Verizon’s SugarString Is Dead. Here’s What It Can Teach Us

Bad press killed the brand publisher.

Yesterday, The Daily Dot revealed that Verizon’s controversial tech news site SugarString had been shuttered after just two months. The URL doesn’t work anymore, and all social channels have been stripped of branding and made private.

The outcome is the end of a rocky road that began in late October, when The Daily Dot reported SugarString’s editor-in-chief, Cole Stryker, had sent recruitment letters to journalists to write for a site that would supposedly rival Motherboard but have “two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality),” according to an email from Stryker.

With Verizon deeply mired in both issues—opposing net neutrality and complicit in handing phone records over to the NSA—launching a censored news site did not sit well with the media community. The site was criticized by everyone from Gizmodo to David Carr of The New York Times.

In Carr’s excellent piece, he wrote: “SugarString sets a new low. It was a bad idea with a pratfall of a rollout, a transparent attempt to project brand might into a very controversial conversation.”

Verizon put a different spin on the situation. As a spokesperson told Carr, “Verizon believes this was a good, sound concept, but the execution was not what it should have been, and we’ll learn from it.”

Personally, I believe the truth is somewhere in between. Verizon’s inclination to create an ambitious owned media property was smart. Brands like GE, American Express, and IBM have all built robust branded publications that continue to pay off. But the concept and strategy clearly hadn’t been thought through enough, and the execution was clearly misguided. There’s a lot to be learned from Verizon’s mistakes.

The perils of a loose content strategy

It’s still hard to determine SugarString’s original editorial goals and guidelines. When reached by email, Stryker declined to comment, directing me to Verizon. Verizon did not respond to a request for comment.

Nonetheless, we can examine what we know. After the news of Stryker’s emails and Verizon’s restrictions made waves, the telecommunications giant denied spying and net neutrality were forbidden topics, issuing the following statement: “Unlike the characterization by its new editor, SugarString is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology.”

What remains unclear is what Verizon’s mission even was. In an email, Stryker described Sugarstring as:

“… a tech lifestyle site bankrolled by Verizon. … It’s not advertorial. Think Motherboard (which was sponsored by Dell).

“Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality). But I’ve been given a pretty wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way. So that’s pretty much it as far as content restrictions go. The upside is that we have a big budget to pay people well, video documentaries, and other fun shit.”

Many in the media read this email and concluded that Verizon’s ambitions were to build a giant news site that would be significantly censored. But I’m not so sure. To me, this sounds like a hungry editor trying to recruit writers by pitching his publication in the grandest and most flattering light, emphasizing the upside and what Stryker surely hoped SugarString would one day be: Another Motherboard, VICE‘s acclaimed tech site.

Indeed, when Verizon originally registered the site in June, it was described as a Motherboard-esque site, one that “delivers the latest in technology and lifestyle news for a generation that doesn’t separate tech from everyday living. From breaking news to thoughtful essays, best-in-class op-eds and beyond, this site covers what millennials really care about today.”

Ultimately, this fantasy rubbed people the wrong way specifically because because Verizon planned to exert editorial control over SugarString (as opposed to Dell, which has no editorial control over Motherboard). And while net neutrality and spying are only two topics, they bleed into most areas of tech, meaning Verizon couldn’t just quarantine the topics from the rest of their editorial and claim to be covering tech in a responsible way.

Stryker was promising something far narrower. As The Daily Dot noted, references of net neutrality and spying were distinctly omitted in SugarString’s early reporting on law enforcement GPS usage, anonymity software used by digital activists, and artists on the Deep Web.

As a writer and editor, I feel for Stryker, and it was tough seeing him “fed him to the wood chipper,” by Verizon, as Carr put it. I also think it’s possible he misrepresented SugarString simply because SugarString’s strategy, guidelines and messaging weren’t fully-formed.

According to Carr, Verizon had originally brought the idea for SugarString to ad agency McGarryBowen, who then brought in Complex, a media company that has helped brands like Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper build owned content platforms.

