The Contently Summit 2014: Perspective of a Gate Crasher

Posted by on Nov 8, 2014 in Thoughts | No Comments

What follows is a thoroughly subjective, thoroughly incomplete report of my own recollections and notes from the Contently Summit held at the Bowery Hotel on November 6th, 2014. This report is in no way meant to represent a full accounting of the event, and rather provides my own impressions and takeaways from some of the panels, speakers and discussions.

Having recently returned to freelance life after leaving a job at a media company in New York, I reached out to friends in my network letting them know about my change of status. One of those friends hit me back with a note suggesting that I come to a networking event he was attending the following week– the Contently Summit, being held at the Bowery Hotel– and he followed that up with a ticket.

Fast forward a week and change, and I found myself stepping into the cavernous terrace area of the Bowery Hotel on a cold rainy morning in early November. Greeted warmly by a team of young tech industry types wearing bright blue T-shirts under their blazers, with the word Contently emblazoned in white across the front, I wove my way past the catering tables and coffee urns, and the hurried organizers stacking up schwag bags and give-away T-shirts in preparation for the blitz to come. I settled in to a seat on a plush sofa while brand marketers and journalist-types filtered in, nibbling on scones and pastries and sipping coffee. Suppressing a familiar sense of panic at being surrounded by strangers at a social event, I managed to fall into a light conversation with a marketer or two and a journalist making requisite Ebola jokes to break the ice.

Shortly we were ushered into the main hall, where rows of high backed chairs were set in a backwards L shape, projecting at right angles from a small stage in one corner of the large room.

After a brief introduction by Joe Coleman, co-founder and CEO of Contently, journalist, “Digital Media Consultant” and content-marketing guru Neil Chase took the stage as moderator, and kicked off what would turn out to be a long but astonishingly rich day of conversation between and among a parade of heavy-hitters in brand and content marketing and digital publishing.

RELEVANCE AND AUTHENTICITY

Right off the bat, in the first panel on the subject of Audience, Steve Rubel, EVP and Chief Content Strategist from Edelman, described the “secret sauce” of successful content marketing as “the front-loading of the thinking” around distribution, and finding the tricky balance between applying distribution tactics without impeding creative. Rubel described the outcome of an Edelman/IAB study focused on understanding audience response to sponsored content and native advertising, which found that 60% of responders were open to advertising that tells a story, rather than ads that “sold” a product.
Relevance and authenticity were terms that cropped up repeatedly throughout the day (though use of both paled in comparison to the frequency of utterance of the painfully over utilized term “content”), and Rubel described the takeaways from the Edelman/IAB study as falling into three main focus areas:

  • Content must be RELEVANT to audience interest
  • Content must be AUTHORITATIVE– subject matter expertise is important
  • Brand familiarity and BRAND TRUST are critical– BE AUTHENTIC

In Rubel’s view, big companies (and by extension, well-known brands) have much to gain by applying the principle of authenticity to their communications efforts because they possess significant audience familiarity and visibility, which can translate to significant brand trust (but the importance of authentic communication is critical to sustaining that trust). He also mentioned that a strong current focus and challenge for brands is on partnering with publishers to get “in-feed sponsored content right.”

Audrey Gray, AVP and lead communication strategist at MetLife, talked about successful efforts she had undertaken at MetLife with the MetLife To Go portal and the MetLife Corporate Social Responsibility pages, and that some key takeaways for her were using a mix of high and low budget media, along with deployment of user generated content. While Gray commented that she makes use of both video and photography in MetLife’s content marketing efforts, she was very enthusiastic about the ability of photos to tell a story in a compelling and accessible way and emphasized the importance of good photography. Both Gray and Rubel agreed that video when deployed correctly provided significant value, but Rubel made a keen observation that “there’s a stigma on watching video in the workplace,” where photos don’t have that problem. Rubel was also sanguine on some older but perhaps overlooked communication tools like email and audio podcasts that continue to stay relevant despite their lack of “gee-whiz” dazzle.

Joe Lazauskas, representing Contently on the panel (as Contently’s Editor-in-Chief), in a discussion of the Contently platform’s focus on engagement metrics, emphasized the values of relevance and authenticity noting that some of the most popular articles on Contently’s own channels were on the subject of “content measurement.” Further in the discussion of tracking engagement metrics, Lazauskas noted big jumps in engagement in stories that were very human, and that while many brands struggled to find a “human” editorial voice, establishing that voice was extremely important.

