All posts by Andy Cowles

Is Your Content Going Down The Toilet? Here Are Three Things You Can do About it

clickbait-logoCrap. That’s the word that begins content marketing agency Velocity’s slideshare, now downloaded over half a million times. Their argument is that so much content is now being produced by marketers, social media agencies, production companies and PR’s that it’s inevitable we’re all going to drown in a flood of content that’s just plain rubbish. (Brilliantly skewered by Clickhole, logo above)

It’s a good looking dek, but at the end, when I was expecting there to be an antidote to this tide of garbage swilling around my ankles, I discovered that their answer was… ‘Raise your game’.

So what does this platitude actually mean? It’s an important question, because unless we work it out, trust in journalism, publishing and the brands we serve will just melt away. And without trust we have nothing.

Storytelling may be the basis of human experience, but it means diddly-squit if the source is untrustworthy.

CB_Lloyds-ListThis is why media brands came into being. Starting with the 17th century Lloyds List, then newspapers, magazines, TV stations and radio channels, society has enthusiastically embraced the idea of trusting a story told by an organisation, as opposed to a known individual. But that’s history. And whilst it may not be bunk, we are all now experiencing a very different reality.

Big old media brands like The Times, Vogue and so on now feel a bit like countries, with recognisable borders, laws and customs. But much like the geo-political landscape, the new media powerhouses are stateless.

pixie-woo-channelBuzzFeed is now on its way to being valued at a billion dollars. Beauty bloggers like Lisa Eldridge, Pixie Woo and Zoella get millions of views on YouTube, and are treated like rock stars. Brands themselves like ASOS, P&G, Sports Direct and countless others have realised they no longer need to rent media when they can own it.

Add all this to the way in which we actually consume content, and we have a situation where media ownership no longer exists. Everything is right here, right now, and free.

More than ever before, publishers have to prove their content is trustworthier than the competition. Trusted enough to retain our attention, encourage us to share it, and in many cases actually pay for it.

That’s challenging enough, but due to the rise of native advertising or any one of the 17 different ways of describing ‘brand journalism’, publishers now have the added task of maintaining the relationship between Church and State. When ads no longer look like ads, the audience needs to know who’s telling the story, and why.

Jeff-jarvisRespected commentator Jeff Jarvis, writing about Forbes’s native advertising initiative ‘Brand Voice’ says: “I hesitate three beats before clicking on a Forbes link. That is the definition of a devalued media brand.” This has more to do with labelling than principle, but more on that later.

Here at the SPD, our craft may be changing, but the basics remain true and the goal is still the same. Same as it ever was, if we want to be trusted, here are three things we must always do, and two things that will ruin us.

oreo-blackout1. Deliver Instant Impact

We’re all viewers first, and readers second, we make our mind up about content pretty quickly. Three seconds for a magazine cover, down to nano seconds for a tweet, regardless of whether it’s from Vogue or Oreos.

This means how it looks in the very first instance is absolutely essential in building trust. The right font, color, or picture all make a difference, but only if the presentation is absolutely in line with the content’s intention.

‘Design’ cannot just be painted on. It needs to be a fundamental expression of the content’s authenticity. It’s only when the storyteller trusts themselves that you can trust the content. That’s what authenticity looks like.

wonga-slider2. Maintain Continual Engagement

It’s essential to talk to your audience in a tone of voice that they can hear. Channelling what the reader is feeling is often way more valuable than merely stating what the writer is thinking.

This is really important in the digital space, a colder landscape where emotional expression can tend toward the reductive. It’s essential that writing needs to be warm, personable and memorable.

Usability is obviously essential in building trust. But really sophisticated UI can generate feelings above and beyond the content itself. A fine example of this is the UK payday loan lender Wonga’s slider, best seen on mobile. Wonga’s business is morally dubious, their behaviour borderline criminal and their PR is a disaster. But the illusion of control this interface creates is just genius, proving Steve Jobs’ mantra ‘the interface is everything’.

caitlin-moran3. Create a Hidden Hook

The highest goal for a media destination is to have a reason for the audience to return, time and time again. Tone alone can do this, as the Daily Mail proves with their carefully curated xenophobia. Specialist or exclusive content works too, but that power is dwindling as so much can now be found online.

