Maybe we need a new definition of “Native Advertising.”

Yesterday I spoke with Lucia Moses at Digiday about a Native ad for Shell that appeared in The Washington Post’s print and digital editions. You can read about it here.

By any measure, the ad is awful. It’s ugly, it’s poorly written, it’s uninteresting. Normally, no one would care. “Ugly, poorly written, and uninteresting” defines a lot of advertising today. The difference with Shell’s ad, and the reason why we should care, is that it is intermingled with The Post’s editorial content.

Fortunately for The Washington Post, there’s no risk that Shell’s ad will be mistaken for editorial. The ad stands out like a boil on a witches nose, unnatural and disgusting. The Post says the Shell ad is “native” because, “…it’s integrated among editorial stories on the page. It’s labeled ‘sponsor generated content’ and (has) visual cues of background shading and fonts that are different from the surrounding articles.”

If that’s the definition of native, and if it allows for atrocities like the Shell ad, then we need a new definition.

How about this:

Native advertising is content created by a brand that is at least as engaging, educational, informative, entertaining, enlightening, beautiful, and well written as the content that surrounds it. Native advertising is so good it benefits readers, publishers, and advertisers alike.” That’s not a definition that encompasses all native advertising–just the kind I hope to create or experience.

If I were the CMO at Shell, I’d have my agency in my office today, and I’d tell them that’s what I want.

If I were Frederick Ryan, newly-installed publisher of The Washington Post, I’d have my ad sales team in my office right now, and I’d tell them not to bring me anything less than that from advertisers ever again. “If you’re going to mingle ad content with my content, it had better be worthy.”

You may be crying, “What about church and state? The publisher at The Post can’t talk to the ad people about content. We can’t afford to slide down that slippery slope!”

I disagree. If a publisher puts a fence around his editorial and says, “Nothing gets in the gate unless it meets MY standard for greatness, MY standard for truth, accuracy, and utility to our readers,” then who gets harmed? The reader? Nope. The Washington Post? Nope. The advertiser? Nope. Advertisers should welcome that kind of scrutiny. Someone has to tell the king he’s naked.

Besides, does anyone want to slide down a slope that results in that ad from Shell?

One of the worst possible violations of church and state is to allow crappy content to be confused with editorial content, because then all content is devalued. If advertisers are going to be allowed to mingle marketing content with editorial content, publishers and editors—or their designates—are going to have to enforce standards of greatness.

What’s your definition of great Native Advertising?

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Using Exclusive Digital Content to Influence Consumer Behavior

You know that feeling. You have an idea. You noodle it around a bit. You put it out there. And you just can’t believe that nobody has jumped all over it yet. It’s frustrating. A bit bewildering.

I’ve been banging on about this one for a while now – using an exclusive digital feed or asset to as a way to convince the consumer to buy one similar product over another. Let’s consider it across two slightly different scenarios.

A product that targets the same audience, fulfills the same function, appeals to the same aesthetic drivers, and competes on price. How does one brand sway a consumer to buy their product over that of another brand when it’s such a similar offering.

Consider basketball sneakers. Hundreds of choices offered by a whole bunch of shoe companies. A whole range of price points. Different style types to select from – running, basketball and so on. Consumers often start the purchase process having already streamlined via price and style. So typically when a consumer goes to a store or shops online for a sneaker they have 8-10 different shoes within their style preference/budget range to choose from. Within that there are maybe 3-4 that they really like and would consider buying.

All other things being equal, how could a brand get a jump on securing the sale? How could they differentiate? As a potential tipping point what if one of those sneakers came with an exclusive social feed from a star NBA player who would post a few comments or an exclusive video-clip after a game accessible only by those consumers who purchased the sneaker. This unique and limited digital feed could be that purchase tipping point.

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Take it a step further. Two separate stores selling the exact same product – say, Toys R Us and Amazon selling the exact same Star Wars action figure. Same price point, same exact product. Same same same. What if Amazon offered the purchaser a code with which to unlock an exclusive video clip from the upcoming Star Wars sequel or a private instagram feed from Darth Vader? Would that attract the hard-core fan?

Let’s consider the challenges.

Exclusivity is key. Retailers and brands will be well-served to maintain the highly-limited nature of the offering. And of course it must be content that can be produced at a price that does not push the overall product cost above that of the competition. Incremental costs leading to increased sales, good. Incremental costs that impact overall profitability, bad.

It’s a whole new angle on product marketing especially for those of us creatives in the marketing business. And it will bring the joy and innovation back to content marketing.