A lot of props were given to digital publishers Buzzfeed, HuffPost and Vox for being “digital native,” and because of their success in finding and building audiences online. Rubel’s advice to brands was to study successful digital publishers, “reverse-engineer those best practices, and apply them to marketing.” Traditional media companies appeared to stand the most to lose in the new landscape of content focused marketing, and the stakes are high– “If the media business doesn’t get it right, they’re toast.”

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An awesome live infographic drawn by Kelly Kingman at the Contently Summit.

A lot more was said by Steve Rubel, Audrey Gray and Joe Lazauskas, some of which is captured in the live infographic included above, but the insights described above were the primary bits that I captured in my notes.

AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR (UNBRANDED) SPONSORS

No, not this blog, or even the Contently Summit, but rather Contently itself– the next speaker was Jay Moye, Editor-in-Chief of Coca-Cola Journey, Coke’s online content hub powered by Contently. Moye spoke at length about the tactics and approach employed by the team at Coke Journey, which included a broad mix of story-generating and optimization efforts, many of which were powered by Contently. Moye covered a lot of ground, but one of the most salient points that he touched on was the importance of unbranded storytelling in conjunction with branded messages.
“30% of content on Coke Journey is unbranded. We knew early on that if we used Coke in every headline, we’d only be talking to ourselves.”
Moye and his team are pursuing a strategy of reeling people in with unbranded content, with the hope that users will be drawn in and stay, increasing their likely exposure to branded messages– an approach that is proving itself out with low bounce rates and high engagement time on the Coke Journey hub.
In keeping with many of the speakers during the course of the day, Moye emphasized the value of measurement and optimization, describing the rigorous process of review his team at Journey go through to get the most out of the content they generate. Learning from the data was a key component of the Journey strategy, leading Moye and his team to consistently ask themselves “are we publishing content that people want to read, engage with and share?”
He even had a unique unit of measurement for the success of their content efforts, called EOI– Engagement on Investment, which was composed of data gathered from social channels, site page visits, and search data.

The Journey team’s 2015 strategy includes a focus on Multimedia, Real-time marketing, and International Expansion– including cross-pollination of efforts from markets inside and outside the US (citing as a prime example the success of the “share a coke” campaign, which is running in 50 countries).

Some criteria his team developed as guiding mantras are reflected in the list below, again touching on the themes of authenticity, relevance and optimization:

  1. Authenticity Always Wins– content created with a genuine human voice proven to perform over “hard-sell” messages
  2. Iterate, Don’t Deliberate– it’s more productive to move quickly and optimize than to make things perfect the first time
  3. Data Trumps Politics– in a big organization like Coca-Cola, decision-making can be very political, but using data to prove success can make those decision a lot smoother and clearer.
  4. A Picture’s Worth 1K Words (a video’s worth 10K words)– speaking to the value of visual and motion media (photos, videos, gifs and new forms like Vines and Instagram videos)
  5. You’re Not Alone– was a little less clear on this one, but interpreted it to mean that in the digital ecosystem there are many lessons to be gleaned from partners, counterparts and competitors

Of the brand representatives who spoke at the conference or were in attendance, it seemed that Moye and his team at Journey were publishing content at a fairly high rate, generating 12-15 pieces a week, and using a mix of paid, owned and earned channels to amplify the content they do produce to make sure it’s not falling on deaf ears, using Outbrain, social & paid social.

Another interesting point that Moye touched on briefly was the place and role within the corporate organization that Coca-Cola Journey occupied, namely that the content hub fell under the Corporate Communications division of the company, and operated independently of the marketing division.

TAKING A BREAK

After a heady and pithy morning of discussion, I was also grateful to take a break for lunch at this point, as the high-backed chairs had slowly taken their toll on my tailbone. Lunch was provided, and the atmosphere at the hotel was lively and enthusiastic. The morning panel and conversations clearly resonated with the audience, and the lunchtime discussion was casual but equally engaging. And, when it was time to return for the afternoon session, new arrivals crowded into the auditorium, making the second session even more well attended than the first.