So a hidden hook literally needs to have a life of its own. Often called a franchise, it needs to contain a strand of brand DNA, be capable of existing outside the host and to operate deep in the reader’s psyche.

Franchises can be real people; the genius that is Caitlin Moran (above) is a fine example, as her London Times column must be responsible for a substantial percentage of their paywall audience. Like Caitlin, the best franchises are always different, yet always the same. Similar to a Big Mac, readers know what they’re going to get.

Creating a great franchise is much harder than it looks. Many editors swear blind they’ve got loads, when all they really have are features. A lack of franchises won’t ruin the business, but here are two things that certainly will…

linkbait-generator-Breaking promises

“You’ll never believe what happened next…”

This is the legendary curiosity gap, skilfully exploited by the likes of Upworthy and Viral Nova. The numbers claimed by both sites are impressive, but this excellent post at Buzzfeed explains why this technique holds little long-term value. Whether you use a linkbait generator or not (above).

express-cover-bingoLosing sight of the reader

Here in the UK we all laugh at the Express Bingo site, which beautifully predicts the 16 cover stories that the Daily Express runs on rotation. Arthritis! The Weather! Pensions! Dementia! Diana! Romanians! etc. But this remains a master class in how to maintain a relationship with a loyal readership, albeit one that’s slowly dying off.

express-bingo-twoThere are plenty of discarded media destinations that failed to understand what their audience really wanted. Newsweek in the US, Easy Living, She and Shoot in the UK all spring to mind, you can be sure there will be more soon enough.

Native advertising would have made no difference to these titles, as none had a digital dimension. But for the rest of us, integration of commercial content is the issue. The term may be temporary, but the effects of dissolving the relationship between Church and State will be permanent.

native-chartThe Guardian reports BBC Economics editor Robert Peston saying: “Over time the impression may be created that all editorial is for sale, and none of it to be trusted.” He accepts that native ads seem to work, but questions whether readers ever notice the ‘sponsored content’ labelling. His darkest fear? “How we as an industry are prone to cut corners in a hideous way when we face an existential threat, or indeed when there is money to be made.”

Robert says that, regardless of what readers may want to share, an editor’s ability to decide what stories really matter is sacrosanct. I agree. Whether a public service broadcaster or a paid-for brand, the editing itself still remains a valuable benefit.

For me, the two challenges with commercial content are making sure that integrity is not impeached, and then to work out who’s going to create and curate it.

To the first point, I believe labelling does work. But it’s got to be clear. Here’s Jeff Jarvis again: “I’ve long said that if you have to put a link next to a label saying “what’s this?”, then the label clearly isn’t clear enough.”

clickhole-screengrabMuch better to let the content do the job itself, whether that be The New York Times story on women Inmates sponsored by Netflix’s Orange is the New Black or the genius of Clickhole’s totally upfront declarations, seen above. For more on the success of the Onion’s bastard child, take a look here.

But as to who makes this content, that’s more complex. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Hearst, Time Inc., Bauer and many others may have separate teams creating native advertising, but frankly, everyone is now creating content on both sides of the commercial coin.

Defining who’s doing what and why is tricky, as ultimately we’re all creating different flavours of the same thing; attempts to get consumers to read things which the company in question, or its executives, wants those consumers to read.

The more ‘serious’ the journalism, the harder it is. The Forbes experience has agitated commentators in a way that BuzzFeed never does. It’ll be interesting to see what Jeff Bezos’s ambitions for The Washington Post are going to look like in this space.

Because as Felix Salmon, writing at Reuters, reminds us, none of this is easy. In fact, “trying to get consumers to read anything at all, in a world of almost infinite choices, has never been harder.”

This article was first published by InPublishing


Is this what Amazon is going to do to us all?

New-yorker-20th-oct.smallHere’s an excellent satire on how Jeff Bezos has impacted the way we enjoy books. The original New Yorker cover is truly fabulous, but I love the way some internet wag has cleaned the whole lot out, replacing the last book with a Kindle. Which was kind of suggested on the New Yorkers’ own site, when they tell the story of how the original cover came about.

