Tag Archives: owned content

Google Trends and the Dawn of Brand Journalism

Google Trends just unveiled a new tool for mapping the popularity of search terms. So I was curious about  what it might tell us about “brand journalism” and “owned content” — two of the terms often used to describe this marriage of credible content with company sponsorship.





Neither term even shows a blip before 2008. Interesting that brand journalism had a couple of brief spikes, then went dormant around 2010 and has re-emerged with staying power since 2011.

Owned content seems to have been introduced into the vernacular in early 2009, and has seen a somewhat steady rise in popularity since.

The tool can be revealing. I was messing around with it, and tried the term “journalism jobs.” My assumption was that the trend would zoom upward thanks to the constant drumbeat of cutbacks at traditional publications. Not so! The trend line curves downward. Fewer and fewer people are searching for “journalism jobs.” Could it be that people increasingly don’t even consider journalism jobs?

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Why the Political Parties Need Branded Content, Not More Convention Schlock

The two major political conventions, like never before, are getting hammered for being irrelevant.  Some argue that the conventions have changed, becoming more scripted, more fake, and with all the surprise of the pre-flight instructions from a jetliner’s crew. (In the unlikely event of a water landing…)

But I really don’t think the conventions have changed much at all. For as long as I can remember, they’ve been scripted, fake and familiar.

It’s us who have changed. Reality shows, DVRs, Yelp, digital media and social networks have helped fuel a flight to authenticity and credibility. We unmask fake. We skip past commercials. We crave sources we can trust. We’re already seeing evidence of audiences abandoning TV coverage of conventions and looking instead at social networking sites.

CurrentTV has been scrolling Twitter feeds alongside the live video from the Republican Convention floor, and it’s a comically dissonant experience. Most of the tweets rake the convention proceedings over the coals.

The conventions play like one long infomercial. They are marketing material. True believers nod their heads while the bulk of Americans roll their eyes.

What might the parties do differently? One suggestion: produce credible, great branded content.

But this could be difficult territory, because creating great content that wins people’s trust means taking the chance of going off script — of showing the bad so that we believe the good. But the reward is that if a party produces a terrific web video or a gripping Kindle Single, the public will devour it and post it on Facebook and Tweet about it and believe it.

I’ll throw out some content ideas. (I’m sure someone who knows politics could do better…)


— How about if the Democrats fund a real West Wing — essentially a White House version of HBO’s behind-the-scenes docu-shows that have turned cameras on NFL and NHL teams? Let’s see how Obama works and how the White House functions. Let’s see him arrive at a decision, or blow up and bitch someone out. It would help me decide whether I want such a man running my country.

—  The Republicans want us to believe that cutting taxes is the key to reviving the economy. So, have the party sponsor an eminent historian to write a short e-book — untainted by Republican editing — on the history of cutting taxes around the world and its effect, drawing conclusions about what might or might not work today. Implicit in just publishing such a book is that cutting taxes has over and over proven to be the right idea — because if that’s not true, then why the heck are the Republicans espousing that doctrine?

—  It’s hard to get the nation to fix Medicare without understanding it. Either party could fund a Ted Talk-like video by someone such as Freakonomics author Steven Levitt explaining how Medicare became what it is, the role that skewed economic motivation has played in creating a monster, and what kinds of changes might alter that motivation and lessen the burden on the U.S. budget.

I’m not saying the conventions should be tossed aside. The parties just need to recognize them for what they look like to most Americans: marketing schlock. It’s time to try something else.

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How Weber Used Content to Make Us a Nation of Grillers

The latest issue of Fortune includes a story about how Weber grills are made. Further into the story is a bit of background that I hadn’t known about: Through the 1960s, backyard grilling wasn’t common, but Weber changed that.

