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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On the radio, talking about George Lois and this cover

Esquite.-AliEagle eyed readers will have noticed that I’ve changed this blog somewhat. So much of what I’m working on now is multiplatform, that ‘coverthink‘ felt too limiting a name. Hence me consolidating all my posts and a few examples of my work, here on the same site.

But that doesn’t mean I’m done with talking about covers, as this recent interview on American radio explains. Ostensibly about how magazine covers work in general, the interview is really an opportunity to square off the legendary George Lois of Esquire fame with David Curcurito, Esquire’s current Creative Director.

I’m like, the ref.

The colour of money: why does Hearst’s hot new launch look so bland?

dr-oz-the-good-lifeDr. Oz is a controversial figure. Billed as ‘America’s Most Trusted Doctor‘ he’s a top-notch heart surgeon, has a huge TV show and a massive social following. Oz has been named one of Esquires 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century, as “the most important and most accomplished celebrity doctor in history.” But he often attracts establishment criticism, not just for advocating alternative therapies, but for his style. As a recent New Yorker profile explains, he employs words that serious scientists shun, like “startling,” “breakthrough,” “radical,” “revolutionary,” and “miracle.”

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The right rail is history. MPU’s are finished. The New York Times has chucked them out, so it must be true.

The New York Times website has just re-designed, the big news being  that with 700,000 paying subscribers, the brand feels confident enough to reduce reliance on display advertising, and concentrate instead on sponsored content. There’s been tons of comment on this, notably at Business Insider, from where I pinched the screen grabs below.

The fact of the matter, is that we’ve taught everyone that what happens in the ‘right rail’ is commercial nonsense and of no consequence. So no-body looks at it. (Although I would like to direct coverthinkers to my own right right rail, just over …there).

This screen grab shows the same story, but now with content extended across the full site width. In addition, they’ve also cleared out a load of clutter and replaced it with, shock horror, white space!

There are now dedicated areas for sponsored content, or ‘paid posts’ as the NYT likes to call them. This is best explained at Ad Age, where there are good details of  extraordinary lengths the Times is going to in order to make clear the distinction between this content and NYT editorial. Ad Age says that sponsored content will be visible through their own site search, but when I looked for this Dell article about millenials shunning the office, I couldn’t find it.

Many commentators like the new site, but like me, are frustrated by the lack of change on the homepage. Most readers may well land on an article page, but as a marketing opportunity, making a bigger move here would really help consolidate the gains elsewhere.

CNN make the bold claim that this redesign is the future of publishing. That may, or may not be true. But what is a fact is that sponsored content is here to stay, it’s just a question of how publishers can manage the fine balance with church and state. I’m grateful to David Bostock from Bauer, who has tweeted this excellent link on the 12 different ways publishers explain native advertising to their readers. And here’s the excellent Emily Bell, with her observations on the transparency of sponsored content in The Guardian.

In America, Hearst have made great strides with branded content under ex SAY Media boss Troy Young, who has just hired my old Conde Nast Mademoiselle colleague Kate Lewis as VP of content and editorial director. My suspicion is, that with her superb CV as guardian of editorial excellence, one of her biggest jobs will be to keep skittish editors in line.

Mergers, aquisitions and permanent beta. My media predictions for 2014.

End of year reviews are fun, but I’m just a little bit late for that. Besides, I’m much more interested now in what happens next. Here’s five big ideas that media brands need to grapple with in 2014.

1. Realise the value of their audience
Trust and recognition can take decades to build. With every brand in the world now able to deliver a content proposition, media brands have a genuine head start when it comes to building meaningful audience relationships. Expect mergers and acquisitions.

2. Understand that a strong point of view is an obligation
Content is everywhere, so brands must be highly disciplined with their content strategy to maintain attention, credibility and point of difference. This means more focus on brand values, and then delivering stories that reflect them with a point of view that really means something.

3. Create better sponsored content
Instead of the rubbish that turns up in everyone’s feed, brands have to realise their sponsored content must be entertaining, useful and non-promotional. Every. Single. Time.

4. Get the website balance right
The hardest nut to crack, but if the content and the user experience is valuable, users will pay – particularly for specialist brands. If titles can get their story straight and support it across every platform, then metered content, paywalls and added value subscriptions will succeed. A different business model will also reduce the requirement to yell at the audience with a bunch of screaming MPUs.

5. Accept permanent beta and budget accordingly
Media brands need to wake up to the fact that visual design IS content. User expectation is now so demanding, that brands need to accept continual development when it comes to look, feel and function. Whatever the platform, if the experience doesn’t feel right within the first three seconds, people will wander off.