CHAD MUMM AND WILSON CLEVELAND BLOW MY MIND

The afternoon started off with a bang with Chad Mumm from Vox Media, Wilson Cleveland from Unboxd, and Andrew Greenwood from GenPac, up to talk ostensibly about Quality in the content equation.
Wilson Cleveland led off with a run down of several projects created by Unboxd, a digital studio that creates original, story-driven, entertainment programming for brands. Unboxd got started creating a show called The Temp Life, a narrative, character-driven comedy series created for Spherion, a large temp agency that wanted to reach a new audience using online video. The Temp Life ran for five seasons and was a huge hit on YouTube and myDamnChannel, and led Cleveland to produce a number of other series for corporate clients, including a show about tech startups called Leap Year, created on behalf of Hiscox Insurance Company.
When he was approached by the client, they were interested in offering their insurance product to a new market– tech startup founders– but lacked insight into how to gain the trust of that audience. Wilson’s response was to start with a strategic approach to creative to “prove to [the target audience] you understand them,” and pursued an “unbranded” approach to storytelling– there was no product placement in the series (through specific directive of the client), and instead he shot “tangentially” related stories, storylines that were connected to the brand, but no direct product or brand placement. And that approach yielded results. According to Cleveland, “Leap Year was responsible for a 35% increase in insurance quotes over the 12 weeks the show ran.” Leap Year was renewed for a second season, and is in talks to make a move to television.

Next up was Chad Mumm the head creative at Vox Media and Vox Creative, the branded content arm of Vox. Chad came out swinging with a discussion of some Vox’s branded content efforts, including First & Long, a branded series created for Nike, where six NFL stars returned to their high-school stomping grounds unnanounced, and out-toughed their entire hometown teams through grueling practice sessions and impromptu games. The series was booked, executed, completed and delivered in two weeks, despite the fact that some of the NFL stars didn’t have existing deals with Nike. Vox leveraged the power of their existing fan and NFL star relationships through SB Nation, Vox’s network of sports media properties, and swung the deal in record time to capitalize on audience interest in pre-season high-school football.
Mumm also described work on The Next Mile, a sponsored content series created by VoxCreative for BP, where video, photography, and branded journalism are published on a hub and spoke model, with sponsored modules propagating throughout the web and on publishing and media properties owned by Vox and other partners. In the discussion of sponsored content, Mumm reiterated the emerging trend that in a media landscape that is becoming increasingly driven by social media engagement “The home page is dead, and now it’s all about the article page.” Mumm also discussed the Chorus and Harmony platforms, Vox’s proprietary software tools to enable and empower monetization of sponsored content.

Andrew Greenwood from GenPac representing the perspective of the B2B marketer, emphasized the importance of establishing credibility especially in a B2B marketing equation. Among many insightful comments, he noted that an effective strategy he had observed for reaching C-level audiences made use of distributing 3rd-party research– information from a known and vetted source to establish credibility, and that credibility was extremely important in making an impact on high-level audiences.

MORE STUFF THAN I COULD WRITE DOWN

At this point in the day, my brain was so full of amazing information that it started not being able to retain stuff, and I practically missed some great points dropped by Stacie Grissom, Editor-in-Chief of Barkbox, And Adam Aston of The New York Times. Their conversation focused on the value of speed in the era of real-time social, but ranged from the blurring boundary between “church and state” (between advertising and editorial) to the emerging newsroom model of media response, and the newsroom model of newsroom response (in the case of the NYTimes). Here are some tweets capturing nuggets of wisdom from the perspective of Barkbox:

@Contently: “”When you focus content around a passion point (like dogs), you can have explosive social reach.” — of

@Contently: “Do what a brand wants first, blow it out of the water, then do innovative work when you have their trust, says .

but that approach can also lead to pitfalls:

@Grace_Land: “When brands want to guide the editorial process, it turns into an ad and not a story.”

So you need to find a balance, and it’s kind of like dating:

n on editorial speed: “We’re still in the dating phase w brands.”

And here’s the real-time infographic as drawn by Kelly Kingman:

photo 2

THE MOTH MAKES ME LAUGH, AND THEN KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT STORYTELLING

My brain still saturated with information, Catherine Burns and Erin Barker from The Moth came along to blast everything I had previously heard out of my head and think only of laughing and being excruciatingly moved by Erin Barker’s heart-shredding story about her childhood, “Is Your Dad Single?” After squeezing my heart back out of my shoes, Catherine Burns then laid it out for us exactly how to tell an earth shatteringly good story, and I have the important notes for you right here:

  • First, Define Your Theme– What is your story really about?

For example, Erin Barker’s story was about “Identity” — “who am I?”

  • Then, Set Up The Stakes– what are the stakes? SO IMPORTANT– the audience needs a reason to care. Give us a reason to care. For the audience.