But of course it’s not just for shoes and toys. The possibilities are endless:

  • Purchase a point and shoot camera and get access to an exclusive Annie Lebowitz ‘How To’ series
  • Buy a Le Creuset dutch oven and receive an exclusive recipe feed from Martha Stewart
  • Converse Shoes could offer a couple of free tracks each month from one of the up and coming indie bands they sponsor
  • A desk lamp? Tips on how to work smarter from Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour Work Week
  • Toothpaste? A weekly stand-up sketch from Louis CK
  • Buy a man’s wallet and get 5 stock pics from Jim Cramer
  • Headphones that come with a seasonal spotify playlist from David Guetta

I could go on and on – coming up with compelling content offers is not going to be a problem. Seems like the biggest challenge with this concept is ensuring that the content remains exclusive to the purchaser. Finding a technology that ensures content can’t be shared or posted for all to see is important to inspire a purchase based on exclusivity. Or flip it on it’s head and play it from a “first to know” angle and pitch the additional kudos to the consumer of being a purchase-influencer for those companies not invested in keeping the content secure.

Interesting idea? So tell me where you could see this idea being applied and what you think might be the challenges to a successful implementation.

Next up, I’ll spend some time considering the ways in which brick and mortar retailers could be using the intel they gather about consumers in the online world in the real-world store…

Welcome to The Viddiverse!

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We love our clients. Working with their brands, figuring out their objectives and helping to create, develop and execute on strategies that will propel their business towards an even more successful future. It’s a pretty great way to to spend the day.

But about a year ago we were presented with a very cool opportunity. A natural evolution. Our good friend, and co-AOL alumnus Malcolm Bird came to us with a very exciting proposition. Malcolm is a veteran of the kids entertainment industry. Nickelodeon UK, AOLKids and AOLRed just part of his long and storied history in the business.

He came to us with an amazing vision – creating an online video property aimed squarely at the under-served 8-14 segment. Kids old enough to demand screen time, but too young to head into the unchaperoned (and often extremely unpleasant) waters of YouTube. Old enough to know about social media, but far too young for the rigors of Facebook or Instagram. Savvy enough to create their own videos, but limited in their ability to share them with their pals.

Malcolm had in his head an idea for a create-edit-share video sharing platform. A place where kids could have unfettered access to only age-appropriate content. A suite of tools to enable them to get hands-on and create their own programming. A place to have parent-approved but independent fun.

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It was exciting stuff. A blank sheet of paper. Building from the ground up. We were IN! Our role was to design, create and build the platform itself. Develop the brand. Design the corporate identity. As founding partners we invested financially and emotionally.

Founding Partners. And parents. This is a site that our own kids will use. It is designed to be COPPA-complaint. COPPA is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which governs websites that target kids under 13. COPPA’s complex set of rules complicates matters, likely why Facebook, YouTube, Vine and others restrict their sites to kids 13 and over. For example, aside from requiring parental consent, Viddiverse doesn’t collect any personal information from children, doesn’t allow bad language and won’t link to non-Coppa sites, plus parents can review every video a kid posts. Designing a service with that framework is challenging, but so very worthwhile.

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The Viddiverse has just launched. The platform looks amazing. Kids are signing up and already creating videos, posting comments, getting involved and engaged. We love it. We hope you will too. Check it out. Or click here to play a video that will give you a three minute overview.

Viddiverse.com – the new, online create-edit-share video network just for tweens. Parent-approved. COPPA-compliant. Awesome! And hey, don’t forget to tell your kids to sign up!

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Bringing hope and help to those who need it most.

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We write a lot on this blog and other places about the need for brands to be helpful and useful, and to build sites and apps that ask, “How can I help you?” instead of “What can I sell you?” We think we’re pretty good at helping our clients put that advice into practice. But every now and then a client comes along that takes us back to school.

Most recently that happened with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, one of our non-profit clients who have nothing to sell, and only exist to help those who feel most hopeless. Over the past six months our teams have been locked away with some of the kindest, most caring people you could ever meet, designing and building an experience that makes it easier for families to gain access to the people and tools they need to keep drugs out of the hands of their children, or to save kids whose lives have become consumed by drugs.

One of the things I admire most about our colleagues at the Partnership is that they didn’t try to design an experience based on industry research reports or demographic data. Every day every one of them touches their audience in some way. Because of that intimacy, those who work at the Partnership understand the needs and behaviors of their audience as well as any brand marketer we’ve ever met. Thanks to their indefatigable efforts, they’re able to measure their success not in page views or “engagement,” but in tons of prescription drugs taken off the streets.

