Can a Brand Win a Pulitzer? Former WSJ Tech Reporter on Content Strategy


Every agency worth its salt has begun moving into content creation. That much is no longer up for debate.

Almost everything else involving the word “content”, however, is less certain–especially when we’re discussing what makes related projects effective and how we can measure their value for clients.

On that point, ReadyState is not quite your traditional agency: the one-year-old San Francisco shop focuses on “strategy, design and content” to serve a primarily tech-focused clientele.

ReadyState recently won attention for hiring former Wall Street Journal tech reporter Ben Worthen (now Editor in Chief), and we spoke to Worthen about the new ways of creating value for clients and the many keys to winning the content game.

What are the keys to creating successful content in the right context?

The answer is right there in your question: context. When I was at the WSJ, the context was largely set–a story ran in the paper or on our website–and most of the other things that create context were out of my direct control as a reporter: things like the structure and voice of a story, which were mostly established decades earlier, the headline, where in the paper or on the site it ran, and so on.

When we work with clients on content, none of this is defined. There’s a great deal of work that needs to be done upfront to set the context for a content program in order for it to succeed. We spend a lot of time trying to get this right, but to give you a flavor, it starts with really digging into the business goal, addressing the target audience, determining which emotions we’re trying to solicit with our content and so on.

This is just the beginning, of course. The real key is the content itself. There’s a huge opportunity for anyone to be a publisher, but success now requires really doing something great.

We happen to think that one of the problems is a general lack of ambition. A lot of companies seem content to try to insert themselves fleetingly into moments that people are experiencing (think all the sponsored Tweets you just saw about Lebron James) rather than striving to create experiences of their own.

Someone will. We think that some day in the not too distant future a branded content campaign is going to win a Pulitzer…and it’s our hope to work with them.

Jim Carrey typing

How do you respond to recent studies revealing that many consumers feel an inherent distrust of sponsored content?

It’s worth taking a second to clarify what we’re talking about. Those studies (Contently, Yahoo) are primarily focused on sponsored content that runs on the site of a traditional publisher, i.e. native advertising…it’s a category with some problems. The main reasons someone would run such a story are to take advantage of a publisher’s audience and credibility.

But publishers go to great lengths to make clear that the sponsored stories are different, which I think contributes to that feeling of distrust. They’re presented in a different color, labeled as other and so on. These steps taint the sponsored content before someone even clicks on it, diminishing the credibility.

The second problem with sponsored pieces is that they generally aren’t up to a publication’s usual standard. (The NYT/Netflix piece is an obvious exception and the response to that was an outlier to these surveys.) So basically it’s a C story, with A or B placement and readers can tell that something doesn’t compute.

I’d challenge any client who wants to do a sponsored story on a publisher’s site to come up with some very specific reasons why it’s the right move.

What are you doing that’s different than what other firms are doing?

A lot of people see the same opportunity that we do, but we’re in a unique position.

First, we know how to lay the foundation. Second, storytelling requires a certain set of skills. We think that people who are trained as journalists are able to identify the heart of a story and tell it in a more engaging way.

Great storytelling requires a lot more, though. Objects need to look great, feel great, and hit someone at the exact right time (Ready State’s other disciplines are design/UX and strategy).

A story that I or someone on my team creates is just an object that comes to life because of the design and distribution expertise we have.

What does UX mean as applied to “brand storytelling?”

I’d like to think that people judge a story on the wonderful words that I write, but that’s really not true.

To give an example, just this week we were looking at mockups of a page redesign of a content site we’re working on and I was struck by how much snappier the headlines in our redesign seemed. Of course, when I checked they were the exact same headlines as the old design. UX, as applied to a piece of storytelling, provides the context in which someone understands a piece. It’s responsible almost entirely for the first impression and has implications for the entire story-consumption process.

Page design should differ depending on the goal of a page and whether you want someone to read another story, buy your product, share the link and so on. It’s a huge part of the broader storytelling effort.

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Do firms need to hire journalists to become effective “content creators?”

Good storytelling shows and doesn’t tell, which is the opposite of what good PR does.

Good storytelling lets the messages present themselves to the reader/viewer through a compelling narrative, and this type of storytelling is what journalists are trained to do. There’s no reason it needs to be done by journalists, but journalists have the equivalent of an advanced degree in the field.

How can you create content that will get your target reader’s attention? Once you have their attention, how can you keep it?

This is the million-dollar question. The pithy answer is that your content needs to be great, but the hard part is figuring out how to make your content great.

At Ready State, generally, we think you need to do two things: have something people can’t get elsewhere and make them feel something. In the first case, it can be a news scoop, an insight, a great piece of writing, etc., but there needs to be something that makes it unique. In the second case, you need to connect with people on an emotional level to solicit some sort of human reaction: making someone laugh is connecting at that level; making someone feel just a tad bit smarter is connecting at that level.

This really hard to do, but it’s also what every journalist aspires to.

Can branded content truly be valuable and/or entertaining to a general audience outside its promotional function?

Yes! But the key is that the primary goal can’t be to promote a specific product. When you try to make content about your product, that piece will feel like an ad, readers will feel like you pulled a bait and switch, and you’ll solicit all the feelings that surfaced in that Contently survey.

Philosophically, we think that content marketing has a different function: to associate your brand with some key ideas that create credibility when you later try to market a product. To give a generic example: If you ran a content campaign about the future of snack food that touched on the science of snacking, agricultural advancements and the like, you would have more credibility when you later introduced a new protein bar. It’s an approach that naturally puts the story and the interest of readers first, while still helping the brand.

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How important is distribution and measurement?

Super important. Brand publishers need to get an audience for their content and the only way to do it is to bring the content to the reader.

How can a firm balance the need to make the content high quality with the need to prove its value to the client paying for it?

Ready State doesn’t do PR, so we don’t have a conflict there.

I really believe that high-quality content has the most value and that we can demonstrate that…we believe brands should do things that other people talk about as opposed to talking about things other people do.

As content producers, you are creating something that your PR team can amplify.

Do we agree with Worthen’s take on content strategy (sponsored or not)?