2014 has been quite the year for Dell – and we’re only halfway through. First, the company launched New Beginnings, an ad campaign commemorating its coming out as a private company. Soon after, it became the first brand to be featured on the New York Times “Paid Posts” area in the newspaper’s first-ever native advertisement. Then, in a very major moment, Google authorized the barely year-old Tech Page One as a certified news site for search results.
Things just seem to keep getting better for Dell. One of the reasons must be Managing Editor Stephanie Losee, who has overseen the brand’s editorial content strategy since 2012. And with so much change going on in the industry, there’s never been a more exciting time to do so. For Losee, great writing is paramount, and her efforts, though varied, revolve around providing Dell’s audience with the very best. Since Stephanie will be discussing Native Advertising at the 2014 Content Marketing Summit, NewsCred sat down with the journalist-turned-marketer to get her perspective on the industry.
As a career journalist and content marketing expert, can you share some insights on the merging and intersection of the two?
Stephanie Losee: I find that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the relationship between content marketing and journalism. People get angry or emotional when we talk about native advertising and other interesting platforms that allow for a new relationship between brands and publications. But it’s a victory – any way we can find to address digital disruption.
Brands have a certain amount of money that they used to use to advertise on publications that then created content to put in front of the brand’s customers and potential customers. But now, brands are keeping some of that budget closer to the vest and publishing themselves, finding that they are perfectly capable of publishing the kind of news you can use, tips and tricks, and thought leadership content that used to be the domain of traditional publications.
When would you say did the landscape really started to shift?
What happened was something natural and understandable and clear. People talk about it as if it happened recently, but it didn’t; it happened years ago, when I noticed how little I was being offered to write articles in the ‘90s as the Internet invaded and made content easily findable and distributable.
The Internet blew up the pay model and the distribution model for journalism. Brands no longer need to rely exclusively on publications to gather audiences around content in order to advertise to them. That’s what happened. And everything that I find winning about brand journalism affirms and addresses that stark reality.
How can brands be sure to maintain integrity in writing as the lines continue to blur and these areas continue to evolve?
People are going to get it wrong. That’s the nature of early days when it comes to anything that’s changing. The great thing about digital distribution is that it really lets people vote with their feet, separating the companies who are embracing best practices and genuinely trying to find a new pay model and do it right from those who are abusing it or doing it wrong.
People who misunderstand this shift and use it for “journalism” like fake reviews of their own products, pieces masquerading as journalism, that’s the worst of all.
Maybe it works once, until that reader clicks the rest of the way through and sees the brand behind it and feels duped. It’s counter intuitive. When people click and find out you’re behind it, they feel angry and abused.
What would you say is working so well for Dell?
My colleagues and I have a very trusted brand in our hands. You really don’t monkey around with that. That’s why Tech Page One, our content site, embraces a traditional 80/20 mix of editorial to promotional work. And I don’t mean editorial-looking, seeming work about Dell; I mean 100 percent editorial work that we commission from content agencies and journalists writing about their areas of expertise and topics that are interesting to our audiences.
Twenty percent or less of the material is either about something having to do with Dell or by a Dell employee. We’re so transparent that we even identify Dell’s content on our own site as “Insights From Dell.” You’ll never accidently read a piece that directly touches on our brand. If I write something on our site, even if it’s pure thought leadership, nothing having to do with Dell, it’s still going to say “Insights From Dell” because it’s by someone who works there.
With Google’s authorization of Tech Page One as a news site earlier this year, that level transparency certainly seems to be paying off.
That was an enormous win for us and we earned it, because we did the right thing with those eyeballs and we did not abuse their trust. We don’t take any risks with trust. What I hope will happen is that the people who are making this conversation of abusive brand journalism necessary are going to observe the successes of companies who are taking the high road and understand that that they won’t win.
Companies that are succeeding often have a nice cross-departmental effort between global communications and marketing to make this happen because the two sides have to come together and understand their audience and understand what PR means, what reputation and trust means for the brand and take great care with it.
How exactly does that translate to real-life strategy?
Brand publishing cannot ignore the holy triangle of paid, owned and earned. You have to dip in and out of paid media in order to amplify your own media, with the final objective being earned media. Winning strategy keeps all those in mind at once, and in different ways. So you “publish” it on your site. Bully for you! Just because you’re posting something on your website doesn’t mean anything happens.
For a particular story you want to get out there, put some budget behind a piece that then shows up as a recommended across the web. We bump into stories online, whether they’re shared by friends or we see them in social. And then we click on that one thing – not the whole site, just this one piece – that, acting like a worm on a hook, pulled you in.
Can you share an example from Dell?
