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.

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“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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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.

narrative 4 spring benefit

The Problem with Brand Publishing

This article was originally published by Sparksheet.com.

Proving the ROI of content is a perennial challenge. The Wonderfactory’s Joe McCambley asks, could the problem be a purely semantic one?

“Does content deliver a better ROI than traditional advertising?”

I hear that question all the time at marketing conferences. Marketers who know to the penny the ROI of their programmatic banner buys or direct response mailings, are often told by content marketing enthusiasts to measure likes, shares, and comments.

Intuitively, it makes sense. People who “like” your brand are probably more likely to buy from you. “Shares” represent a sort of word of mouth advertising, and that’s the best kind, right? But what’s the value of a “like”? Can “shares” be linked to sales”?

I think the root cause of the confusion about how to measure the value of content is how we understand the term, “brand publishing.” The term creates five misconceptions about branded content that impede the progress of otherwise inventive marketers.

Misconception #1: “Shares” matter most.

False. Shares are important for publishers because more awareness equals more ad revenues. But advertisers are concerned about much more than the top of a sales funnel, where awareness sits.

They’re also interested in building desire for their products, selling products, and creating loyal customers. An article on microsoft.com about the importance of secure passwords, for example, is very helpful to Microsoft’s customers and builds loyalty, but that doesn’t make it share-worthy.

Instead of asking, “Is this going to get shared?” marketers need to ask, “Will this content help an individual customer in their individual moment of need?”

For another example, check out the debate that took place on Sparksheet a few weeks ago between Ashley Brown of Coca-Cola, and Mark Higginson, the social media manager at the University of Brighton.

To summarize, Mark felt Coca-Cola made a mistake by hiring an editorial staff and filling its corporate website (which my company designed) with content, because most of that content doesn’t get shared very often. To paraphrase Ashley’s response, “number of shares” is not a metric that matters most to Coca-Cola.

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Misconception #2: People want news.

False. A publisher like The New York Times reports news because they have to stay fresh to remain relevant – not to mention it’s what their audience expects. But a video about ways to boost retirement savings on fidelity.com will never get old.

Unless your product is directly tied to trends and news, your brand might be better served by focusing on evergreen content that has enduring value for your customers or prospects.

Misconception #3: It’s all about articles.

False. Publishers focus, mostly, on articles. Branded content can and should take any form that helps weave a story. The entrance to our office is a secret bookshelf that makes visitors smile and shows them that we think differently from other design firms.

Smart brands will look at all customer-facing communications as content and as opportunities to tell positive, emotional stories: Business cards, office environments, registrations forms, comparison tools, job descriptions – everything can be content, and everything provides an opportunity for storytelling.

Misconception #4: Don’t sell.

Yes and no. You would be wise to create content with the same good intentions as the best publishers. Instead of asking, “What can we sell you?” ask, “How can we help you?”

Create your content to entertain, inform, enlighten, or help your audience – the way publishers do – and your audience will be much more likely to buy from you. As we like to say, “Content that helps, sells. Content that sells, doesn’t.”

Contently makes software that connects brands that need content to writers and journalists that create content. Its LinkedIn page is an indispensible source of helpful advice about how to create – and measure – the success of your content efforts. While I never feel sold by them, I do feel compelled to work with them.

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Misconception #5: Don’t brand.

False. This debate incites strong passion because advertisers have spent the past 100+ years being irrelevant.

People go to the bathroom when TV ads air, they channel surf when radio ads come on, they open mail over the trashcan to get rid of junk faster, and they completely ignore the right-hand rail of websites. It’s only natural to believe that if an advertiser’s name is associated with content, everyone will ignore it.

But if you are as entertaining or helpful or useful as possible, why would you not want your brand associated with your content? Anyone who tells you not to include your brand or product name in your content is delusional – or deceptive, in the case of native advertising. Ignore them.

