Hey everyone, welcome to Studio 96’s blog.
I’ve been in operation for a couple months, ensuring some basic pillars of my business, Studio 96, are in place before I dedicated time to the blogging game. Check.
After some iterations on process, I’ve been able to repurpose some of my time spent on administrative tasks and dedicate time to sharing knowledge about my industry and young entrepreneurship as I discover it. It could be cool, because you, dear readers, will watch me learn and learn with me.
I’ll probably be focusing on content strategy for digital-to-consumer (D2C) and business-to-business (B2B) software businesses, because that’s where my heart is, where my experience lies, and where content marketing is used best as a growth tool.
But I thought it apt to begin the series with how a girl in her 20s became passionate about tracking each nuance of a blog post and its impact on how many people like it and to what communities it appeals. Quite niche, I admit, but as many of you know, and in case you don’t, the practice is real.
Before I can begin with how I ended up in this corner of the media world, I thought to begin with a bit of context.
Disclaimer: this post will be longer than its successors, but worth the read.
Ten years ago in the wake of the financial crisis, the media job market flipped on its head (as did every market, but media got hit hard). Being a journalist went from a highly-coveted skill with good pay to high volume of writers with very little pay, thanks to the confluence of a shattering economy and online media taking reign to print. By 2014, life-long career journalists began pivoting jobs as pay grew as low as eight cents per word. For reference, a four-hundred-word article would cost an online outlet only $32, which might take the writer six hours or more to write and editing, checking out to about $5.33 per hour. Even worse, cash-strapped editorial outlets became infamous for paying late or forgetting to pay altogether. It’s still a problem even established journalists face today.
Fast forward a few years later. It was in this job market that the presidential election of 2016 took place.
Until the 2016 election, only university journalism departments paid mind to the bookish media theorists who practically prophesized the global attack on the media industry.
When “social media” meant coffee chats with newspapers, these thinkers predicted as early as the 70s that the economic, political, and social spheres would be fed up with certain channels taking sides. Folks like Marshall McLuhan, Jaron Lanier, and especially Neil Postman were the Michael Burrys (think Christian Bale in The Big Short) of the media industry, who sensed that opinion, advertising, and editorial sections of papers would muddle together more than ever before. They theorized this before platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and digital outlets even existed, before the internet even existed. The working theory was that eye-catching visuals would take the place of nuances of an entire article or idea, leaving public knowledge to suffer in its wake. Indeed, systems like News Feeds actualized these theories from idea into reality. These thinkers, all the way back in the 1970's, feared (and accurately described) a media climate of accusations that prioritized aesthetics over ideas. Turns out, they’d effectively described the media climate in 2016 one of “fake news”, of “crooked” Hilary and “crazy” Trump, of Russia’s alleged hacking.
2016 was also the year that branded content started booming. The term “content marketing” jumped 2,100% in Google searches. Marketing agencies discovered 89% of companies believed that producing blogs, magazines, or some sort of information content was more important than traditional ads. With social media providing opportunity to curate audiences with a needle, brands wanted to direct digital marketing efforts to sponsored content, and to pour most of their marketing money into owned-media platforms.
The “brand story-telling” trend spread to editorial papers, too. The most visited piece on the New York Times’ website was one sponsored by Netflix. Entire brand studios started popping up from historically editorial pedagogies. The Times, as well as Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Washington Post, and many others caught on the trend. These studios are immensely profitable; in the case of the Times and its T Brand Studio, revenue from only fifty T-Brand clients accounted for 6% of the New York Times’ entire advertising revenue for the year, bringing in $33.1 million dollars.
Many readers did not like this. Loyal readers abandoned their beloved news source because they felt the papers failed to sufficiently distinguish between editorial and sponsored reporting. Readers questioned the motives and incentives of the papers they read altogether.
For example, readers wondered: If a huge scandal were to break out at Netflix, would the New York Times be incentivized report it with full accuracy?
In sum: in 2016, there was a precariously bubbling cauldron of poorly paid journalists, increased advertiser power in editorial, prioritization of surface-level image over nuanced text thanks to social media, and muddling of opinion and editorial on the newspaper page (print or online). According to those theorists, it’s those factors that made the global political attack on the media inevitable.
2016 also happened to be the year I declared myself a student of Journalism.
In truth, I was lucky with timing, because I think journalism classes all over the country presented students with a harder challenge than in years past: we now had to report hard, tangible facts in a way that could reflect our consideration of more esoteric, intangible media philosophies. We had to actively demonstrate with each curated word that we understood we weren’t supporting, promoting, branding, denigrating, or skewing anything. That’s always been a journalist’s challenge, but it’s been extra hard — and extra important — since 2016.