We’re very invested in site-to-site pitching as a strategy. You publish a piece on your own site, but what happens to it after that? Group SJR, one of our content agencies, take a more traditional approach to it in the same way PR agencies would reach out to journalists in the past, hoping that they would write a story that would benefit the brand.
Now we write a story and it may have nothing to do with the brand; in fact some of those that have succeeded have nothing to do with Dell. One of them that was very successful, was a story that SJR created for us about 3D sonograms for blind pregnant women. Just think about that. Don’t you want to look at it? It’s wild. They do a sonogram and then a 3D printer produces the baby in 3D. I love the fact that someone thought of using a 3D printer for that.
Dell paid somebody to do it but it doesn’t say a thing about Dell. We aren’t focused on 3D printing in healthcare, per se. We supply major tech to hospitals. It touches on things that our audiences are interested in, but only peripherally and absolutely not on point at all. But we sponsored it, we created that, and then Group SJR sent the story out to their contacts.
What then happens with a great story like that?
Third party publications and sites do a combination of picking the story up with deep links back to Tech Page One, which means finding people on the greater web and bringing them into our content ecosystem where they see more, essentially our ad, Dell’s site. Or, sometimes they’ll even report on the fact that we reported something, which just gladdens my journalist’s heart.
What were some interesting realizations over the course of Dell’s experience with the New York Times’ new native ad space, Paid Posts?
The aha! moments were piloting a platform with a publication as august as the New York Times and working with them on the kind of content that would make this go well. As a person who sits in global comms [sic], some of my brain space was taken up by the fear of a crisis communications cycle. I was projecting myself into the future and seeing scary headlines like “Dell Takes Down the Gray Lady.” Ouch!
We take an editorial approach to content, which is why we were a good match for the Times. We were very conscious of that in our choices, so our articles were editorial and if they mentioned Dell, they only did in the most organic way.
What was Dell’s main takeaway from working with the Times?
As we exited that three-month engagement we began to be hungry for multimedia. One of the lessons that I took away was that it’s one thing to turn on a branded content platform and then put articles onto it. It’s another thing to win views and clicks. What we found was that our choices were very fine and very on point.
The last article of the series was one from Michael Dell about entrepreneurship and they said that the average time spent on that article – it’s in a tweet of mine, I can look it up – was four minutes and 23 seconds. That’s a real number. That level of engagement means that clearly, if you clicked on it, you read the whole story.
Are there any branded content efforts in particular that you really respect?
To stay with the Times model, I could not have loved their Netflix “Snow Fall” piece more. I think that that was one of the best things I’ve ever seen, if not the best example of native advertising I have ever seen. Netflix sponsored videos flowing through an article of women in prison that was tied to the release of the second season of “Orange is the New Black.”
What I thought was beautiful about it was that, as a viewer, I actually have had these questions in mind as I’ve watched. Is it really like that? Does that really happen? What happens when this happens?
And the beauty of that is good journalism, answering questions as they pop into the reader’s mind. The questions that popped into my mind did so months ago and they were about to again as I was starting to watch the episodes on Netflix, and here they were, answered for me as if they could read my mind in this piece of multimedia.
I was filled with admiration for that and that’s what I’d like to see us do next. Put all our money in one bucket of one fabulous thing that has the potential to go viral. Get in, get out, and see how it performs. See how people react to it.
What content marketing trends are you finding really exciting right now? What do you want to be seeing more of?
All my admiration is going to multimedia right now. It’s super hard and expensive, video in particular. It’s hard to figure out how to incorporate enough of it, how to afford it, and so I think a lot about how to make branded journalism far more visually dynamic in a sustainable way.
Lately all I’m asking other brands about is how they’re affording multimedia, what’s their scheme for doing video, how are they corralling a big brand’s video creation and publishing so that all the budget goes to the best stuff.
I’m always trying to think about how to restore the flow of money between brands and journalists. That’s why I think that people miss the mark when they don’t see that there’s so much opportunity to get people paid in this equation.
There’s always tremendous opportunity after a moment of destruction. We rebuild. How are we going to rebuild? What’s it going to look like? Who’s going to pay whom and for what? These are really interesting questions, and we’re the deciders.
Let’s make good decisions about how to rebuild this house in a way that shelters everyone.
Can you share any advice to help keep other content marketers at the top of their games? Some daily routine tips or best practices?
Recognize that everyone you’re serving and addressing is some version of you. Observe your own behavior. Notice what it is that you’re doing without a thought when you wake up in the morning and go through your day. Because whatever you’re doing, most likely, an enormous proportion of your audience is doing the same way. And then aim your strategy in that direction.
By Anastasia Dyakovskaya, NewsCred Contributor