Five must-see, must-read links

vogue-2014-september-issuePrint not dead etc. Here’s the 856 page September issue from Vogue. Image from Arem Duplessis.

A stunning analysis from New York magazine of how Time Inc got into its current situation. So well reported you get the idea that they were in the room. And for the really keen, here’s Pando Daily’s analysis of the analysis.

Minimum Viable Personality. A brilliant explanation to why trust is the only thing that matters in any content strategy. Thanks to Andy P. for the link

Editorial will eat itself: discuss. Here’s Michael Brenner, content marketing ‘guru’ explaining ‘how brands can remain human when native and ad-tech collide’.

More shouting about native advertising over at Digiday

My interview with Wyatt Mitchell, the Creative Director of The New Yorker

wyatt-mitchell-talkWyatt is going to be speaking at Magfest 2014, the Scottish PPA’s eagerly awaited conference on September 5th. He’s The New Yorker‘s first ever Creative Director, as well as having a storied CV behind him, with roles at Wired, Vibe, Esquire, Oprah Magazine and TV Guide.

Here’s an exclusive podcast interview I did with him last week for the Scottish PPA. Wyatt talks about redesigns, digital innovation, native advertising and what it’s like to work inside one of the world’s greatest media brands, all fascinating and at times totally unexpected revelations.

In other news, I’m also on the bill for Magfest, where aside from buying Wyatt a drink, I’ll be talking about how to build trust in media. More on that later …

Five must-see, must-read links

Five-must-readsThe New Yorker re-launches it’s website, claiming to bring all their sensibilites to the web, but at warp speed. Great post, thanks to @magcuture for the tip.

David Carr: ‘I’m not so much a digital native as a digital casualty’ Great writing by @carr2n in The New York Times. If you’re really keen, here’s another, even better piece by him on what it is to be a journalist today.

This chap has designed over 600 world class book jackets. Here’s how he does it.

Jeff Jarvis on how Forbes native advertising strategy has devalued his view of the brand.

Superb analysis of the new Airbnb logo.

How the launch of Hearst’s Town & Country will help give Putin some manners

Quuen-putinIn her editors’ letter, Justine Picardie claims that the time is right for launch of Town & Country on account of  ‘a tidal wave of global wealth that is pouring into London’. She acknowledges the enduring appeal of traditional Britain, but make no mistake, it’s the international rich that advertisers want here, as opposed to a bunch of Downton fans.

Town & Country has been published in America since 1846, where, without a royal family, money really is the true indicator of social status. The big idea behind the UK edition is that this is increasingly the norm over here. If you can afford to buy your way into the highest echelons of English society, Town & Country will show you how to walk the walk.

Extreme wealth has never been a guarantee of social acceptability. The great English essayist G.K. Chesterton once said: “The rich…are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it”

Whether this describes Vladimir Putin is neither here nor there, but we do need to know if Town & Country will succeed in its business of turning new money into old school charm

town-and-countryThe coverlines give us the first clues. All are intriguing, but ‘What to wear to meet the Queen’ is by far the most revealing.

Fashion magazines have always been about fantasy. A fast way of trying identities on for size, of making the wildest dreams seem somehow, tantalizingly possible. The matter-of-fact dilemma of picking out a frock to meet Her Madge is a super-fast way of showing that the English upper classes are now quite at ease with selling their secrets to those who can meet the price.

Within the magazine this is clearly seen in Sarah Parker Bowles feature about Rose van Cutsem. Rose is running the membership committee for Soho House’s upcoming foray into the Cotswolds, she’s essentially the gatekeeper to this new way of entering the heart of English society.

Rose’s style feels effortless, the grass impossibly green, and the wealth never spoken of. And of course, as her daughter was bridesmaid at Kate’s wedding, Rose really has had to work out what to wear to meet the Royal family. If she took the advice of Editor Justine Picardie elsewhere in the issue, she will have eschewed clashing hues, avoided flyaway skirts and planned accessories well in advance.

This is all important of course, but I suspect the really old money doesn’t give a fig about Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and all the other high end advertisers packing Town & Country’s 246 glossy pages.

