Bike apparel company Rapha recognized that good journalism about hard-core biking would create more interest in the sport, which would in turn create more potential customers for Rapha — and, somewhere downstream, more sales of Rapha products. So Rapha started a hard-core biking magazine, Rouleur.

Not every brand wants to actually own and operate a magazine or other form of journalism. But what about more arms-length relationships? Like maybe help back a journalistic start-up where it makes sense.

A couple of years ago, a friend and colleague in journalism, George Quarashi, saw a need in the U.S. for thoughtful, New Yorker-level journalism about soccer. He and pal Mark Kirby started Howler — a magazine, web site and app — and have slowly crawled toward a launch. They’ve had to rely on a lot of free help from journalist friends (including me) and funding through Kickstarter.

But it would be smart of Major League Soccer to back Howler. As a brand, MLS has a smallish base that it needs to grow. Its community has a fraction of the journalistic glue enjoyed by the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. MLS knows all about the Howler venture. Investing in it would be a pretty low-risk, low-maintenance form of branded journalism. Brands should think that way. Too often, they don’t.

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A lot of thoughtful, journalistic discourse is disappearing from a lot of communities that are important to brands. Anyone running a brand should consider what that loss means to its audience. Somewhere in there is an opportunity.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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