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The Power Of Journalism In Branded Content

Posted by Sam Zikos on November 18, 2021 at 6:00 PM

All Things Branded Content 

We love branded content (after all, there's a reason we are called Hollywood Branded). So, we recently invited an expert onto our show to discuss the ins and outs of branded content, and how it ties into journalism and storytelling.

Our guest, Ben, has tons of experience in the field. He's also incredibly knowledgable on social targeting and SEO.  In this blog, Hollywood Branded discusses the power of journalism in branded content, from the expertise of Ben Worthen, who is the CEO of Message Lab.


EP278 The Power Of Journalism In Branded Content


A Little More About Ben

Ben is the CEO of Message Lab, an award winning agency that helps organizations get results by bringing stories to life. Through leveraging journalism, data, and design, Message Lab has created eye catching content that has helped organizations, such as Facebook, Forbes, Airbnb, and Silicon Valley Bank, connect with their consumers. With their success, they received seven content marketing awards in just the last two years. Before joining Message Lab, Ben was the head of content at Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm that backed Google, Apple and more, as well as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal where he crafted stories covering the tech industry. 

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Interview Transcript Highlights

Question: Well, Ben, I always love starting off by having you deep dive on, how did you get here today? I highlighted some of your career steps along the way but you are now this content marketer, you have been a content marketer since your days as a reporter, what drove this and how did you end up here?

Answer: ...I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and for me that was my formative learning about how to tell a story and how to tell it well....There's a lot of things that we can borrow from the world of journalism in terms of thinking and empathy for the person who's going to read your content, the techniques that you use in terms of structuring a story and telling it, finding it, determining what's interesting and giving that to people. And what happened over the course of my career in marketing,...the last seven or eight years was I gained a lot of appreciation for the rigor that went into marketing, the thoughtfulness that went into a lot of the things that were then presented to me as a reporter...But I still felt as though so much of marketing is inside focusing. It's looking at yourself [and] it's talking about yourself. The instinct for most companies...[is] talking about their product [and if] they don't talk about their product they often times talk about themselves, just not their product.

The thing that I felt I've been able to do, again, drawing on those lessons from the newsroom, was to turn that around and try to say, "okay, well, how do you think about the things that your customers care about?" And the reality is that most of the time, most people aren't thinking about products.  Most of the time, most people don't want to buy something, they just want to be informed. They want to be entertained. They want to be engaged....Sometimes you have a problem and you just want to type something into Google and find something that's relevant to you.

And when you're in one of those moments where you want to buy...or you have a problem that can be solved by a product then, yes, the number one thing that you want is information about a product, but most of the time I don't think most people feel that way. So what I've tried to do at various points in my career is work with people to figure out, "okay, well, how can we take all of the good marketing stuff that we're doing now and layer on top of that"...which is this idea of focused content or engagement based content where you're doing something because there's so many non-sales moments where we have an opportunity to have a meaningful engagement with someone and you can make something to put into those moments and share it with them where your worldview and their worldview are aligned.

And you can make an impression on someone and build an impression. [You can] help change their mind to get them to think one way about you to which isn't going to result in a sale in the moment—most likely not. Very few people are going to read some cool B2B business advice, for instance, and then click on the link to buy a million dollars worth of software, right? People don't do that. 

So going through and working with our clients to try to figure out how can we add that layer on top has sort of what's been the journey of my career and then I would say more recently over the last five years, then what? To what end? Because increasingly with marketing, making something that the internal team feels really good about isn't enough. You have to be able to show results. You have to be able to have some sort of impact and especially as performance marketing becomes the prevailing trade wind, everything is measurable, everything is quantifiable. If this isn't designed to lead to a sale, what is it supposed to do? And what is its value? And that's been a big part of the thing that we as Message Lab I've been trying to answer.


Question: And so when you're starting to work with a brand what is the first step? It's not like, "we're going to create something of value for you," right? So how do you approach getting the brand on board and getting them to understand what they need to actually dig in to pull out [and] share about the brand ethos versus just, "here's my brand, here's our tagline, and this is our messaging?"

Answer: Yeah, I mean, it's a great question and it sounds straightforward but can be really complicated....I think we look at it as sort of layers of publishing maturity and the first thing we want to do is just figure out where you are, and then really the first thing that you have to be able to do is just make stuff and get it out into the world.

And that can be hard and it could be hard for a lot of reasons, but if you can't successfully make something and get it out into the world then everything else doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter whether we're promoting it right or whether we're successfully correlating the data clicks onto content with some downstream thing, right? So that's the first thing that we want to help with. Because there's so much content and if we're being truthful, the world doesn't really need any more content, it needs though better content. It needs content that has a purpose. It needs content that's going to stand out for some reason and so the first thing that we try to do is just look at, "where is there an opportunity?"

