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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Great Big Story: CNN-backed, newsworthy content that’s not news

October 20, 2015 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Big media companies are investing in content that attracts younger audiences, as evidenced by Time Inc.’s purchase of Hello Giggles this week and NBCUniversal’s recent investment in Vox and Buzzfeed. Now Turner-owned CNN has announce its own bid for this massive and attractive segment with the launch of Great Big Story, an independent video network, focused on “unparalleled and optimistic storytelling.” According to co-founder Chris Berend, CNN’s Vice president for video development, “our internal mantra is ‘humans are capable of incredible things.’”

And that, according to Berend, includes the Great Big Story (GBS) team, who he has tasked with “showing me something I’ve never seen before in terms of the stories themselves and the way the stories are told.” At launch, this will take the form of three to five videos of varying lengths each day (with a short film due out in November). Subjects include: The Untold Story of the Kool-Aid ManPerfect is Hard, Featuring Misty Copeland, and What it’s Like to Fly Into a Hurricane (On Purpose), and a profile of Lisa Frank, the reclusive creative mind behind iconic rainbow and unicorn-centric designs featured on a slew of familiar products.

GBS launches with a staff of about 30, including recruits from BuzzFeed, Vox, VICE, MTV, ABC, NowThis, Amazon, and Yahoo!. The unit will operate as an independent company inside CNN. Yet, while GBS’s funding comes from CNN, Berend says that they are very clear with themselves and others that they’re not a news brand, though he points out that the type of stories they plan to tell function as news for this audience in many ways.

Berend believes that there is a vast audience that has been given short shrift in terms of appealing and appropriate content: “We have been seeing a huge underserved audience that traditional media is not resonating with and that wants more than the silliness and cynicism that is out there.” Their target audience is 25-35-year-olds who are well-educated, live in cities and, by nature of the way they operate in the world, are globally-savvy. They live on mobile and social and have an affinity for civically-minded, lifestyle, socially-conscious and, yes, entertaining content.

Given this demographic’s content consumption habits, GBS focuses its distribution strategy on mobile and social channels. While the brand debuts with a website—and iOS and Android apps—the primary distribution focus is social so they can find audiences where they are already consuming content. This includes Facebook and plans for YouTube, Apple News, Snapchat and more in starting in November. Connected TVs are also on the near-term roadmap.

GBS launches with a multi-year investment from CNN and a focus on branded content as the primary revenue stream. Eschewing traditional pre-roll advertising, the plan is “to collaborate with brands to figure out what kinds of stories they have to tell.” According to Berend, initial sales calls have been very positive because “we are hitting a very desirable audience,” but also because brands increasingly understand that content helps them forge more meaningful connections with consumers.

For CNN, which green-lit the project in February after quietly testing the concept through its social channels, Berend says this offers a way to engage an audience that “is growing fast and moving quickly.” In turn, CNN offers the GBS team “a lot of advantages that any startup would kill for” including deep video acumen, amplification and traffic driven from its owned and operated properties as well as its strong social presence. The relationship with established parent, CNN, also opens doors, according to Berend. We are able to get people to talk to us because they know we’re affiliated with CNN, which is legitimate and reliable.”

“We have a giant brand that does news, but also an audience that is starving for content in their social feed and on their phones.” And GBS will be there to feed that need with content that is “enjoyable, entertaining, and helps them learn something.” Because that’s what they read and, perhaps even more importantly, “that’s what they share.”

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