Creative Newsroom: Newsy Content Marketing
March 22, 2013 | Tom Gierasimczuk | Comments
Here’s a sneak peek at the March 11 issue of Marketing
A different kind of agency for a content-hungry market
At some point this past January, the planet’s English-speaking marketers started searching for the term “content marketing” more often than the term “SEO marketing.”
The decade-long assumption and Big Fat Marketing Rule No. 1 that a brand has to be there when someone searches for it had been overtaken by a term few in the industry can properly define; a term that can at any time mean either custom publishing, branded content or, more recently, something called native advertising. Or, you know, none of these.
About the same time, Richard Edelman, CEO of the eponymous and influential global public relations firm, conceded that PR’s role of serving up a brand’s message to those fickle third-party disseminators known as journalists wasn’t the optimal method of connecting with target audiences.
Just after that, Pernod Ricard USA, the alcohol giant, decided to invest a hefty chunk of its global marketing budget in an agency that got the business based on its ability to create something called a creative newsroom – and crowed about how the new AOR’s concept would, finally, solve the multinational’s social media conundrum.
Watching all this closely and smiling the kind of smile one does when one’s vision is validated is a Toronto-based, fresh-faced entrepreneur named Chris Hogg. The 30-year-old spent the first part of his career studying the global media industry’s patterns, fissures and eventualities.
It’s what happens when you build a company according to what you thought were established rules – in Hogg’s case, a printed tech magazine called Digital Journal – and then discover that ad pages and display ads, which were supposed to be your main source of revenue, are not enough to keep the lights on. Digital Journal, like so many media companies, had been struggling to find a purpose in a seismically shifting media landscape. What helped it find a new direction was some deep soul searching about what it didn’t do to connect brands with audience.
It turns out that Digital Journal – like most publications – was just one degree off.
Advertisers no longer want brand messaging adjacent to breaking news by popular bloggers and journalists—they want to be the news. Consistently and often. Across as many digital channels as possible. Advertisers wanted to do what Digital Journal was doing – to be publishers.
Hogg moved fast. He launched a new division called /newsrooms last fall where standard editorial techniques of daily journalism brands are applied to brand messaging – the 20 tweets an hour from a client’s event, for example, and tracking social metrics in real time and feeding the spikes accordingly, sometimes with paid amplification.
“As a traditional media company, we had assembled a network of tens of thousands of contributors in 200 countries over the years,” he says, adding that his contributor roster is “gamified” by incentives and motivation that rewards reach of content. Which is to say this is a freelancer pool built for right now. With thousands of contributors ranging from videographers to award-winning writers scattered all over the globe and segmented by geography, expertise and social reach, Hogg had the framework that no in-house community manager could match.
Most on his contributor roster start off writing gratis, in exchange for a chance to show their vertical expertise and move up to “digital journalists” to be paid “based on how active they are and how often they publish and how high the content ranks compared to others,” says Hogg. “We take a portion of ad revenue on the publishing side and give it back to writers based on what percentage of activity they drive. So it’s entirely performance-based payments.”
More importantly, he has a seemingly unlimited pool of talent from which to staff client projects.
Given this reach, it’s easy to forget that Hogg’s is a six-person shop. “We bring in account managers, managing editors, analysts, designers and creative directors with each project,” he says. “We are able to keep costs lower than traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses because we have a distributed network.” That said, he adds that it’s likely the company will grow to 12 or 15 people this year to keep up with demand.
Hogg ambitiously describes his /newsrooms division as a “CNN or The New York Times, but dedicated to social media coverage, content creation and publishing for and around brands.” He sells his /newsroom concept by challenging potential clients with things like “take everything we know about content, coverage and global networks, and combine that with marketing, creative direction and production sensibilities. Bolt that on top of an award-winning, custom-built news media platform – and ‘presto.’ ”
Hogg says the strong client interest in the /newsroom concept – “We’ve had more inbound interest in three months since launching /newsrooms than anything I’ve seen before” – is due to the fact that social media marketing is at a crucial evolution point.
Brands have invested in social channels to be part of the conversation, but haven’t thought through what to talk about or how often, a pain point identified by CMOs from Mississauga to Melbourne.
But with a simple commitment to “acting like a publisher” or, more accurately, “a daily media outlet,” the great unknown of authentic social engagement starts to make sense when a tried-and-true game plan emerges, especially when presented and supervised by ex-journos who eat or starve according to visitor traffic and eyeballs they bring in.
“There’s a closer fit between news media and the social media production cycles and costs,” says Hogg’s business partner and 20-year marketing vet Sabaa Quao, who joined Digital Journal last year as CMO, when explaining why in-house resources or digital agency attempts have not sated CMO appetites for more engagement and frequency.