GE’s ‘Fallonventions’ segment on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ is a brilliant piece of branded content that leaves no doubt about the advertiser behind the effort.

So, if we don’t call it brand publishing, what should we call it?

I like “content marketing” for a couple of reasons. First, “content” is a broad term that encompasses much more than articles, photo galleries or videos.

“Content” can be anything that engages, educates, informs, entertains or helps your audience. With a little imagination, your business cards can be content. “Marketing” keeps us all aware of the fact that, unlike publishers, we need to sell something.

In truth, what we call it matters much less than how we do it. Just be helpful. Let the rest take care of itself.

If Your Customer-Facing Sites and Apps are Not Perfect, Every Dollar You Spend on Social Media is Wasted.

Here’s why.

Of all the hundreds of millions of people who login today across all social networks, exactly 0% do so with the hope of hearing from you. Even if they agreed to follow you – assuming they even remember that fact – they have logged in so that they can have an intimate conversation with family or friends, or to get news that is immediately relevant to them. If you want their attention, you have to convince them that what they intended to do is not as important as they thought. They need instead to pay attention to you.

On an average day on Facebook, you’ll succeed fewer than 1% of the time.

Contrast that with your site or customer-facing app, where 100% of the people who come to you are aware of you, and intend to have some sort of interaction with you. That means 100% of every dollar you spend on your site or app will work hard for you.

Are your customer web sites and apps as good as they can be? If not, why are you spending ANY money on social media?
#bigrethink

What’s the Best Native Ad You’ve Ever Seen?

I’m asked that all the time. Most of the time my response is that the best native ad I’ve ever seen isn’t a native ad at all. It’s an article that appeared in The Atlantic that should have been a native ad for GE.

Then, last Friday, I stumbled across a Sponsored Advertising Leaderboard created by Sharethrough. It tracks the “social activity” of sponsored content across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other channels. If you’ve ever wondered which native advertising is most successful, or even if native advertising is any good at all, you should check it out. The leaderboard lets you filter sponsored ads by brand, publisher, topic/product and social network. I’m not exactly sure what is meant by “social actions,” and the leaderboard doesn’t explain the term very well, but I’m sure Sharethrough will correct that omission. For now, I’ll assume “social actions” is a measure of how many times an experience has been viewed, commented upon, shared, and reshared.

Number 1 on the Leaderboard, with 1,313,100 social actions, is an article entitled “25 Places That Look Not Normal, But Are Actually Real.” The experience, a photo gallery of unusual places, was created by Buzzfeed for Mini, whose tagline is “Mini. Not Normal.” Buzzfeed first posted the experience in October of 2012. Unlike radio and TV spots that vaporize upon viewing, digital native advertising is able to build momentum, and retain staying power over time.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the headlines for 22 of the top 25 experiences follow the same formula: a number followed by a claim that lets readers know there’s a list at the end of the click. At this point in the development of native advertising, lists still work – really, really well. Some work better than others of course. “The 20 Most Awkward Ad Placements Ever” created by BuzzFeed for Virgin, is hilarious. It made me laugh out loud a few times. If United Airlines sponsored that content it would fall flat for me. But it fits my impression of the Virgin brand, and makes me like them more. On the other hand another experience created by BuzzFeed for Virgin, “20 People That Are Doing It Wrong” features animated GIFs of people in unfortunate situations, including a woman in a wheelchair falling backwards down an escalator. My perception is that Virgin has a good sense of humor, but making fun of that person feels more hurtful than humorous.

But is “social activity” the most important measure of success for native ads? Perhaps it is, if your goal is awareness. But I think the true value of native advertising will be to not only gain attention, but also to help move potential customers down the sales funnel. One of the best examples of this is BMW Films, which, according to Wikipedia, generated 100 million views and has been credited by some for contributing to a 12% increase in BMW sales in 2001. I have no idea about the ROI of BMW films vs “25 Places.” My only point is that Native at its best has the potential to drive sales, and not just awareness.