Weber started making its distinctive grills in 1952. In the 1970s, an employee named Mike Kempster was put in charge of educating the public about grilling. He turned out to be brilliant at it. He dove into what we would now call branded content. Weber didn’t just pump out marketing schmaltz. It hired chefs to experiment with grilling techniques that could be passed on to the public. Some of the techniques and recipes took advantage of Weber’s unique characteristics, but some could be applied to grilling on anything.

“Soon there were pamphlets and cookbooks, classes, and radio shows, and Weber grew to be the largest charcoal grill brand in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa,” Fortune reports.

Backyard grill products are now a $2.2 billion annual business in the U.S.

It’s a wonderful example of useful, credible, trustworthy branded content effectively building not just a brand, but an entire market.


And Weber hasn’t stopped. It still pumps out books with titles such as Weber’s Smoke: A Guide to Smoke Cooking  for Everyone and Any Grill, and Weber’s Big Book of Grilling. It should be noted that these are not books that Weber gives away. The Big Book of Grilling costs $40.

Weber has a new target for its content: women. Men, it seems, are happy throwing burgers or steaks on a grill and flipping them with tongs. Women, not so much. The onslaught of TV cooking shows, though, has stirred more women to try more new cooking techniques. Weber put its chefs to work to design gourmet recipes for the grill, and pump out more content.

The idea is that if women become convinced they can make everything from pizza to pound cake on a grill, they’ll line up to buy Webers.

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More On the Magazine Tailspin

David Carr, in today’s New York Times, uses Tina Brown’s seemingly impossible task of reviving Newsweek to tell the continuing story of the mess magazines find themselves in.

It’s interesting that the truly precipitous decline in magazines is happening now. The first wave of the Internet had more of an impact on newspapers. Web sites and computer screens in the 2000s were relatively low-fi, and that was competition for newspapers, which offer news in a relatively low-fi way (grainy photos, mostly text).

High-gloss and well-designed magazines had an edge over the web of that era: They could present beautiful images in ways the web on computer screens couldn’t, and they could present longer-form stories (think The New Yorker) that proved clunky and unreadable on a computer screen.

But now the web on an iPad or even on a modern laptop screen is a beautiful thing. It looks every bit as good — maybe even better — than a magazine page. Long-form stories can be packaged and presented in elegant ways on screen, while Kindles have gotten us used to reading text as long as War and Peace on screen.

Print magazines not long ago could hold onto an edge over the web in the total experience they could present — but that edge is gone for most publications. The web now delivers as good an experience in a more convenient package. So the web wins. (I wrote about how that experience-vs.-convenience dynamic works across all kinds of industries in my book Trade-Off.)


What does this mean for brands thinking of doing content? For one, it should make them think twice about delivering content primarily as a print magazine. Sure, there certainly are a lot of people who like a print magazine, and it might make sense to give them one. But the logic of what’s happening the market says that print should follow digital — not the other way around anymore. In other words, design a beautiful digital version first, and then turn it into print.

Here’s another take-away from the decline of pint magazines: The transition to digital is going to continue to be painful for magazine publishers. They’re going to cut pages, cut staff, probably even shut down magazines. That will send yet more journalists and designers into the marketplace — a talent bonanza for brands. And if publications disappear, that could open opportunities for credible, journalistic branded content to take its place.

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Back Togather: New Take On the Old Book Tour

Just read about this New York start-up, Togather, and it’s an interesting take on the old idea of an author’s book tour. It’s sort of a mash-up between a Meetup and a Groupon. Essentially, readers and an author strike a deal that if people in a geographic area buy a certain number of the author’s e-books, the author will come and give a talk there. (Scientists have yet to discover how to have an author sign an e-book.)


This could be a tool in a branded-content strategy involving a book. As the previous two posts pointed out, a lot is evolving about how a CEO or company can use good, credible books to build a brand. The old “book tour” or book reading has become an economically unviable mess. Through something like Togather, combined with the interests of branded content, this could see a revival.

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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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New Ways to Build Belief

The name of the game in branding has always been about belief. A company has to get the public to believe something about a brand.