If you know a child or family that has been hurt by drugs, please suggest that they visit the Partnership site right away.

“Can content marketing work for packaged goods companies?”

We’re asked that question often. Our answer inevitably involves a conversation about the ground breaking work done by Red Bull, and the remarkable work we did for Coca-Cola, helping to transform their corporate web site into a full-blown digital news and entertainment experience. Now that our latest site has gone live for Danone in France, we have a fantastic new reference point.

Many brands today hire ad agencies to write three or four articles and then place them as native ads, hoping to dip their toes into Content Marketing.

Danone jumped in feet first.

We worked with the Danone Nutricia Research team to create The NutriJournal. The site will host a wealth of consumer-friendly content that highlights the role food plays in your health. We designed and developed an engaging platform housing articles, videos, slideshows and infographics that turn tracts of gnarly scientific data and research into consumer-friendly, shareable content.

Because we’ve built over 70 sites and apps for publishing brands such as Time, Sports Illustrated, Better Homes & Gardens, Fitness and AARP, we were able to assemble a small army of professional food, health, and entertainment writers to create well over 100 pieces of original content for Danone Nutricia Research. In addition to the standalone site, individual content experiences will soon be syndicated by Danone Nutricia Research, and placed within the most appropriate context on partner sites. Those experiences will then be used to connect researchers and consumers back to Danone Nutricia Research’s robust site experience.

The initial results for The NutriJournal are very promising. For now, we’re in a test and learn phase, figuring out what does and doesn’t work, optimizing as we go, and gaining an understanding about how content can be used to usher consumers through Danone’s purchase funnel. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

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10 Alternatives to the RFP Every Brand Should Consider

This article was originally published in MediaPost.

We get a lot of RFPs at The Wonderfactory. I’m thankful for all of them. Unfortunately, like resumes, Big Macs, and financial services web sites, all RFPs are the same.

If you’ve issued an RFP lately, at some point you probably found yourself looking over the responses saying, “All these guys say the exact same thing!” There’s a reason for that. You’re asking everyone the exact same questions.

Assuming your goal is to get to know potential partners well enough to narrow your choices, here are ten alternatives to the RFP that people in the real world use to get to know each other. The suggestions are meant to be fun, but all will give you serious insights about each agency, while giving them a chance to learn how they can be most helpful to you:

1. Get on an airplane and fly first class across the country with your potential project lead. If you’re smarter when you land than you were when you took off, it’s a good sign.
2. Play golf in a foursome with 3 employees from each agency. Ride in the cart for 6 holes with each one.
3. Follow each agency’s top five executives on Twitter and Facebook. If, after a month, you still find it helpful and useful to continue following them, you may find it helpful and useful to work with them.
4. Have a poker night with each agency. It’ll give you a good chance to learn how to tell when they’re bluffing.
5. Invite the agency and two or three of their clients to dinner. You choose the clients.
6. Have a party at your home. Invite all the agencies and a select group of friends. Gossip with your friends after the agencies leave.
7. Take each agency team rock climbing, white water rafting, or line dancing—something that tells you they can work with you as a team.
8. Theater night. Each agency performs a 30-minute one-act play that teaches you something insightful about your audience.
9. Invite a chef and each agency to your home on separate nights for a cooking class. Let the wine flow.

Bonus #10 (“normal” people don’t do this one, but it’s still a good idea that we’re stealing from our friends at Narrative 4): Five members from your team meet with five members of the agency team for an hour. Everyone pairs up. At the end of the hour, each member of your team tells the life story of a member of the agency team and vice versa.

Even if you ask the agencies to foot the bill, any of my ten suggestions will cost them less time and money than answering a written RFP.

Of course, if it makes you feel more comfortable you can still issue your RFP, but adding one of my suggestions to the mix will allow you to make your decision based not just on what an agency says, but also on what they do.

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This Week’s Wonder: Life Unfiltered

This Week’s Wonder comes from the pen of our own Bill Klavon. Read, relax, enjoy…

It’s been a long, cold Winter. But last weekend the warm spring sun finally put in an appearance. I went out hiking with my family. Life was good. No, life was great.

And I had an a-ha moment.

It struck me, as I was peering at the amazing view of the Shenandoah Valley through my iPhone, that many of the moments I wish to remember the most, I experience largely through the filter of a lens or a screen. I’m so busy capturing the experience for all posterity that I’m actually removing myself from the very thing I wish to remember. So I captured these beautiful images of the Shenandoah Valley as we headed toward the Dickey Ridge trail in lovely Virginia, about 75 miles west of Washington D.C.

