Mashable is one of the headlining members of the “new media” crop. In just a few years, what was once a blog covering technology and social media has become a top news source for everything from brands behaving badly on Twitter to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In recent years, its role has shifted from aggregator to newsmaker — and its content has moved from text-heavy blog entries to multimedia projects.
But Mashable doesn’t just do news. The site was one of the first to experiment with what it now calls branded content, offering would-be sponsors a relationship in which (in the site’s own words), “Mashable’s editorial team produces content presented by your brand.”
The content in question is “crafted to align your brand with relevant themes and to resonate strongly with your target audience, in a format that is native to Mashable.” Many major brands have participated as related projects grow more ambitious, yet Mashable’s policy insists that the creation of said content occurs without the direct editorial input of its sponsor.
Lauren Drell, a writer and former journalism student who now runs Mashable’s branded-content division, spoke to us about the ins and outs of her job — and cleared up some misconceptions about what she does every day.
Name: Lauren Drell
Position: Branded content editor, Mashable
Resume: Worked for a year as a freelance writer/editor (DailyCandy, ideeli, City Magazine, among others), then went to J-school, after which she interned at AOL Small Business for six months. Joined Mashable in 2011. Concurrently built and ran the social media presence for Luke’s Lobster, which teed her up for working with branded content.
Birthday: February 23, 1986
Hometown: Chatsworth, CA
Education: BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania; MSJ in broadcast from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism
Marital status: Single
Media mentor: “Sharon Feder, who hired me at Mashable and is now [chief digital officer] at Rachael Ray. She steered me toward this branded-content role and helped me develop a solid understanding of what Mashable’s branded content should be.”
Best career advice received: The general sentiment of [Sheryl Sandberg’s] “Lean in” really resonated with me and my girlfriends, and our careers have accelerated in the past year or two because of it.”
Guilty pleasure: “While everyone’s salivating over the pumpkin spiced latte, I’m whipping up a batch of my mom’s pumpkin chocolate chip muffins with homemade cream cheese frosting (and then eating them all myself.)”
Last book read: Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and I’m slowly getting through the wonderful Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts.
How did you get into media and what led you to Mashable?
It was a happy accident. While majoring in history my senior year at Penn, I realized I wanted to try journalism (though I hadn’t figured out my precise beat). But I missed the deadline to apply to J-school, so I ended up taking a year off and moving to New York, where I did copy editing and writing for City magazine, Dylan’s Candy Bar, Ideeli and Daily Candy in order to get published and to get some ‘boots on the ground’ experience before applying.
I went to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern with a focus on broadcast, but quickly realized that general assignment reporting for a small affiliate was not my cup of tea. But I did learn valuable skills there: how to edit video very quickly and tell a story in 90 seconds or less.
What was your first post-grad job?
Towards the end of my J-school program, I looked up the editor at AOL Small Business (who had also gone to Penn for undergrad) in the alumni directory and contacted him via social media, writing that I did video, that I was moving back to New York and that I would love to get into the small business/entrepreneurship space.
I interned there for five or six months, and I had already been doing social media for a food chain called Luke’s Lobster during J-school. That combination of reporting and social ended up being a perfect fit for Mashable. Mashable interviewed me about what I was doing for the restaurant on social. It was 2009, they were running a lot of content around how small businesses were using platforms like Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook, and I was an early adopter on that front. I thought it was a cool, scrappy startup company, so I applied for a copy editor job.
I have a typo blog, so the thought of fixing typos all day was very appealing to me. Sharon Feder, who at the time was managing editor, said, ‘We want to hire you but have another role for you in mind in a department called supported content. It’s still editorial, but you’d have the opportunity to do more video and work with brands on some creative campaigns.’
I thought about it for a little bit and decided, ‘Let’s do this.’ And supported content evolved into what we now know as branded content.
What’s your day to day like?
It sounds cliché, but every day is different; every day is a challenge. It’s the perfect job for me: I like being a little all over the place, so I wouldn’t be happy covering one beat. We work with brands from all different industries, so I get to think about fashion, sports, business, tech, etc. On any given day I’ll be brainstorming, writing, editing and interviewing and working with our video crew to help put together storyboards. There’s never a dull moment (or an empty inbox).
How much has the job changed since you started?
