5 Ways Bill Simmons Should Build His Branded Content Studio

By Joe Lazauskas February 23rd, 2016

Last week, former Grantland founder Bill Simmons announced the latest addition to his media company: The Ringer. And in his first podcast after the news broke, he named branded content as one of the key areas he plans to focus on.

“[We’re going to do] linear TV, digital TV, scripted, non-scripted, social, podcasts, video, branded content… You name it!” he exclaimed, running through the requisite checklist of media-startup buzzwords. It wasn’t a big mention, but it was still significant, indicating that Bill Simmons Media Group, which encompasses both Simmons’ podcast network and The Ringer, plans to follow the pack and enter the jargon-infested world of native advertising.

That means that Simmons and Eric Weinberger, president of Bill Simmons Media Group, get to answer a fun question: For a brand-new media company, what’s the best way to approach branded content?

A few years ago, the answer to that question was a relative mystery, but we have a lot more information to work with today. After all, most media companies have embraced branded content or native advertising in hopes of actually making money. The New York Times has created dozens of in-depth interactive pieces on behalf of brands, earning industry praise and the right to charge six figures for campaigns. BuzzFeed has produced native ads since its launch and is very, very good at integrating brands into cat videos. The Atlantic graduated from publishing Scientology propaganda to making Qualcomm go viral. Sure, a lot of native ads still look like they belong on ClickHole, but there’s now a significant amount of data out there on what works and what doesn’t.

As a result, there’s a lot for Simmons to think about as he sets up The Ringer’s branded content operation. Here are the five most important considerations:

1. Don’t be beholden to any existing native ad model

Even though a few publishers have found success with native ads, The Ringer shouldn’t just try to copy an existing the model. The industry is too young. The biggest advantage Simmons and his crew have is the ability to build the perfect staff and product from scratch.

Simmons’s growing media empire also presents a lot of lucrative opportunities that other publishers don’t have. In addition to The Ringer, Simmons has the Bill Simmons Podcast Network1 and will have his own show on HBO later this year. He plans to build one “creative hub” for all of these efforts. It would make sense for The Ringer’s branded content operation to work across all of them.

2. Sell programs across multiple channels and platforms

Native advertising has mostly meant sponsored blog posts and infographics, but that standard is changing quickly. Increasingly, smart publishers sell brands on their ability to make native ads go viral on third-party platforms like Facebook, Medium, and YouTube. Between Simmons’ owned media properties and all of the third-party platforms out there, The Ringer has the potential to truly “publish everywhere” on behalf of brands, telling stories across shortform video, podcast segments, and longform articles that tie together narratives or themes.

It seems like The Ringer is already on that train of thought. Business Insider reported last night that Simmons plans to partner with Medium on the new site. Still, the site should look for ways to extend the partnership to its branded content efforts at some point, and not just limit it to editorial.

(Update: The site is actually going to live on Medium at theringer.com. Wow.)

Whatever happens, the branded content team should absolutely not start a drinking game that forces everyone to take a shot whenever they say the word “cross-platform.” That’s how you accidentally turn a creative hub into a suicidal cult.

3. Match the creative talent of the edit staff—or at least get close

The one guarantee about The Ringer is that it’ll bring the creative goods. Twelve of the 13 current editorial staffers formerly worked for Grantland, the stupendous longform sports and pop culture site that ESPN shuttered last year following a falling out with Simmons.

But will we be able to say the same about its branded content efforts? A lot of publishers use their reputation for quality editorial to sell brands on native ad campaigns, then fail to build a native ad team that can legitimately compete with the editorial squad. (What’s good, Gigaom?)

It may be foolish to think that The Ringer’s native ad studio can match the talent of Andy Greenwald, Chris Ryan, Sean Fennessey, and company. It’s difficult to hire established media professionals to take on brand work (although if the money’s right, it’s not that hard). But one of the biggest triumphs of Grantland was Simmons’s ability to recruit and nurture great, young, unknown talents.

When it comes to the branded content studio, The Ringer should be just as ambitious.

4. Invest in proprietary technology

This part might be the least intuitive for Simmons, who has admitted on his podcast to being caught off guard by the technology shifts that hit the media industry while he was at Grantland. The publishers with the most promising branded content operations today have a strong technology foundation.

BuzzFeed, for instance, has Pound, an analytics tool that uses network diffusion to understand exactly how a piece of content spreads through social networks. Vox has Chorus, a content management system (CMS) it relies on to create campaigns with advertisers. These unique pieces of technology allow publishers to differentiate themselves in a crowded content landscape, offering advertisers something they can’t get anywhere else.

5. Go beyond native ads

Smart brands don’t just want native ads that’ll make a temporary impact. They also want to build an owned content operation that lets them publish on their own sites and social accounts, and helps them build a loyal audience over time.

The Ringer, in turn, shouldn’t limit branded content offerings to native ads. As a publisher, if you’re going to bother establishing a branded content studio, you might as well create a full-fledged content studio that serves the many needs of your advertisers. It’s just a smart move.

If I’m Old Spice and interested in launching a men’s lifestyle magazine, for instance, I’m going to listen to what The Ringer has to say. Forget the man your man could smell like. The Ringer has the potential to be the publication your brand could sound like.

  1. Or BSPN, a great, subtle trolling of his former employer.
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