Returning to the Leaderboard, this ad by ‘Funny or Die’ for Under Armour entitled “Tom Brady’s Wicked Accent” does a nice job of nudging viewers down the funnel. It’s filmed in Dick’s Sporting Goods, where we can go to purchase Under Armour clothing, and humanizes Dick’s employees nicely. Also, the body of work that The Atlantic has put together for IBM, while less humorous, is equally adept at making me aware of IBM’s ability to help mobile marketers.

So, what’s your favorite native ad so far, and why? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Leader Board

Some Native Ads You Wear on Your Head

During Sunday night’s Grammys Pharrell Williams, singer, songwriter, rapper, record producer, drummer and half of the recording duo The Neptunes wore an unusual looking hat that captured everyone’s attention. Some said it looked like the hats worn by Canadian Mounties. Within minutes, Twitter lit up with mentions, and by 8AM today the Twitter handle @pharrellhat had garnered nearly 15,000 followers. Of all the tweets we’ve seen, this is our favorite, from Arby’s: “Hey @pharrell, can we have our hat back?” Within minutes, Pharrell tweeted back, “Y’all tryna start a roast beef?” That hat will certainly turn out to be one piece of incredible promotion for both the hat’s designer, Vivienne Westwood, and Arby’s

Technically, the hat  represents product placement if you’re Vivienne Westwood, but Arby’s had the good sense to turn it into a Native Ad.

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Can Publishers And Advertisers Reverse the Destiny of Native Advertising?

Can you remember just two radio spots you’ve heard over the past 24 hours?

Do you use one email address for real email, and a separate address for SPAM?

Do you open your snail mail over a trashcan, so you can quickly dispose of junk mail?

Do you use Netflix to avoid TV spots during your favorite shows?

Do you even answer your landline anymore, or have telemarketers ruined that for you?

Are you blind to banners?

If you’re an advertiser or publisher and you answered yes to all of the above, you should be very worried about Native Advertising.

Bad Native Advertising Equals Bad Editorial

When a bad TV commercial airs, you can leave the room, or change the channel. Even if you can’t leave the room, a commercial is only 30 seconds long. It feels like a fair exchange of time for free content.

The same is true with Radio. When Crazy Eddy shouts at you, there’s no way you’ll confuse his ad with Sports Talk, or Imus. The TV and radio networks feel no compulsion to announce, “You are about to experience an ad,” because the difference between authentic programming and advertising is obvious.

But native is different from all other forms of advertising. It’s meant to resemble the content around it in every way. If Native Advertising runs the course of all other forms of advertising, most of it will be bad.

Mixing bad native content with good editorial content averages out to mediocre.

What publisher or advertiser aspires to mediocre?

There’s a fox in the henhouse

At a recent Content Marketing Conference I attended in New York, Forbes announced that they’ve agreed to “open their content management system to advertisers and their agencies,” making it possible, as one agency panelist proclaimed, “for advertisers to create native advertising that is BETTER than the publisher’s content!”

Does Forbes really expect Lower My Bills and their agency to enlighten Forbes readers with authentic articles about “real people who refinanced their jumbo mortgages at 3%,” with no editorial oversight?

“Don’t worry! We have standards!”

That’s what most publishers tell you. The Atlantic, for instance, put together a committee to determine how best to label native ads, to distinguish them from real content.

Unfortunately, labels such as “advertisement” or “partner content” are not standards. If I showed up at your party with a prostitute and introduced her as “Not my wife but a prostitute,” you wouldn’t say I had standards. You’d say I was a slime ball.

The only standards that matter are those that determine which content is good enough, and useful enough, to appear under a publisher’s masthead. Those same standards must be applied to Native Advertising.

Inevitably, consumers will learn to avoid bad Native Advertising the way they’ve learned to avoid all other forms of bad advertising. This time around, however, they may not be able to distinguish between authentic editorial and the Native Advertising that is designed to resemble it in every way. When consumers avoid a publisher’s editorial, that publisher dies.