“It was odd—it just sort of showed up here, fully formed,” an anonymous Complex employee told Carr.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t quite fully formed enough—especially given that the degree of complexity is far greater for a telecom king covering tech news than for Complex’s previous experiences helping soda brands cover music and extreme sports. Judging from Stryker’s email, Verizon gave a wide directive of: We want to cover tech and lifestyle news, but let’s try to stay away from spying and net neutrality, given our entanglements.

A robust content strategy would have considered deeper questions. For instance:

1. What are our restrictions in terms of topics and sourcing? Are these restrictions necessary, and can we possibly loosen them?

2. Where is there a gap in the media world that we can fill better than anyone else? Does that gap intersect with things we can talk about?

3. How do we explain our goals, restrictions, and bias to both our readers and writers to ensure complete and total transparency?

Building a fully formed content strategy by asking and answering those types of questions is crucial. It gives the editorial team valuable guidelines, ensures the effectiveness of a brand publication, and ultimately helps avoid the kind of backlash Verizon had to endure. Consumers don’t just automatically believe in the good intentions of brand publishing efforts, no matter what we in the marketing world want to believe when we talk about “delivering value.” Ultimately, you need to be fully transparent about what you’re doing, and live or die with that transparency.

Tiny labels are never a good idea

Speaking of transparency, the next big lesson has to do with the importance of labeling on branded content.

On SugarString, mentions of Verizon’s affiliation with the site were relegated to the bottom of the page, in eight-point font. Coupled with the reports of censorship, this led many to believe that Verizon was trying to deceive readers.

“The fact that the name of the corporation bringing you the information is at the bottom of every story, not the top, is an attempt to hide the fundamental intent,” Carr writes.

Shane Snow, our CCO here at Contently, agreed, telling Carr: “I think they overlooked the first rule of storytelling, which is to not deceive the reader. The exposure they were seeking ended up being negative.”

Whether Verizon’s sparse branding was intentional or not, if you’re producing good content, you should want your brand’s name proudly stamped on the page. Otherwise, how will readers know that it came from you? And if they’re not proud to brand their work, they shouldn’t be creating content in the first place. Being fully transparent with readers is the only way to make brand publishing work.

So what should Verizon have done with SugarString?

So what should Verizon’s strategy have actually looked like? If they had taken all the appropriate steps, what are some alternate realities to the mess that unfolded? Without talking to the brand, it’s hard to know. But a few possibilities come to mind:

1. SugarString could have focused on far lighter fare. It’s really hard for brands to do hard news. Light lifestyle, entertainment, and thought leadership/analysis are far more natural territories. It immediately struck me as odd that Stryker was recruiting writers with a specialty in the “deep web” for a brand publication. It just doesn’t mesh with a brand’s sweet spot.

2. SugarString could have acknowledged its bias and recruited writers whose beliefs align with Verizon’s beliefs. We live in a world of opinion blogs, Fox News, and CNBC. The modern media world constantly interacts with publications that specialize in biases and subjectivity. If Verizon really wanted to cover all things tech, it could have recruited writers who genuinely share their viewpoints on net neutrality and the NSA (there are plenty out there)—but only if they made that bias abundantly clear to readers.

3. They could have exerted absolutely no editorial control. If SugarString wanted to be Motherboard 2.0—and it’s not clear they did—Verizon would have had to emulate Dell and simply underwrite the project without editorial control.

Sure, this would have led to content that worked against the company’s fight against net neutrality and would have resulted in stories that reminded readers Verizon handed over millions of phone records to the NSA, like most every other major telecom giant. But it would have been the best way for them to build a robust, substantial, and successful publication.

Final thoughts

Verizon wasn’t wrong to try and build an ambitious tech publication, and I hope they renew those efforts in the near future. They can recover from their blunders, and I believe they will. As brand publishing grows up, there are going to be mistakes. The important thing is that we all learn from them.

Image by Sue Smith

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