The cover girls’ diamond and pearl earrings may be perfectly presented, but I reckon the Queen will be looking at the other face on the cover, and wondering if they couldn’t have chosen a frame where the horses’ ears were both pointing correctly forward.

But who gives a damn about that when a £9,850 Gucci dress will let you be the girl hanging onto the bridle.

Equestrian or otherwise, using content to sell stuff to wealthy people is now the richest game in town. Town & Country is muscling in on the turf currently held by the FT’s How To Spend It, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Harrods Magazine and a gazillion other pretenders lying in Cotswold hotel foyers. The difference is that Town & Country promise that you really can have ‘the best of both worlds’

The launch issue been created by the team currently making Harpers Bazaar into one of the world’s best high end glossies. The art direction is immaculate, the features well crafted and the writing suitably intellectual. Justine Picardie and Creative Director Marissa Bourke rarely put a foot wrong, although at this stage, there is no sense of how it’s personality and point of view will develop.

Like Bazaar, the design is high-end yet understated. Some pages have one image too many, but that’s often a function of needing to cram in as many fashion credits as possible. The fine serif font used throughout is beautifully restrained, but given the age of many of its potential readers, the type is hard to read, particularly in small sizes. There’s lots of centred text, an occasional Oxford rule and absolutely no colour other than black.

It’s the relationship with Bazaar that’s at the heart of the publishing proposition. Unlike IPC’s Country Life, which still makes 50% of it’s circulation on newsstand, I don’t see the potential readers of Town & Country spending much time in their local Smiths newsagent any time soon.

Circulation will come from subscribers, and the marketing to that will have to be driven by the mothership. Town & Country now has it’s own url, but it also exists as an extension to the Bazaar site, so at this stage it still feels like a brand extension.

But the timing is excellent. Our intrigue with posh people has never been higher, and the realities of joining them never more possible. Send your kid to Eton and in one generation YOU are the establishment.

The challenge is for Hearst to prove eyeballs and engagement across print, digital and whatever else is planned for. Regardless of the politics, this is a good title with quality content that advertisers will want to be associated with one way or another. It’s an excellent way for Bazaar to extend their reach and give IPC’s Country Life some sort of competition.

This is the key battleground. Country Life is one of the world’s great media brands. They’ve become so through unimpeachable levels of trust and expertise in the one thing that the English care more about than anything else; The Countryside.

If Town & Country want to truly become more than just another fashion glossy, their opportunity lies precisely in the links and transitions between urban and rural experiences. These guys need helicopters, fast cars and a lot of high-end diary management.

Build trust there, and they’ll have a unique proposition.

How do you compete with a billion dollar logo?

buzzfeed-voxThis post was first published on The Media Briefing earlier this week.

Buzzfeed is now considered one of the world’s most innovative news organisation. It’s value is currently over $1b, getting close to the likes of The New York Times ($1.28b), and dwarfing other digital news sites. So it’s no surprise that more start-ups are wanting a slice of the pie.

American news site Vox is early out of the blocks, launched just three months after founder Ezra Klein left the Washington Post. He claims that Vox will ‘Explain the world’ but the site is already creating a stir, as evidenced by last weeks rant from a senior Facebook executive complaining that ‘Someone should fix this shit’

He was referring to Vox’s story about how you should ‘Wash your jeans instead of freezing them’, with the complaint was that they were not delivering  ‘A new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native’.

When it comes to content, you have to make your intentions very clear. Which is why design is central to a users understanding of what to expect. Can Vox persuade readers that it’s a real heavyweight political commentator? Can Buzzfeed change horses midstream and let us believe that they too should be taken seriously?

In short, what does the design of these two sites say about trust?

The logo fonts are fundamentally different. Buzzfeed’s is a functional sans, with an almost child-like feel created by the big lowercase ‘ee’. By contrast, Vox’s serif ‘V’ on their twitter icon is huge, and when spelt out has a sophisticated flourish. It feels high end, a bit like The Atlantic, redesigned by Pentagram not so long ago.

