Virtual vs. Physical: The Two Brand Newsroom Models Taking Over Content Marketing

It’s 9 a.m. on a July morning in Reebok’s newsroom, and “binge think,” the corporation’s brainstorming session, is heating up.

When I walk in, Dan Mazei, the senior director of Reebok’s Global Newsroom, is standing on a chair, scribbling story ideas on a whiteboard. A dozen staffers surround him, gathered on couches and colorful footrests. Everyone is young and fit, and I feel like I’ve walked on the set of an office comedy. The banter that follows confirms my suspicions.

“Refinery29 headline yesterday: ‘The Magical Advice We Got From a Real Fitness Witch.'”

“A witch?”

“Yes, a fitness witch. She works at Enchantments, an occult shop in Manhattan. She was also a trainer at Equinox.”

“Puts the whole fitness goth trend into a whole new light.”

“There’s a fitness goth trend?”

“Oh my god yeah, people work out in all black. There’s a studio on Bowery. Can you search for it? It has a bondage spinning bike on the ceiling.”

“So, she can be our goth fitness expert?”

The exercise goes on like this for an hour. By the end, Mazei stands on his tiptoes, using every inch of available whiteboard space. The team settles on a plan to shoot a video two days later with an influential 15-year-old power lifter. They’ll give him old-school toys like a Skip-It and see how he reacts to bygone devices once meant for millennials.

reebok whiteboard session

The team also decides on a half dozen blog posts—ranging from indoor fitness routines to help you survive the heat wave, to a scary interview with a former Spice Girl.

As they break into their respective pods, the team seems energized. I’m left staring at the whiteboard, wondering if we’re about to see the brand newsroom reach new heights.

The talent race

Five years ago, the term “brand newsroom” sounded like an oxymoron. But as disruptive advertising grows more taboo, large corporations are taking a cue from media outlets on ways to connect with target audiences. Seventy-eight percent of CMOs now say that custom content is the future of marketing. In turn, many have started to build in-house marketing teams.

But to build a brand newsroom that can crank out top-performing content, brands have had to compete with traditional storytelling machines to draw in the best creative talent. The problem is many creatives still have their sites set on journalism careers. There is a huge difference between working in editorial at Vice versus Deutsche Bank.

However, as brands develop newsrooms that mimic the open environment of publishers like BuzzFeed and Vice, that migration is picking up.

Take, for instance, Nestle’s brand newsroom, which The Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer captured in his deep dive into corporate studios, “Should Journalism Worry About Content Marketing?” The piece describes a 20-person newsroom similar to Reebok—punctuated by stand-up pitch meetings, an aggressive editorial calendar of up to 10 stories per day, and an optimistic environment free of stress.

You get a sense of creative freedom in Reebok’s plush, brightly-lit newsroom, where binge-think sessions give it an unmistakable startup vibe. There’s a freedom to pitch any idea, no matter how ludicrous, and a genuine emphasis on great storytelling over marketing messaging.

The sessions were started by Mazei, who came from Edelman in late 2015 to head Reebok’s content efforts in the hope of inspiring greater flexibility. “[You have] to be able to pivot on a dime. To embrace creativity,” he said. “It’s a helpful dynamic for the way that we operate as a newsroom because we’re not supposed to be heads down at a desk.”

Reebok’s revamped content strategy is a way for the brand to reinvent itself in a media-centric world and differentiate from its competitors. Instead of competing head-to-head with Nike or Under Armour for big-name athlete endorsements, it has focused its energy on nurturing niche communities. For instance, Reebok sponsors the CrossFit Games, and a large portion of its content focuses on an audience interested in that.

Five years ago, the term “brand newsroom” sounded like an oxymoron.

“Our brand ethos is that we have stepped completely to a different direction than those brands,” Mazei said. “Sure, Steph Curry is out there, or you got Lebron doing his thing after winning the championship. That’s not our game. We’re [trying to reach] the person who’s in the gym five times a week, working out hard, doing the tough stuff.”

To connect with this niche audience, the apparel brand is modeling after digital publishers.

“I think the native storytellers are great. BuzzFeed changed the whole world with the way it produces content,” he said. “Building stories for social consumption specifically, and building stories for platforms is really fascinating stuff.”

The virtual newsroom

It’s a big commitment to build a newsroom that’ll attract top creative talent. Between office renovations and full-time hires, the costs add up. For every Nestle and Reebok that builds a mini-BuzzFeed inside its headquarters, there’s a brand building a newsroom that, for the most part, doesn’t exist in a physical space.

That’s something we’ve witnessed first-hand at Contently, a content marketing technology company that connects thousands of creatives to brands looking to scale their content marketing operations. Hundreds of brands use our platform to build teams of editors, writers, designers, and videographers, and manage their content marketing operations.

For folks like David Gardner, SoFi’s former director of content marketing, this arrangement is just logical. “Because we didn’t have writers in house, we tapped Contently’s freelancer network,” Gardner said. “We also needed a managing editor to scale content and manage writers.”

Or take Genpact, a business transformation firm, which used Contently to quickly spin up a global newsroom with dozens of writers without having to endure the laborious process of building an internal team.

The virtual brand newsroom built through a software platform makes a lot of sense. Freelancers get paid well while working from the comfort of their homes. Brands quickly build and maintain a newsroom without having to recruit full-time employees, which lets them creatively use budgets that otherwise wouldn’t be earmarked for personnel. The virtual model would have been difficult to pull off years ago, but advances in content marketing technology make it an increasingly attractive option.

What type of newsroom are you?

For brands that want to be heard, an investment in content is almost inevitable. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2017 benchmark reports, 89 percent of B2B marketers and 86 percent of B2C marketers now use content marketing. And over 40 percent of marketers in both groups say their content marketing budgets will increase this year.

In the process, we’ll likely see a few different models emerge. Some—like Reebok, JPMorgan Chase, and Casper—will build internal newsrooms that resemble the headquarters of digital publishers. Others, like Genpact and SoFi, will leverage content marketing technology and tap into networks of creative talent. Then there will be companies following Marriott, which has physical brand newsrooms all over the world but also runs a travel magazine staffed by freelancers and uses content marketing technology to connect global teams.

For years, “brand newsroom” has been one of the most lampooned marketing buzzwords. But in 2017, the pressure to source and maintain top talent is resulting in some exciting and unexpected new content marketing models. Brands will have to decide what’s right for them based on their culture, budgets, and resources. But one thing’s for certain: There are more attractive options than ever before.

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