And for us that exercise begins by looking at, "what is it that you believe?" And usually this is just something that's a derivative exercise from your brand....And from there depending on how much content you really want to make we can figure out what kind of categories, what's your worldview and do an exercise like that. But I think that really only makes sense when you do it in parallel with a separate exercise that's looking at "what is it that your customers or the people you're trying to reach, let's say, are interested in? What are the topics and issues that they care about?" What are the things that they have and not from the, "how does our product help them" standpoint, but just as they live their lives, "what are the things that they care about?" "What are the things they might talk to a friend or a colleague about?" And then on top of that, "where's the opportunity?"

But again, just to sort of try to top it off, it's really thinking about, "what's your big idea?" "What are you about as a brand?" Again, not product but sort of your worldview and the problem in culture—the problem in the world that you want to align yourself against.


Question: So to start off you're working with brands who typically have established their why, they know what it is. Anyone who is not watching this right now and you're listening, you could have seen his eyes light up and this big smile and he's like, "no way, they do not know their why." I'm going to tell you this right now, the biggest brands in the world sometimes don't know their why, which is true, right?

Answer: Yeah. And in fact I almost think that it's sometimes inversely proportional to how big you are as how well you know it. If you're two people who just started a company, you probably know your why even better than you know your what because something caused you to start that company and you're probably more a passionate product at this point. And then [when] you get to the point where your company is 100,000 people and nobody remembers why it exists, [but] you know what you do, you know what your product is, [and yet] it's hard to sort of figure out what's the big idea at this point. So yeah, I think what we do works better and is easier when it's layered on top of a really healthy well-branded organization where everybody knows their why but we've definitely had a lot of experiences where you have a content strategy that's pretending to be a brand strategy.


Question: Okay. So you figure out the why, you have the essence, you have the ethos, you know what's driving this organization. What then?

Answer: Yeah. So honestly at this point, it then becomes a question of appetite and then, a question of ambition. We have a strong point of view about how to do content well and it means thinking about it as a program and not just as a bunch of assets. So if I could back that up for a second... I'll just use the example of...we're ghost writing an article for the CEO of some company and we do an interview. We're talking to the PR people or the marketing people, and we're in a Word doc and we're writing and then we give it to our client, they have some feedback, give it back to us, we do it again, right? It goes to the CEO's chief of staff, the chief of staff is like, "oh no, this isn't right, do this as this" [and we] come back, [revise] it, [and] the CEO then goes in and spends two hours trying to get it just right, right? We clean it up and it goes to the lawyers who look at it.

And if the meter was running on this article, you'd have $100,000 worth of premium executive time going into getting the words and this Word doc right. And it's a process that a lot of people have gone through. It happens countless times a day, across multiple companies. And then, okay, so we have this, what do we do with it? I know, let's stick it on the web, right? And people just put it online and that's kind of it. And what you all too often end up with is this wall of text on a website that's running and running and running...And no one is reading it. 


Question: Are there any last insights that you would like to share with our listeners today?

Answer: Yeah. I think I would just say that again, we view this as a journey and creating the content, getting the organizational buy-in, giving it purpose is part of it and the thing then that you can do on top of that is really around focusing that effort in optimizing it. And I think we really believe strongly in having data based feedback, being able to do the hard work of connecting engagement with content at a point in time with some sort of outcome that happens later on. And it allows you to participate in the same kind of conversation, that is, colleagues of yours who are like, "yeah, well, we can just put 10% off coupons into Facebook and we're going to generate a million dollars worth of revenue. You can play that game too you just have to kind of look at the stats, the data, differently but once you do it's really powerful.

The kind of change that you can make across an organization, and we do think it takes an organization, you begin to get into organizational culture and you get into, finger quote, "digital transformation" at some point but how do you use these different channels for engagement? How do you use analytics for engagement? How do you do A/B testing on the website for engagement and all of that. And once you begin to start going down that path you can do a lot of optimization and we call it the editorial feedback loop, you get a lot of fast feedback that can result in fast change that can lead to really fast better results.


Check Out The Podcast!

Ben has so much great information from his experience in journalism and marketing. Check out the podcast below to learn more about creating awesome branded content!

Every week we have a marketing professional on our show to share their tips, tricks and lessons learned from their professional experience. Check out some of our other podcast blogs from earlier this year: 

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Topics: Podcast Interviews, Podcast, HB Podcast