“Journalists and news media are built for speed. I have never seen a group of people produce content at the speed at which writers and journalists work.”
But it’s not just an issue of keeping the fire hose open. As Ian Schafer – founder of Deep Focus, the agency Pernod picked for its social and content work – wrote late last year in an Ad Age column, “people are being drawn to content not through publishers and pages, but through people and feeds. We no longer ask ourselves, ‘Which website should I visit now?’ Content finds us through our densely connected social networks. We explore content because it is relevant to us topically, personally and culturally. And nothing is more relevant to a consumer than right now.”
And nothing cooks up urgency or newsjacks a cultural meme like a competitive beat reporter.
Deep Focus’ version of the newsroom concept, called Moment Studio, was also launched just months ago in New York with top-shelf clients like Pepsi and Purina. The company’s executive creative director, Ken Kraemer, says audiences respond better to feeds than publisher sites and he has the metrics to prove it.
“We did a study after the first six weeks of working with Petcentric by Purina in the Moment Studio. We saw a 49% increase in Facebook followers, without running ‘Like Ads,’ a 311% increase in [People Talking About This] on Facebook and, most impressively, a 395% increase in [the client’s] 28-day reach. And we’re talking reaching almost 40 million people. Those are impressive numbers.”
Digital Journal’s current clients say they’re impressed not just by the increase in audience engagement, but the convenience of being able to hand over the most infuriating part of social marketing – the daily hand-to-hand combat of frequency, consistency and relevance – to one shop. “It’s a one-stop solution for us for social. I haven’t had to piecemeal the work to different agencies based on their expertise,” says Shana Korotash, KPMG’s national senior marketing manager, technology media and telecommunications. “They provided me with full reporting post project and a dashboard that can be easily shared with our leadership team showing the effectiveness of campaigns. What differentiates Digital Journal for me is it blends journalistic coverage that also caters to marketing needs like service lines, thought leadership and different KPIs.”
Of course, the ability to deploy concepts quickly – “for social staffers to merge the zeitgeist with the brand ethos all day, every day,” as Schafer put it—means client approval needs to be frictionless for content to be relevant. Kraemer says Deep Focus ensures the probability of fast approvals for “real-time readiness” by preparing clients.
“[They] understand it is a partnership and that their behaviour and in some cases operations had to change a bit for this kind of publishing to be possible,” he says, adding that his team built alliances internally with regulatory, legal and PR partners to centralize approvals. “We’ve also put controls in place—such as brand editorial agendas and guidelines. We really know, in most cases, what creates friction for these brands and if we choose to pursue something that does, we work closer with the client on it so that it can be done.”
Such speed-to-market, perhaps not surprisingly, requires client-direct work and both Deep Focus and Digital Journal rarely partner with ad agencies. “The kind of work we do is too central to the marketing and brand strategies to subcontract out,” says Kraemer. “In almost all cases today, clients own their overall strategy. Traditional agencies still develop and steward that in some cases, but most clients coordinate across agencies themselves. It is good for the work.”
So are “traditional” advertising agencies with longer client tenure ready to offer some of the real-time tricks hawked by the new content kids?
No chance, says Quao. “News media companies are decentralized, ad agencies are not. If we needed to pull threads together of a brand story with local contributions or flavour from 12 major cities right now, we could do it by tapping into Digital Journal’s worldwide network. No ad agency can do that. Ad agencies were never built for that purpose.”
He adds that industry disruptions happen on the periphery, with agencies buying their way in later. “The Organics and Razorfishes all formed at the margins of digital media and were eventually snapped up by agency networks. Agencies are still having a hard time absorbing, accepting and integrating the techies. Now ask them to take on a load of journos? Not going to happen anytime soon.”
Because of that, the anticipated growth for both Digital Journal’s and Deep Focus’ branded newsroom divisions will draw plenty of interest this year.
“I’d like to see our growth double each quarter,” says Quao of the /newsrooms division, which besides KPMG works with Four Seasons, several of the big banks and will soon announce a big grocery and tech client.
And it’s going global. “As we look to the opportunity to serve clients internationally, we’re going to be setting revenue targets for different geographies. Because we have the opportunity to leverage an international network, I’d like to see 50% of our revenue generated from outside of North America.”
Deep Focus’ Moment Studio is also in the midst of expansion, and is currently looking for “social media communications managers, senior producers, project managers, designers and account staff,” says Kraemer. “We’re growing fast.”
At this rate, look for “newsroom” to become the results-based shorthand for “content marketing.”
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