And then I did a crazy thing.

I put my iPhone away.

And for the next 2 hours of the hike, it remained safely tucked into my pocket while I simply breathed. And walked. And looked. And occasionally huffed and puffed (I don’t go hiking very often).

And what did I get out of this, besides a reminder of how out of shape I am? Well I was reminded that Winter really IS over at last (despite what HBO would have you believe). I was also reminded that while hiking objects – like the top of a hill or the end of a trail – are often much farther away than they appear. Most importantly, though, I was reminded that when it comes to experiencing wonder there is no replacement for the five senses in their raw and natural state unaugmented by lenses, chips, or a connection to the social hive that is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like.

Our sense of wonder needs to be nurtured, nourished and fed. And in turn it will feed our soul. A soul starved of wonder slowly withers until nothing – not a cute cat video, the announcement of the new cast of Star Wars Episode VII, and not even a visit to one of the ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die‘ will bring it back.

So get out there and feed your soul. Take a photo or two if you must. But then put your device away. Post when you get home. As Ram Dass would say ‘Be Here Now’. And keep on wondering…

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Can Brand Storytelling Work?

You can’t pick up a marketing magazine or visit a marketing web site today without stumbling upon an article espousing the virtues of ‘Brand Storytelling’. Everyone encourages brands to tell interesting, entertaining, educational, and informative stories instead of bludgeoning consumers with bigger, louder, or more intrusive ads.

But is there any evidence to suggest that storytelling works? For the answer, I turned to an actual, successful storyteller, Colum McCann. Colum teaches creative writing at Hunter College and is the best-selling author of six novels including the National Book Award-winning ‘Let the Great World Spin’.

Colum, along with our good friend Lisa Consiglio, also helped found a non-profit named Narrative 4. Joel Lovell wrote an article in the NY Times Magazine that best describes the work of Narrative 4:

“Narrative 4 brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships. Over a span of days the kids pair off, one from each place, and exchange the story that most defines who they are. At the end of their time together, they tell the stories to the larger group, taking on the persona of their partner — an exercise in radical empathy.’

During his recent visit to our offices (we’re currently designing a new web site for Narrative 4), I asked Colum if he had definitive proof that storytelling works.

“Sure I do,” he said in his wonderful Irish lilt. “This is the oldest, most successful thing in the world. Since we were drawing pictures on cave walls, we’ve been telling stories.” He then told me about bringing together Israeli and Palestinian teens, and helping them tell each other’s stories. He spoke of kids – former enemies – walking with arms over each other’s shoulders, promising to remain friends and work toward peace.

When I jokingly pointed out to Colum that he had no Google Analytics reports to prove his case, and that BRAND storytelling might be different from human storytelling, he grew serious. “Most products don’t have interesting stories,” he told me, “but all people do. And the only thing more interesting to me than my story is my story told by someone else. It’s not about brands telling their own stories. It’s about brands telling MY story. That’s what works. That’s what matters.“

What a fantastic insight!

When you open your Nike+ app and it tells you your running data for the week, isn’t that your story? And isn’t that one of the reasons why Nike+ has been so successful? When you watch a nerve-tingling GoPro video, don’t you place yourself in the action? When a woman watches a Dove video about how women are their own, worst beauty critics, doesn’t she gain valuable insight about herself?

‘Radical Empathy’ isn’t just a concept that works for kids. If you’re a brand thinking about storytelling, developing Radical Empathy for your customers, and telling their stories, is likely the best place to start.

Of course, it’s not easy, but doing great work is never easy. Is it?

If you’d like to learn more about great storytelling, or about Narrative 4’s approach, you’d be smart to attend the Narrative4 Spring Celebration on May 20th. Surround yourself with some of the best storytellers of the 21st Century, including Colum McCann, Salman Rushdie, Terry Tempest Williams, and Ishmael Beah. See how Narrative 4 does it’s magic. Learn from them.

We’ve adopted the Narrative 4 belief in the power of storytelling, and we’re a better agency for having done so. We look forward to seeing you on May 20th.

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Brand (Un)Awareness

Check out this amazing video. If this doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck nothing will. It’s terrifying, crazy, and awe-inspiring. With all due respect to Felix Baumgartner and Red Bull, this video scares us more than any jump out of a balloon from the edge of space.

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It’s also viral content at its best with 1,300,000 views on YouTube in just a few days. Unfortunately, it’s also some of the best UNbranded content we’ve seen.

Who’s the cyclist? Who does he ride for? Does he have a sponsor? Whose bike is that? Whose gloves? Whose helmet? We assume that’s a GoPro strapped to his helmet, but who knows for certain? Maybe it’s an iHead?