What’s a publisher to do?

Four things.

First, be sure to enforce the same editorial standards over native advertising as you do over editorial content. Help advertisers and their agencies understand what great content actually is.

Second, do not, under any circumstances, relinquish editorial control over native advertising. Let advertisers and their agencies create it, but make sure your editors approve it, and make sure someone fact checks it. Kill bad native ads as quickly as you kill bad editorial. Since your existing editors are busy, you may need to hire an editor to provide oversight and guidance to advertisers. If you can’t afford an editor to provide oversight, you can’t afford to get into the Native Advertising Business.

Third, understand that great native advertising will improve your experience, and make consumers and advertisers more loyal to you, just as surely as bad native advertising will ruin your experience. You need only look as far as The Super Bowl to understand the power of great advertising to draw a crowd. Sure, the game is popular, but Super Bowl Sunday is the one and only day of the year when everybody looks forward to seeing ads. If your advertisers or their agencies struggle to produce quality content, help them find the talent they need. If anybody can identify great talent, you can.

Fourth, help, don’t sell. Your editorial content, hopefully, exists to educate your audience, inform them, entertain them, enlighten them —it helps them in some way. If the purpose of a Native placement is to sell a product or push an agenda, then it conflicts with your editorial goals. Kill it. If the purpose is to help your audience, embrace it. Condition your audience to know that if a sponsor’s content appears on your site or in your app, it’s worth their investment of time.

What’s an advertiser to do?

Just one thing: embrace and support publishers that enforce standards, and that reject your content until you get it right. They’re doing you and your audience a favor.

Soon there will be hundreds of sites that allow you to buy your way into the editorial conversation. For the next year or so you’ll get better performance out of Native than you get out of banners and other forms of advertising. Remember, though, that ours is an industry that kills the goose that lays the golden egg. Email ads were opened nearly 100% of the time when they were first introduced. Banners drove double-digit click throughs. We all know how well that turned out. Before long, consumers will learn that most content from most brands is unremarkable. They’ll learn to avoid bad Native ads as quickly as they learned to ignore banners.

But there will be some smart publishers who only allow great editorial under their mastheads. They will be your greatest allies. By protecting the interests of their readers, they’ll also protect you from yourself. Your voice will be mingled with the intelligent, objective, informative, helpful, and entertaining voice of a trusted publisher, and maybe, just maybe, consumers will trust you more.

Make Advertising History

No matter which form of advertising you consider, radio, TV, print, DM, digital, etc., less than one half of one percent will be brilliant, and the rest will be…forgettable. The same will be true for Native Advertising. Most of it is destined to be bad.

But, if you have standards and the guts to enforce them, if you enable the creation of great Native ads and help your audience succeed, your Native Advertising could be great 100% of the time. Whether you’re a publisher or advertiser, yours could be a brand that earns greater trust and loyalty at a time when others train consumers to ignore them.

The Shades of New York Magazine

Today New York Magazine and The Wonderfactory launched an app that allows readers to move fluidly between daily web content and the weekly magazine with a unique “window shade” interface. Readers swipe up to read the magazine, or down to access curated articles from nymag.com and posts from all of their blogs.

Everything can be read offline — even the daily content — once the initial download is complete.

The weekly magazine features useful functionality that enhances the storytelling experience. Some of the extra functions include videos, photo galleries, 360 degree interior tours, audio clips, and links to the web. Every page of the magazine and all of the integrated Web content is designed specifically for the tablet, meaning it’s easy to read and navigate.

New York Magazine and TWF collaborated for over 7 months to develop an experience that transcends the early magazine apps that The Wonderfactory helped invent in 2010.

Want to know more? Check out the links:

Adweek: http://tinyurl.com/buoocwz

Apple Insider: http://tinyurl.com/d8t6nv9

Digiday: http://tinyurl.com/bst4vd3