I was employee number 41. We were still very much a blog, and there were 25 of us in New York. When I was hired, we didn’t have health insurance — though we heard it was coming. When I joined, we were publishing maybe 12 stories a day, and a lot of them were re-blogged content from around the Web. But my managers told me, ‘We’re going to post 50 stories every day by the end of the year. We’re no longer a blog — we’re becoming a new-media company.’
We’re currently in our third office since I joined, and I see people I do not know on a daily basis. The budgets have gotten bigger, the brands we work with have gotten bigger and our capabilities have gotten so much bigger. Now our degree of specialization is unreal: we have a data scientist, an artificial intelligence specialist and a team of strictly visual storytellers. We’re doing stuff that I was dreaming of doing in the first year.
What would surprise people most about your job?
For many publishers, the team that comes up with the ideas is different than the team that executes them. At Mashable, my team is involved in the process from the moment we get the [proposal] until the moment we send the recap/analytics reports. Everyone on my team has an editorial background, and we are here to make sure that the content we create is the same as the content we pitched by maintaining that integrity throughout the whole process.
I’ve read a lot of studies about consumer trust regarding branded content, but I don’t think any article on our site would make a reader ask, ‘Why did the brand sponsor this?’ As our audience has broadened, we have grown a little more creative and flexible with some of our ideas.
Has Mashable’s general approach to branded content changed since you joined?
When I started, we did not want to do any integration; it was sponsorship of editorial content. I always said, ‘Our readers are going to rebel against it,’ and while we’ve now gotten a little more comfortable with some integration, the branded content we create is never about the brand. There might be product placement, but we’re never going to be touting the brand itself.
We launched a series this week with Gap, in which we brought on four influencers and did photo shoots of them in Gap fall wardrobes. The content would be a day-in-the-life profile piece. It’s not about what they’re wearing in the photos; it’s about them as creative people. The product placement doesn’t compromise the integrity of the story we tell.
Is there a piece you’re particularly proud of?
I’m really pumped about the recent program we did with Intel. They approached us, wanting to drive awareness of their two-in-one tablets. So we played with the idea of bringing two things together by pairing up creators — one from the design side and one with more tech experience — in four teams, giving them two weeks to build something from a tablet, and documenting the process. While there was product integration, it was really about the synergy that occurs when you bring two creative minds together. We can write something about marketing or fashion that’s probably similar to content on other sites, but in this case all four teams created something that didn’t exist before. I think that’s so cool.
How do you see your job developing in the near future?
Video is an increasing priority for brands and for Mashable. Sometimes brands don’t know where to start, so we push them to experiment. At this point, every campaign we are working on has a video/multimedia component. Moving forward, I would like to get more into creative technology as with the Intel project.
What advice do you have for people interested in pitching a project or client to Mashable’s branded-content department?
My beat is everything, and I do make an effort to reply to everyone because I never know what I’m going to need to know about the latest niche app. But the No. 1 way to get coverage for a startup would be to email our startups reporters or get in touch with them on Twitter. But, of course, you have to do your due diligence. Mashable at this point is very broad, but I get some pitch emails that are so off-base that I have to say, ‘No, this would never be on our site.’
And what about your relationship with PR in general?
I’ve developed a great relationship with PR. An increasing number of the stories we work on hinge on influencers and interviews with people at cool companies and startups, and I have a couple of go-to PR people to whom I can say, ‘I need female startup founders in this space,’ and they give me a list of names within an hour. This is a relationship: you help me help you.
But when I get the total cold PR pitch, it’s still, ‘No, try again.’
What advice do you have for anyone who’d like to work in a position like yours?
I sort of fell into it because I was willing to take a risk and explore something new, but if you’re looking to get into branded content, the narrative is what matters — so hone your ability to tell stories. I’m increasingly trying to figure out what’s possible on various platforms because I want to continue to push the envelope. Any time I hear about new platforms, I try to figure out how we can use them in our programs.
The straight-up text article isn’t going to fly much longer, and we have to figure out new ways to tell the most engrossing, compelling stories we can. While I’m definitely doing less writing on a daily basis, the act of storytelling is still consuming a very large portion of my mind.
Also: pay attention to what brands are doing, because everything is branded. There’s a lot of interesting content out there you might not realize is sponsored by a brand.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.