For a long time, that was done primarily through advertising, but it’s gotten pretty tough to create an ad that people actually believe anymore. (Some clear this hurdle: See Apple’s iPhone ads. Apple has people believing Siri can actually do all this crap.)

Starting around the 1950s, public relations became a path to belief. Get a third party — the press — to say good things about you, and people will believe it more than they believe ads.

But the press is sinking, and social media lets people say anything they want about a brand while Yelp offers ratings and search engines uncover everything. PR was about spin, and spin is now left naked. Everybody sees right through it.

So what’s next? The Arthur W. Page Society, a prestigious marketing group, says belief has to be built through things like authenticity, credibility, and trust. No more lies. No more spin. A successful brand has to offer something that feels real and true to the public.

One of the effective ways to do that now is to offer information that’s valuable or useful, or non-fiction storytelling that’s instructive or enriching. This is the kind of stuff that newspapers and magazines have always done — but increasingly don’t do anymore because they don’t have the staff or the pages.

If the content is really great, people won’t just believe it — they’ll pass it around on Facebook and Twitter and tell other people to believe it. And if the content makes sense for the brand, all that good feeling will get associated with the brand.

I recently ran across a nice example of this, called Threatpost. It’s a news blog about computer security and viruses. It’s funded by Kaspersky Lab, which happens to make computer security software. But Kaspersky hired two long-time tech journalists — Dennis Fisher and Paul Roberts — to run a credible journalistic site.

As far as I can tell, Kaspersky keeps its mitts off the journalists. So the site has become much read among people who are interested in security. That leads to some trust of Kaspersky. And Kaspersky gets another benefit: by writing about every security threat that rears its head, the site helps convince people they need security software. Even if all the site’s readers don’t then buy Kaspersky products, certainly some of them will.

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Ancient Branded Journalism

Even Elvis had his predecessors. Likewise, branded journalism isn’t a completely new concept. We’re seeing a ton of emerging forms and models of branded journalism, and there are new reasons this kind of content is important and effective, but it’s all built on the shoulders of some pretty amazing predecessors.

Two of the best: the Mobil Travel Guide and the Merck Manual.

The Mobil Travel Guide was created by Mobil Oil in 1958. It’s purpose wasn’t so much to market Mobil gas in particular — it was to spur driving and, not exactly as an afterthought, gas consumption. The guides used experts to rate hotels and restaurants — giving birth to the Mobil star ratings still in place today.

The Mobil guides were so effective because consumers felt the guides could be trusted. The booklets were impartial and expert-driven. They were a form of journalism — the kind of thing Conde Nast Traveler might do about “best restaurants of California.” While there’s no telling how much Mobil gasoline the guides sold, certainly they made consumers feel good about Mobil.

(The guides were licensed to Forbes Media by ExxonMobile in 2009. So now the guides are owned by a journalism company, which gives credence to the idea that these were journalism all along. Lately, the operation has been turned into a web site called Startle, which seems like a really bad name for a site devoted to planning a trip.)

Even older than the Mobil Travel Guide is The Merck Manual, first published by the pharmaceutical giant in 1899. It is an example of business-to-business branded journalism — the manuals were at first a physicians desk reference, available only to doctors. The first edition set out to detail the effect on the human body of every substance used in medicine.

Again, The Merck Manual did not hawk Merck products. It was written by experts and reviewed by esteemed scientists and doctors. Instead of feeling like biased marketing material, it felt to physicians like a valuable, impartial resource. So doctors accepted the Merck Manual and put it on their bookshelves — a constant reminder that Merck was a trustworthy company.

Years later, Merck realized that individuals were getting their hands on Merck Manuals to keep at home as a medical reference. So Merck created a less-technical consumer version. By 2000, the 16th edition of the Merck Manual sold 2 million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

The Mobil Travel Guide and Merck Manual were so successful and enduring because of one key reason: trust. Both valued trust over salesmanship, and trust won the day.

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