Newspaper-logosLikewise the colour means very different things. Not for nothing are serious newspaper logos black, and tabloids white out of red blocks. This visual language is impossible to deny: red means urgency, black is just inert. It has no opinion. (Although Stern have managed to have their cake and eat). But what does yellow mean in this equation?

Buzzfeed has built both traffic and reputation on spectacular viral techniques, listicles, cat videos, engaging headlines and their killer franchise, the online quiz, proving that content most people are interested in are stories about themselves.

But now they now want to do serious journalism. Reuters reports that they have boots on the ground in Ukraine, are publishing in-depth articles on Chinese dissenters and have had some big, breakout stories. But can Buzzfeed ever be regarded as a serious news site, when their key visual signature looks like this…

Buzzfeed-Logo-lolOr more precisely, LOL, in black type within a yellow circle.

The use of yellow has vexed media designers ever since CMYK was invented. It’s the brightest colour, but has the lowest tonal value, which means it has the highest level of visual cut-through.

US-small-coversNowhere is this more apparent than on a magazine newsstand, where yellow is the number one technique for getting a headline to stand out. For some brands, relying on yellow can cause real problems, as illustrated by the case of People, the world’s biggest and most profitable magazine brand. It costs a dollar more than most rivals, but because the whole category rely on yellow headlines, People looks cheap by association.

Moreover, in the world at large, yellow is often used to deliver marketing messages and price tags, which has taught us that when we see yellow, we’re being sold to.

Buzzfeed-desktop-homeIt all comes down to how it’s used. Like a celebrity news magazine, Buzzfeed, use bright yellow to draw our attention to comments, or small pieces of content that we may otherwise overlook.

It’s effective, but combined with a red logo, lemon tint panels and bright blue headlines, the combination of these colours creates a tabloid environment more akin to a Screwfix catalogue, than a premium destination for serious journalism.

Buzzfeed-mobile-articleAlthough to be fair, at the far more important mobile article level, the presentation is cooler, with the colour focused on social sharing buttons.

Grazia-magazineVox have taken a different tack. By making yellow the only colour, they’ve managed to retain it’s effectiveness, but without tarnishing it’s delivery. This is exactly what Grazia did in the magazine market. By using no colour other than yellow, the pallette looked like a fashion statement, and made the rest of the weekly market’s use of red obsolete overnight.

Vox--desktop-articleVox then go further by teaming yellow with grey, delivering a sense of sober authority. And in an unexpected twist, instead of black headlines, Vox use a very dark grey. When I first saw this in the ‘V’ of their twitter icon, I though it was an error, but this approach is consistently deployed in many places all through the site, particularly on mobile. The content can look pale and washed out, but it does prevent the words looking like sales messages.

Vox-mobile-HOMELinks are understated too, with a cool grey-blue, as opposed to Buzzfeed’s more eye-popping style.

Typographically, Vox has a cultured approach to their content. As any fule kno, there are only two fonts in the world, plain and fancy. Vox use both, with italic serif call-outs, traditional gothic headlines and modern sans text fonts. The feeling is sophisticated, although the small sizes create a somewhat pale reading experience.

Buzzfeed’s headlines and text are primarily in the highly legible and good-looking Proxima Nova. But with bits of Helvetica and other random fonts creeping in, there is a slight low-fi feeling and a lack of brand consistency.

Like Buzzfeed, Vox’s appeal is driven by virality of the headlines. Here’s a super-snarky story from Forbes, attempting to dismantle the thinking behind headlines such as ‘The Simpsons predicted the Ukraine crisis back in 1998’

VOX-desktop-homepageBut Vox are also using content curation as a way of building a content mix, as this homepage shows. Here, they pair a super-dull Russia and China story (good for credibility) alongside an orgasm story (good for clicks). Overall, I sense the desire to have a slice of Vice’s now very substantial content marketing pie.

Buzzfeed-mobile-HOMEBy comparison, even on mobile Buzzfeed go flat out for volume. Everything’s turned up to eleven, all of it looks fun, but there’s not a serious item in sight. And in the American style, deploy the hyped up tone of capping up every word in a headline: ‘A Naked Woman Has Made The Alphabet Out Of Human Hair’

Vox use a more measured upper and lower-case European approach: ‘How conspiracy theories explain political parties’. This typographic technique has less urgency, but a lot more conversational intimacy. And would certainly be preferred by Buzzfeed’s UK editors.