And think about “Why do I care?” Stakes are relatable. For Erin, her story was about losing her sense of identity– “I thought I knew who I was, and now I don’t”

  • Develop the Arc– the arc of the story– who is the storyteller in the beginning, and who is the storyteller at the end? Every story has a beginning middle and end, but what is the change through the course of the story?

Catherine Burns said lots more stuff, and then proceeded to do a Moth workshop with Contently Editor-in-Chief Joe Lazauskas and a personal story about his 9th grade crush, which was fascinating to see and a great story.

That was a lot of stuff, but still more stuff happened.

CONTENT SEQUENCING AND MAKING SURE IT WORKS

Two more incredibly smart people took the stage to talk about what they were doing– Steve Sachs, the CEO of OneSpot, and Debra Russeth, VP of commercial marketing and strategy from HSBC. Both Russeth and Sachs were focused on ways to measure the success of marketing efforts, and Russeth discussed at length the herculean efforts she and her team had gone through to build an effective measurement apparatus for their content marketing at HSBC, enabling them to prove out the value and return on the investment in marketing– no small feat by any stretch at any organization, though guided by the principle that “marketing has to connect back to a sale.” She also noted that they are seeing a lot of engagement on mobile, but that mobile web does better than engagement in mobile apps.

Steve Sachs from OneSpot talked about the idea of “content sequencing,” or having an ideal sequence of relevant content for a particular audience, and an awareness of how that sequence is intended to produce effects, ie., the sale. From Sachs’ perspective, Content Engagement metrics drove business results, proved out in OneSpot’s findings, that the more pieces of content people engaged with, the more likely they were to deliver a business result. Sachs echoed Chad Mumm’s dictum from earlier in the day that engagement happened at the article level, but took it one step further, describing OneSpot’s approach of serving content to audiences on Publisher platforms, rather than expecting audiences to traffic back to a particular site (homepage) or publishing hub.

Setting goals were key in Sachs’ equation, staying focused on:

  • Revenue
  • Sales
  • Purchase Intent
  • Brand Metrics
  • Consumer Actions (such as registering, signing up for newsletters, product searches, etc.)

and in the realm of content sequencing, an awareness of specific Engagement KPIs made the difference:

  • Repeat Engagement
  • Average Pieces of Content Consumed
  • Average Time Spent

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 JOE AND SAM TAKE US OUT

Stepping in for Shane Snow, the co-founder of Contently who was traveling and unable to make it back in time for the conference, Joe Coleman the CEO/co-founder of Contently and Sam Slaughter, VP of Content, took the stage to wrap up things up.

Coleman recognized the challenges that brands face in the content marketing landscape, acknowledging that “creating content that people like is really hard to do.” They also recognized the emerging shifts over the past several years and the emerging trends going into 2015, noting that many brands were moving toward “centralizing content,” and finding holistic ways to manage and produce content marketing. Building “owned channels” and using technology (like the Contently platform) to optimize and manage their publishing efforts were some of the ways that companies are finding to make reaching their audiences more cost effective and efficient, and both expected that trend to continue. “We’ve had more meetings with CMOs over the past 9 months than the past 3 years,” said Joe Coleman, as an indicator of the move toward building owned and brand-managed content hubs.

Sam Slaughter made a key observation that these efforts are in some ways less about the brands themselves and more about the audience– that, as the interests and needs of audiences shift, brands must find ways to adjust in order to take advantage of the new opportunities the landscape presents. “Content is more than content marketing– it’s everything a brand does, across everything in their company.” Speaking about the evolution of Contently, in tandem with the rise of content marketing, Slaughter observed “We’ve solved the What and How of Content Marketing. 2015 will be about the Why.”

And with that, Neil Chase wrapped up the day’s sessions, and prompted everyone to stick around for happy hour.

Final Thoughts

Conversations continued at the bar long after the close of the panels, and by the tenor of the crowd it was clear that everyone had been left with lots to think and talk about. It was also clear from the caliber of speakers and those in attendance in the audience that the subject of the conference was important to a lot of brands, companies and marketers, as well as journalists and content creators, as the convergence of social media, mobile technology and the rise of the “connected society” were reshaping the media landscape for everybody. Hearing from those companies and individuals who are on the forefront of that change was valuable for all involved, and Contently deserves praise for providing the forum and for practicing what they preach– creating good storytelling that people want.

I thanked my friend for the invitation, said my goodbyes, and headed out into the cold, rainy November evening, with lots of food for thought.