To better understand this “bubbling cauldron”, I started reporting on the advertising industry. It got sort of meta and confusing, but I learned a lot about how to be a better reporter, especially thanks two professors: Ted Conover, who taught me how to investigate with integrity, and Vivian Orbach-Smith, who taught me how to write with it. But there was another important thing I discovered which made the prospect of making a career out of journalism a lot more interesting:
Rewind a bit to 2011, when three tremendously bright guys solved a problem of the underpaid journalist that reigned after the financial crisis. This is around the time branded content started becoming a thing, as I mentioned before. Joe Coleman, Shane Snow, and Dave Goldberg called their company Contently (as in, I’m contently enjoying a picnic. But also, “content”). They developed a software that connects brands looking to produce content with freelancers to create it. Unlike an editorial news organization, corporate marketing budgets are equipped to pay producers a higher salary per word than a paper, which relies exclusively on advertising and subscriptions for revenue.
As they grew, the next natural step was to develop a content management and analytics platform, which tracks the performance of content by analyzing metrics such as engagement, likes, heat maps, read time, bounce rate, and other KPIs.
I loved this slice of the content marketing world.
When brands brought views to their own site and publication, instead of paying for views where people seek out unbiased news, a whole new, symbiotic ecosystem forms. In this system, brands own up to the responsibilities of truthful journalism, lest their brand reputation collapse, and editorial papers are free from forcing their trained news journalists to write sponsored content. If all goes well, a brand’s own blog engages their unique audience better anyway, yielding a far better ROI.
Cut back to 2016. I became a devoted reader of Contently’s blog, The Content Strategist, which today boasts a monthly readership of thousands of marketers, businesspeople, and other digital-marketing-strategy connoisseurs. It’s the holy grail of content marketing. I got into it while working for a small, family-owned tech company during the summer. While sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s appointment in February of 2017, I saw that Contently’s Director of Content Strategy and avid Content Strategist author, Joe Lazauskas, tweeted that his team was hiring a strategy intern. I sent my application into the black hole where cold, online job applications usually go.
Miraculously, I got the job at Contently.
My direct boss was an unabashedly cheerful woman called Kristen, whose data science skills were sharp as a knife. Under her wing, I learned what content strategy actually meant. I learned that it is an iterative research process, which relies on troves of third party data. Kristen showed me how content strategy was a process of quantifying and codifying something as qualitative as good writing.
Eventually though, school started and I left Contently, still mesmerized by the content strategy world. I worked for a bit for two early employees of the company, who left to start their own content agency. I then left to Israel to study in Jerusalem for a summer post-grad break.
But remember Contently’s software platform I mentioned? I found out later that while I was there, instead of offering clients the option of purchasing access to the freelance network independent of the software, they changed their subscription plans to both. That meant in order to get writers, clients had to get the analytics platform. This cost upwards of $80,000 per year.
Once Contently mandated the software purchase, lots of brands who needed their freelance production were left stranded.
It is in that strandedness that the niche for Studio 96 exists.
I still have a funny relationship with content marketing, given the entire historical, larger media context that I explained- the “bubbling cauldron”, as it were.
But through my work at Contently, I realized this: there is room for honest engagement between brands and their customers vis-a-vis storytelling.
Not all brands are producing content with dollar signs in their green eyes. In fact, many founders are producing exciting content in their respective industries to take back some of that nuance that articles have and pictures alone lack.
That might be part of what it means to have a sustainable business if you’re a media company.
There are a couple brands who started out with honest content just because they founders loved what they were doing. Rand Fishkin, for example, started Moz, an immensely successful SEO software, this way. Contently started that way, too. We’re seeing the trend being picked up by the ultra-saavy digital disruptors, like Away’s Here Magazine, Casper’s Casper the Blog, or Glossier’s Into the Gloss.
My friends and I are blessed to enter the workforce during a time where businesses and entire industries are starting to reckon with their impact on the world. Some are turning face while other are capitalizing on this trend, but in any case, my generation has the remarkable opportunity to embed impact into the companies we start from the foundation, like Moz and Contently did. Unlike our parents, we won’t have to retroactively fit “sustainability” onto a business that, at best, makes its money indifferent to societal impact, and at worst, is straight up dangerous to the planet and its inhabitants.
With that, I founded Studio 96 in response to the circulation of content that’s pointless, useless, fake, or feels like a waste of time. I believe promoting authentic content with intellectual integrity is a solution to the internet’s dribble, and at Studio 96 we’re set out to make it happen.
With that, I’m concluding this post. I’m excited to get started regularly publishing, and am eager to see the community of content marketers we’re building. To learn more, check out studio96nyc.com.