Tag Archives: rapha

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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NYT’s Ricochet: A New Wrinkle in Branded Journalism

Instead of a brand creating journalistic content, what if a brand could borrow and share some of the best content created by actual journalists?

That’s what Ricochet, an intriguing new tool from The New York Times, is making possible. The newspaper first unveiled the tool last year and used it internally, but this week NYT announced that other media companies — Forbes, Conde Nast, Time Inc. — will also use it. No doubt NYT will sell Ricochet widely, and it could become an important part of the way branded journalism works.

Ricochet allows a brand to buy an ad next to an online story. But the ad only appears when that brand shares the story through a specially-generated link. If others in turn share that link, they’ll see the brand’s ad, too.

If the Times writes a story about cloud computing, SAP — which, incidentally, helped develop Ricochet — can use Ricochet to buy an ad to run with that story when SAP shares it. So if SAP tweets the story or posts it on Facebook or its SAP website, anyone who clicks on it sees an SAP ad along with the story. Significantly, points out NYT’s R&D chief Michael Zimbalist, Ricochet guarantees that readers won’t click the story that SAP shared and see an ad from an SAP competitor.

Using Ricochet does something else: It doubles down on a brand’s support for a story. Yes, it’s sharing it. And now it’s also, in a way, financing it.

The best branded journalism doesn’t “sell” — it develops a market. Bicycle apparel company Rapha hired journalists and started Rouleur, a biking magazine. The magazine doesn’t write about Rapha’s stuff — it writes about hard-core biking. If it can help generate more bikers, there will be more people around to buy Rapha’s stuff.

So it makes sense for an SAP to encourage excitement about cloud computing. Or a Tourneau to celebrate high-end watches. A good way for brands to do these kinds of things is to circulate credible, authentic, journalistic content about the topics their constituents care about.

One way to do that is to create content yourself — a la Rouleur. But that’s not always easy and not in many brands’ DNA.

Ricochet seems to usher in a new era of brands being able to easily buy into legitimate journalism created by media outlets, and redistribute it in a way that lets everyone win. The brand gets to associate itself with market-building journalism; the journalistic organization makes more money so it can continue producing such stories; and the public gets content it likes and values.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Ricochet becomes more widely offered.


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Why Brands Should Produce Content They Can Sell for Actual Money

I’m going to throw down a gauntlet here: The measure of great branded content is whether the audience will pay for it.

Most of the time these days, brands looking to create content dive right into the free model. They believe they have to foot the bill to create a web news site, a magazine, a book. And then they give it away.

Brands in some way have been doing this forever, from airline magazines to Mayo Clinic’s web site and everything in between. The web has especially fueled the era of free content — Wired magazine shouted that to the world in 2008 with its cover story, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.

But there’s also always been another side to that story. Merck created its Merck Manual more than 100 years ago, and first gave the drug guides away to doctors — but later sold them to consumers. Now you can buy one in a bookstore or on Amazon — or buy one of its spin-offs, like the Merck Manual Home Health Handbook.

Weber, the grill company, pumps out a whole series of grilling cookbooks — and people buy them, at as much as $40 a pop. When I co-wrote the book The Two-Second Advantage with TIBCO CEO Vivek Ranadive, the idea from the start was to write a book good enough to sell to a mainstream publisher and make the bestseller list.

Bike apparel company Rapha publishes a literary cycling magazine, Rouleur, that it sells for $20 dollars an issue. Twenty dollars!

Harvard Business Review is a great branded content success. It is, actually, Harvard Business School’s branded content play — and it’s become a stand-alone business. These days, it’s available online, as an iPad app, and in the traditional magazine format. Buy an all-access pass for $99 a year.


I can’t think of a brand that has created a new, digital content offering, and charged for it. (Let me know if I’m missing something.) But — why not? If it’s good enough — especially if it’s useful — people will pay for it.

Why should a brand even try to create content it can sell?

Well, for one, if you get the audience to pay, you’ll get a better audience. The audience will be invested in your content, so it will be more loyal, more likely to actually consume the content, more likely to buy into the brand.

And if we’re honest, free also lowers the expectations of greatness. If a brand is creating give-away content — it’s not charging the audience and it’s not charging advertisers — nobody expects the content to be truly, consistently great. The brand doesn’t have to lure the best talent or design a beautiful product. The burden is only to put out something that’s OK. So making a decision to sell content is making a decision to produce great content — and that can only be good for the brand.

It’s not about the money, by the way. As any media company knows, content can be a tough business to try to make a profit on. But, hey, if paying customers offset some of the cost while the content is benefitting the brand — what’s not to like?

Yes, sure, in a lot of situations, free probably makes sense. It lowers the barrier to getting an audience, especially when starting from scratch. Heck, this blog is free. If I charged for it at this point, I’d be lucky if my dog Louie subscribed.

But free isn’t always the answer. And when it comes to content, free may be the enemy of great.

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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.


(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.


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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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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