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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The simple formula that works for The New York Times’ T Brand Studio

August 28, 2018 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst—Mobile Groove @peggyanne

In just a few years, the number of publishers building out branded content has soared from 15 to more than 600—and counting. But it’s not just their ranks that have grown. Many publishers have expanded their capabilities, harnessing teams, talent and tech to help brands create sponsored content and capture audiences. The New York Times has gone one better, establishing T Brand, a complete content studio, to create unconventional immersive and artistic projects that go far beyond native advertising.

Graham McDonnell, International Creative Director for T Brand Studio

Through the strategic acquisitions of Hello Society, an influencer marketing agency, and Fake Love, a design-driven agency specialized in one-of-a-kind live experiences, T Brand has also nurtured new expertise in video, 360-degree filming, augmented reality, and virtual reality. Here, Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with Graham McDonnell, International Creative Director for T Brand Studio, to discuss the company’s mission to create dynamic and innovative content with a decidedly human touch.


PAS: T Brand is leveraging its tech abilities and acquisitions, but it also benefits from audience trust in The New York Times. How do you make the most of both without blurring the lines between content you create for your brand partners and editorial content?

GM: There is quite a clear divide between the newsroom and advertising; it’s very much church and state. We obviously can’t use journalists from the newsroom. However, the studio is staffed with fully qualified journalists, many of whom have come from our competitors. So, we have the strength of a newsroom, in integrity, and talent, and we leverage this for our advertisers. We also maintain a high standard for our audience. After all, the audience coming to The New York Times expects New York Times journalism and content. So, it’s expected that our branded content should hit those heights as well.

It’s also very important to identify branded content as a piece of advertising content. As soon as an audience feels duped or tricked into reading branded content it will lose trust in the publisher and—ultimately—in the brand.  Our most common branded content pieces are labeled “paid posts.” Traditionally, that post was a destination. So, it was a URL that readers could visits via our website or via our app—content that was paid, posted and lived indefinitely. The aim was to make that content accessible to audiences. We still make branded content a destination. But we also make it a journey because getting eyeballs on a page isn’t enough. We’ve started to add what we call “branded footers” to each piece of sponsored content we produce. This way, when a user is finished consuming a piece of content, we offer the opportunity to continue that conversation outside our paid-post environment.

PAS: Branded content is a major revenue driver for publishers, but not all publishers have been able to get brands to buy in for the longer term. How can publishers make that connection?

GM: Storytelling is what we as humans do and relate to—going back to cave paintings and hieroglyphics. Storytelling is an intrinsic part of our human nature and the best branded content taps into that. The best stories come when publishers partner with the client and dig deep into the story the brand wants to tell. You want to nail the narrative first, and you want to think about the execution second. It’s important to tell a human story, one that’s relatable for the audience, and not get ahead of yourself by trying to figure out if VR, for example, might be the best way to tell the story. This is a point many brand marketers forget and it’s up to the publisher to remind them. No one knows their business better than our clients, but no one knows our audience better than us. Put the two together, and that’s when you get the best—and most sustainable—results.

It’s all about the ability to marry the storytelling expertise of the in-house team with the advertiser’s goal to address its audience and express its point of view. So, brands come to us with their brand message and they look to us to position that message within a story that will resonate with our audience. Of course, brands will push hard to put their message first. It’s up to the publisher to push back and put the storytelling first.

PAS: Does it requires some “tough love” to strike a balance between the two?

GM: Yes, and that’s what will drive results. For example, some clients come to us and say they want AR or VR. They want all the bells and whistles and all the flashy toys. But we tell them it’s much more important to think about the story first and then how to tell it. Even in the word ‘storytelling,’ the story comes before the telling.  This means taking a step back to think about the type of story your audience will want to engage with, not the tech you’ll need to tell it.

We were one of the first content studios. So, over time, we have found what works, and what doesn’t. Over time we’ve seen that we have much more time spent on our content than on the content given to us by brands. Sure, we get brands coming to us saying, you know, “We have got this video of our CEO. He’s very engaging. It’s 32 minutes long. We just want to put it and you don’t need to do anything with it. Just put it on and people will love it.” My response is, “No, that might not be the best idea.” You have to put the brand message in a story people will like – one that will take them on a journey not blast them with details and stats.

PAS: What is the best way to tell brand stories?

GM: There’s a simple sort of formula that all good stories follow called the narrative arc. The first thing you do is introduce an element, usually a character, that the audience likes and is emotionally invested in enough to care what happens to this person. Then you present a problem or a hurdle, some sort of challenge that must be overcome. Finally, you reveal the outcome, some kind of goal or reward. The brand message is an integral part of the story, but it shouldn’t be too obvious. Just like parents who convince their children to eat vegetables by hiding it the food kids are sure to like, branded content blends the brand story within the story—because these are the things you want your audience to digest. Making the brand message part of the storytelling makes it much more palatable. Once you’ve got the story, then you think about the execution.

The biggest trap content marketers fall into is trying to tick all the boxes. Sometimes they are pushed by their brand clients, and other times they are pushed by their own ambitions. They put together a package of four videos, three infographics and loads of cool stuff for impact across every channel. Without a strong narrative to link each piece to the next the outcome is a Frankenstein monster of fragmented content. We have found it’s more effective to limit yourself to telling very focused stories.

PAS: It’s clear that branded content has to be emotive, but it must also be effective. How do accomplish and measure this?

GM: The best results come when you have a deep partnership with the advertiser and a deep understanding of how audiences engage with content. Knowing the time of day people are consuming content on their devices is an important data point. It’s part of a larger, much more data-driven approach to know when to serve the right content at the right time. Targeting context increases engagement. If you have created a data-heavy infographic that is best consumed on the desktop or tablet, then there’s really no point in serving that during commuting times when most users will be viewing their mobile feeds and devices.

We’ve also found that around three-quarters of our programs have dwell times above the Moat benchmarks for audience attention. So, not only are we getting people to visit our content; we know they are staying to engage with it. Moreover, a vast majority of our programs surpass the Moat benchmark for scroll depth. This means they are scrolling down and exploring the content. We have succeeded in building a narrative arc that offers a reward well worth the audience’s time and attention. You’ve really done your job if you can bring rather drab content to life and a great example of this is when a client wanted us to help promote a white paper. We decided to do it in a quiz format that would draw the reader into the content. We had seven questions and after every question they asked, we gave them a little snippet of content, a statistic related to the answer they just gave. It was a reward scheme, and it worked—showing that it’s a very underused tactic but effective tactic to keep people engaged.

PAS: The international arm of the T Brand Studio is perhaps best known for its award-winning campaign for UBS, highlighting AI and what it takes to be human. The native advertising included a chat bot, a five-chapter article and a documentary-style video, surpassing target reach and engagement metrics.  Another more recent campaign for Kia brought the Cadenza model to life in a series of live events. Should traditional creative advertising agencies feel nervous?

GM: As I said earlier, the best content comes from partnership. We don’t usually offer our services like an off-the-shelf product; we build a relationship with the client to tell a story in the way our New York Times audience expects it to be told. It’s not a case of jumping in on every brainstorm or every RFP; it’s a case of looking at what the client wants to achieve and answering the brief with a strong journalistic approach because that’s our strength. A lot of the time we’ll partner with other agencies when we create content for brands. We’ve also worked in tandem with other publishers on certain program to suit the needs of the client. The industry is moving fast and getting faster. Therefore, it’s important we all learn from each other, not fight against each other for first place. The bar for branded content is high—and so are audience expectations.

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