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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Lessons Learned from Verizon’s Branded Content Fumble

November 3, 2014 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Over the past week or so, several good pieces have been published about the Verizon-sponsored technology news site SugarString, each offering some excellent insights for organizations seeking to create their own content-centric site or to create sponsored content distributed elsewhere:

Verizon is launching a tech news site that bans stories on U.S. spying
(The Daily Dot, October 28, 2014)

The Daily Dot article focuses on the inherent dilemma created by a purported “news site” that expressly forbids its reporters “from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today.”

Verizon fired back at The Daily Dot saying “SugarString is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology.”

Takeaway: Brands venturing into developing their own content sites – particularly news-focused ones – must work doubly hard to convince readers they are providing a fair and transparent view.

Is a news site a news site if it’s published by Verizon?
(Washington Post, October 31, 2014)

Washington Post blogger Nancy Scola takes a close look at the “thoughtful, tech-focused stories that track humanity’s climb toward what’s next.” She finds that, “to date, the site’s articles have been focused on simply affirming the mobile tech lifestyle.”

Scola also wisely raises the issue of labeling the content as branded content, pointing out that if this content appeared on a traditional media outlet, it would be labeled something along the lines of “sponsored advertising.” She also finds the small “Presented by Verizon tags” to be of questionable value in terms of transparency.

Takeaway: Clear labeling is unequivocally a best practice for any branded content, but it doesn’t solve the issues around value and transparency. In addition, given the variety of places content is consumed (social, mobile, etc.), creating labeling that works in any context remains a challenge.

Journalism, Independent and Not
(New York Times, November 2, 2014)

In his The Media Equation Column, David Carr writes that he stumbled across SugarString and found its coverage of privacy somewhat baffling…until he noticed some “teeny type that said ‘This article was written by an author contracted by Verizon.’”

Carr calls out a slew of other branded content sites in a variety of subject areas, some better than others, wisely noting that “publishing looks easy, but is filled with peril.” For Carr, the Verizon foray into brand-underwritten news is a cautionary tale about what we may have to do to fund the creation of content now and in the future.

Takeaway: Creating engaging, credible and trustworthy content, particularly news, is challenging even for mature media companies; brands diving in for the first time should check the water’s depth and err on the cautious side

Undoubtedly, others will continue to pick apart Verizon’s foray into creating its own tech news site to drive awareness and build its brand through content. Certainly, experimentation is important, but transparency and delivering valuable information that users can trust must be at the top of the list for any content initiative.

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