It doesn’t take a huge number of clicks to get the to the bottom of the who, when, and where, but it shouldn’t take any clicks at all. This is a giant, missed opportunity for all the brands involved. Geoff Gulevich (@geoffgulevich) is the cyclist – an amazing athlete with stellar equipment. He’s sponsored by Dakine, Adidas eyewear, Rocky Mountain Bikes, and Marzocchi Suspension (amongst others), but – at time of press – a search for Geoff’s name on all of those sites yields zero results. (Marzoocchi, unbelievably, does not even have search functionality on their site.) And yes, that is a GoPro. Geoff’s sponsors should be all over this content. While @Dakinenews links to this video from their Twitter page, there’s no mention of it at @Adidas, @Rockymountain, or @marzocchisusp. This could be content marketing at it’s best. But it’s not even close.

Of course true viral success comes out of nowhere. Nobody could have predicted the speed with which – once it gained momentum – it was shared, viewed, tweeted, commented upon. But once Geoff’s sponsors caught wind of the viral phenomenon it would have served them very well indeed to give their brand a shout-out.

So, we wonder, why do so many content marketing “experts” advise advertisers, wrongly, not to brand their content. Content this awesome and death-defying should be branded proudly—or, If you don’t have the rights to brand it, at least link to it proudly.

Smart vs Beautiful?

I’ve been an Apple fanboy since I got my first Apple II+ computer at the tender age of 13.

I accidentally became an Android advocate when I had to use the new Samsung Galaxy 4 for a project I was working on for the Billboard Music Awards. As part of the project we developed a microsite for Samsung with original content from the awards shot using the Galaxy S4 camera and video capabilities.

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Using the Galaxy was an eye-opening experience. And I took a lot of grief about the initial switch. But after living with the phone for a month, I decided to make the leap, and turn my service plan, and life, over to Android. That was about a year ago and I still answer questions ALL the time about what it was that made me flip.

But this post is not about Android vs Apple. This is about smart vs beautiful.

My background is design and UX. From movie poster design in the 90s to platform, app and website development today. What’s most exciting for me about the Android OS is the deep level of personalization that’s available. The Android OS offers me the ability to completely customize my experience at almost every level of interaction with the phone once it’s turned on. I can customize the font, backgrounds, animation and – most compellingly – add widgets so that at launch half the time I don’t even have to open an app to get the utility and experience I need. It’s already loading as I power up.

Full disclosure, to completely customize the interface and benefit from this highly personalized experience takes a lot of time. A lot. You’ve got to learn the toolset and in some cases that can be quite difficult – which is why I don’t recommend my friends with iPhones make the switch lightly. You need to be willing invest the time and acquire some expertise to achieve a good result and make the switch worthwhile. But in my opinion it’s worth it

It took a few months to complete the customization. I was already pretty happy. But then along came a couple of new apps that really changed my thinking on what’s important for a mobile OS. Aviate (recently purchased by Yahoo) is a ‘smart launcher’ app that gathers intelligence about when and where I use certain apps or view certain content and Cover (just purchased by Twitter) is an awesome lock-screen app. Based on the data these apps gather from tracking my behavior (with my permission of course) my device can serve up content and applications when and where I needed them. My phone is more intuitive and more useful.

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So the OS knows where I am. And, depending on my geo-location and the time of day, continues to either serve up apps that make sense to my likely needs, or make those apps readily and quickly accessible. So at home in the morning the OS displays the first few appointments on my calendar, the local weather and a few headlines – all that before even tapping into an application. At work the OS shows my last few emails, my work calendar and last three items on my to do list. It even knows when I’m neither at home or at work and goes into a “traveling mode” giving me access to guides and maps.

After living with this type of smart home screen experience for a few months I can’t imagine ever going back to the generic “dumb” interface that most smart phones have.

So it works beautifully, but does it look beautiful? Well, not so much.

Whilst the Android OS apps that enable my phone experience to be ‘smart’ are certainly not ugly, they could hardly be described as beautiful either. That’s a real oversight. They could be, they should be, both. Of course it’s early days for these types of smart OS applications and no doubt they will get not only better looking but more easily customizable too. But I’ll wait for the aesthetics to catch up as I found the experience of my phone intuitively predicting and customizing my content and utility experiences throughout the day to be so incredibly helpful.

So for now, I’ll choose smart over beautiful. My Galaxy makes me more more efficient and saves me time allowing me to focus on bringing “smart and beautiful” to the rest of the things I do in my life.