Overall, the Vox design direction is somewhat dull. But it’s undeniably modern, with yellow keeping the site just inside the pop culture canon. From a business point of view, they have set out to claim the journalistic high ground, and go viral from there. Buzzfeed are attempting world domination the other way round, by taking the lowland masses first, and then attempting to scale the higher peaks.


Like Buzzfeed, Vox’s business model is based on ‘native advertising’ or any other term used to describe ads that look like a bit like editorial. However, unlike Buzzfeed, it’s really hard to see which posts are ‘sponsored’, and which are not.

Political authority and influence may be the motivation behind the site, but aside from the click-bait headlines it’s hard to detect any real sense of tone in the content.

Unlike established news sites, I don’t yet know what Vox believe in, other than an enthusiasm for Obama Care. We may be conditioned to it, but when it comes to politics, readers need to know what the brand believes in order to work out the true colour behind the journalism.

This is a problem Buzzfeed just don’t have. What you see really is what you get. It’s not pretending to be cool, there’s no attempt to seduce with the presentation. Which makes me trust them all the more.

The PPA completely reboot their annual conference

HomepageLogo900In the past, publishing conferences could be predictable affairs. Keynote at ten, coffee at eleven, that sort of thing. But this Thursday’s PPA conference really does look like it’s going to be different.

Audience-Image-2Apart from a genuinely stellar speaker line up, the scheduling feels new and fresh, with an additional content stream called ‘The Buzz’.

I’m going to be hosting this all day, speakers will be talking about augmented reality, video blogging, digital delivery, e-commerce and loads more. I’m also doing a provocative session myself, talking about editorial and content marketing. Here’s the brochure shizzle:

‘Publishing has changed, and this conference is no exception. Disruption is now the norm. New voices have equal weight to established titles and new platforms challenge our preconceptions on a daily basis. This is why The Buzz is so important. A provocative enquiry into new ways of telling new stories, the sessions here are short, sharp and to the point.

We’ll be competing for your attention, in the same way as your own brands are competing for eyeballs, engagement, and ad dollars. Whether it’s world class vloggers, bloggers or technical platforms, all the sessions here today have the potential to reshape your business.

Keep an eye on #ppareinvented and we’ll make sure you don’t miss a thing’.

There are still a few tickets left, check out the site for more details.

David Carson, and the layout that changed the way I work

We-SurfI believe this brilliant spread is from The End Of Print, one of David Carson’s many books featuring surf magazines he designed pre-Raygun. But I was reminded of it again last week, whilst working with a client around the theme of people and their passions.

David Carson made his name with some very funky typography, but in this instance it’s the sheer power of connection with his audience that impresses me still.

Photos can absolutely change peoples minds, the work of Don McCullin and others have proved that. But with ‘lifestyle’ media, to make the claim that content has changed behaviour, and (I assume) be able to back it up is rare indeed.

Brand or content, what should be seen first?

people-logosThe UK newspaper People closed their website a little while ago. Launched with the idea that it would be ‘Buzzfeed for grown ups’, pretty much everything went wrong, according to this excellent reporting from of all places, Buzzfeed. Patrick Smith reports that there was a lack of identity, a lack of focus, and a complete failure to grasp how the native advertising business model works.

people-multiThis lack of brand benefit is perfectly expressed in the website logo. The way it worked (or rather, didn’t), was that the People logo was preceeded by a rotating series of words; ‘Sporty’, ‘Famous’, ‘Glam’, ‘Funny’ and so on. The story underneath didn’t change, but the context did.

What this did was remove any trace of brand from the content beneath. The stories became entirely generic, no tone, no point of view, no recall.

buzzfeedBy way of contrast, this is Buzzfeed’s home screen from the very same day. Which, when you compare the lead stories of ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Wanker’, pretty well sums up why Buzzfeed’s tone is so sharp.

Print has similar issues, but the context is very different. On a newsstand, when is right to put a coverline above the logo, and when should you never do it? Find out more after the jump.

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