Same as it ever was.

Emotional headlines that make you cry are the new SEO

And that’s not a good thing, say critics of what’s been called “social content.”

They are talking about the way sites such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed are effectively gaming Facebook in order to get their content shared, writes Andy Pemberton from Furthr.

Their method is to tweak headlines until they drip emotion (often accompanied with pictures of crying women and children). If that makes no sense to you, visit the upworthy generator, an algorhythim that does the work for you. The downside:

Facebook are hip to what’s going on and aren’t too happy about this kind of content – content people do actually like, after all – appearing in news feeds. They’d rather people read the kind of upmarket stuff advertisers like to position against. Furthr pal Tim Tucker suggests you go to 38 minutes into this video for a really good discussion of the “Upworthy problem.”

Read more at Furthr’s 10 design principles are simply a work of genius

The website was voted ‘Design Of The Year’ in 2013, the first time a website has ever won this prestigious award. I wrote about it on coverthink back in April, but now, reports Andy Pemberton from Furthr, the people behind the site have detailed exactly how they get such great results.

  1. Start with needs*
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

Read more here at furthr.

‘Colour is a chromatic and tangible funnel of our brand values’

This genius spoof hits the buzzword bingo button with a vengence. Created by U.K. agency The Quiet Room, The *Santa* Brand Book rips into bonkers branding language right down to the smallest details. Here’s a few choice morsals:

*Santa* is a Concept, not an idea. It’s an Emotion, not a feeling. It’s both Yesterday and Today. And it’s Tomorrow as well.

Don’t use the over-familiar and paternalistic ‘Father Christmas’. If only because it anagrams to ‘the rich Mr Fat-ass.

Elsewhere, *Santa*’s brand assets of Fatiness and Beardiness are used to chart the strengths of potential *Santa* competitors, such as Miley Cyrus (least threat) to Harry Potter’s Hagrid (maximum threat).

There’s fifteen pages to this masterpiece, check it out in hi-res pdf right here.

How to create Christmas, by using the very heart of your brand

Christmas is massive for all magazines, with The Big Issue no exception. They produce five festively themed issues, which requires ever increasing levels of ingenuity as December rolls on.

So hats off to another amazing cover, this time Santa as a digital mosaic of Big Issue vendor pictures. Here’s editor Paul McNamee on how and why they did it.

‘Distribution staff are always saying they need Santa on the cover at Christmas. I didn’t want a regular Santa – doesn’t say anything unique about us. This year has been all about celebrating the vendor. So I decided to create Santa out of the faces of hundreds of vendors. That’s where we started. Our art director Scott Maclean got one of the best digital mosaic artists in the world – Charis Tsevis, from Athens – and he built the cover. I think it’s the best Christmas cover I’ve been involved with – and I’ve done a few here.’

The Big Issue is a big brand, with a haloed place in our national consciousness. But it’s value is entirely wrapped up in the unique relationship between vendors and readers. that’s why this cover is so ace. For reference, here’s an earlier post on how the Big Issue are using twitter to #celebrateyourvendor

This new issue will be on sale from Monday. So get out and buy one, it’s Christmaaaaaaaaaas! (Holder/Lea)

How the hell do you combine the best of 2013′s worldwide art and design, into one handy book?

This is the printed annual of the It’s Nice That website, which proclaims to ‘Champion creativity across the art and design world’

With a mission statement like that, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was some kind of government project, but it’s clearly working for them, both commercially and creatively.

As someone not intimately familiar with the brand, I didn’t have a clue what to think when I saw the cover, other than pick up on the comic annual reference. But this ambiguity is inevitable, and possibly desirable, with any attempt to document Art. It’s much like trying to document life itself, although Life magazine tried that back in the day, and had the name to prove it.

But the fact remains, this book is just excellent. The editorial tells us that this book contains over 150 examples of the best work from the website during 2013. And such is the usability and navigability of print, it’s a brilliant way to encounter really emotional and moving stories that you’re not actively searching for, or swatting out of your social streams.

It really is joyous to see the best of the years big art exhibitions, graphic design projects, art installations, and media design all within a few pages of each other.

The breadth is challenging, as there will inevitably be stuff that doesn’t interest all readers. But like the New Yorker, if the It’s Nice That brand can build trust, this becomes a non-issue.

It would make a fantastic, unexpected Christmas present, you can buy it online here.