Collectively: The Upworthy of Branded Content, or a Doomed Experiment?

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The above tweet fairly accurately captures millennials’ current attitude about climate change. It’s easy to retweet a pithy status in support of saving the earth; it’s harder to actually save the earth.

Collectively, a media platform that launched last week, aims to transform that apathy into earth-altering action by channeling to its cause the feel-good shareability of Upworthy and the financial backing of 29 brand partners.

According to an introductory post by Collectively’s editor, Dory Carr-Harris, the platform is the result of talks at the World Economic Forum about “how to inspire and accelerate the shift toward a more sustainable way of life.” It’s dedicated to “altering the course of our collective futures” and repairing “the disconnect between our wishes for the future of the planet and the tools we have to get there.”

While today’s media is “obsessed with fear-mongering tactics” that leave people fearful of and ineffectual towards earth’s imminent self-inflicted demise, writes Carr-Harris, “Collectively will break through that negativity and cynicism to help people learn how they can help. Take meaningful action. Choose to make a difference.”

Upworthy’s influence on Collectively’s editorial strategy is evident. Its headlines range from intriguing with a sexual bent (“The Unexpected Father–Daughter Team Making Condoms People Will Love Having Inside Them”) and hoo-rah positive (“These 20-Somethings Beat a Huge Energy Corporation and Took Control of the Power Grid”) to look-what-you-can-do informative (“Your Old Phone Could Be the Key to Creating a Better City”) and culturally relevant clickbait (“How Science Fiction Is Making Our Society Smarter”).

Collectively CEO Will Gardner told Mashable via email that the site would be editorially independent of the brands backing it.

“Our brand sponsors have signed up to support an editorially independent site. Our policy is to highlight a range of positive and exciting ideas and solutions to sustainable living challenges, from wherever they come in the world,” Gardner said.

However, Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese wonders if that’s possible, noting that some of Collectively’s coverage areas (e.g., food) are at odds with some of its sponsors (e.g., McDonald’s and Nestlé). He also speculates that Collectively’s coverage of climate change issues will be handled with brand-friendly restraint.

“Carr-Harris noted that companies and people need to work together figure out what we can do about climate issues,” writes Abbruzzese, “as long as that means not pointing to the cause of these issues.”

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan also expressed doubts over the site’s supposed editorial independence, lacing his post with heavy sarcasm:

Just like Collectively, we are all about breaking through negativity and cynicism. So, going forward, we encourage you to embrace their stories as genuine journalistic attempts at solutions. Unless they in some way involve consumer products, food, beverages, clothing, luxury goods, retailing, telecommunications, alcohol, publishing, chemicals, agriculture, technology, the internet, health care, computers, electronics, media, or any clients of the largest international advertising conglomerates in the world.

Grist’s Eve Andrews notes that there’s something fishy about a giant group of major corporations producing content about environmental issues:

But there’s one weird trick here (if you will): This particular venture is collaboratively—and very publicly—bankrolled by a whole slew of major corporations (McDonald’s! Coca-Cola! General Mills! Twitter!), many of which have played a significant role in building models of unsustainable industry.

Grist goes on to criticize the site’s content for being focused on what consumers can do instead of how larger organizations can act. Despite being relentlessly cheery about humanity’s environmental impact, Collectively has been created without admitting “that the planet is in the midst of a scientifically accepted period of crisis,” Mashable’s Abbruzzese writes.

On the flip side, Triple Pundit’s Leon Kaye argues that Collectively’s positivity might be necessary to get people to pay attention to climate-change stories in the first place:

As for attacking Collectively for its feel-good stories, the reality is that if the dystopian view of climate change resonated with the general public across the world, we as a society would have banded together by now to reverse the trend. Fair or not, the way climate change and its dangers are portrayed have not worked.

Carr-Harris presented a similar explanation for Collectively’s editorial strategy in her introductory post.

To its credit, Collectively has been fairly transparent, with the logos of participating companies presented proudly on the partners page, although brands’ involvement isn’t disclosed on other pages. And Collectively has made an effort to preempt the inevitable backlash of its corporation–sustainability marriage by posting an FAQ that addresses the site’s editorial process, claiming that brands’ involvement in the editorial process is extremely limited:

Is the Collectively team editorially independent from the brand partners?

100%. Every so often, one of Collectively’s brand partners will approach us with an idea for a story. If we feel that the story is something that our audience would be interested in reading and it communicates our mission statement of acting together to establish sustainability as the new norm, it will be approved and brought to life by the dedicated brand team.

This explanation has drawn skepticism, however, as the editorial team is VICE’s antonymous in-house media agency, VIRTUE.

So, the big question: Will it work? Collectively’s diametrical opposition to the prevailing dystopian view of climate issues is at once a welcome change of pace and a thin veil over brands’ financial motives. Whether millennials, Collectively’s stated target audience, embrace the platform’s positivity or perceive it as an attempt at corporate greenwashing remains to be seen. (Abbruzzese does note, for what it’s worth, that Jesse Coleman, a researcher for Greenpeace USA, reviewed the site and said that it did not have any “clear examples of greenwashing.”)

Two outcomes are possible. Either Collectively will struggle to build a loyal audience, given that doing so is heavily contingent on having readers’ trust, or its content will spread like wildfire, shared by people who don’t know or don’t care that Collectively is backed by many of the brands contributing directly to climate change.

The site is off to a slow start, having gained just 1,105 followers on Twitter and 1,186 likes on Facebook so far. Given the extensive media backlash, the burden of proof will be on Collectively to convince readers it can be trusted despite its corporate backing. That much we, and Collectively, can be sure of.

Image by Collectively

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