If you live in the Twin Cities, chances are, by now you’ve probably heard 2017 is the Mall of America’s 25th birthday. They just had a huge celebration for the actual birthday a couple weeks ago–and the coverage was everywhere (nice work Sarah Grap!).
MOA has actually been a fairly big part of my life–especially for the last 13 years. When we moved to south Minneapolis in 2004, our new home was less than five miles from the mall. And, when we had our first child, MOA provided endless hours of “entertainment”–we spent many Saturday and Sunday mornings walking around the mall with our son and daughter and drinking our coffees.
So, the 25th anniversary piqued my curiousity. I wonder what MOA had been up to on the social front? Historically, they’ve been an enveloper-pusher, especially back when people like Lisa Grimm and Bridget Jewell were helping out.
Turns out, MOA is doing some interesting things with its (relatively newly revamped) blog, 55425.
So, I sat down with Timothy Pate, digital project manager at MOA and talked about the blog and how MOA is using it to drive awareness and interest for the popular international destination.
First, when did you change from the former blog format to the new version? Why?
Tim: My first project was relaunching the 55425 blog. With the former blog, the content was almost strictly promotional–it just wasn’t very engaging and featured mostly deals and events. So, we had a great opportunity to redesign and go in with a fresh approach to content. We chose to focus on three verticals for content: Culture, Entertainment, and Style.
Why the name 55425?
Tim: It’s the zip code the mall resides in. And, it highlights the impact the mall has in our own backyard. The mall is so large and has so much to offer that it often times is compared to a small city, so we thought it would be fun way to symbolize the vast majority of topics one can read about in our blog
Who is the team in charge of managing the blog?
Tim: I’m the primary editor of the blog, but we have a number of employees that contribute articles to the blog on a regular basis. We actually have a lot of good writers on staff, but writing isn’t their primary job. We ask everyone from interns to VPs to contribute. In total, we have 16 writers and we ask them to contribute one post a month. We give them a lot of rope to develop stories. For example, Amy Struve is our entertainment editor. But, she’s also a huge sports fan, so she’s written stories about sports as well. One of our previous interns, Lisa, has been dying to write something around plus-size fashion so we gave her that opportunity.
What’s been your content strategy to date?
We try to organize our content around our major campaigns throughout the year (back to school, holiday, spring break, etc.). We try to integrate our posts with these major themes. On the other hand, we are pretty nimble, too. For example, we wrote this post around Pokemon stops at the mall last year–it’s maybe our most popular post so far.
How do you go about brainstorming content ideas?
The editor for each section of the blog holds their own brainstorm meetings–usually monthly. At the same time, we also hold a larger brainstorming with everyone involved once a month.
You also mentioned you share a “Blog Handbook” with authors before they contribute content–can you talk more about that?
The blog handbook simply introduces authors to the certain types of content we write about. It also touches on our voice, the MOA style guide, the process for requesting photos, and story ideas. Basically, it’s our reference menu for people who want to write for the blog. The 10-page handbook also includes a post template–title, subhead, how to link to stories, how to use WordPress.
What has worked so far, and what hasn’t?
Our more “in the moment” posts have worked well so far. Any posts that focus on food at the mall usually perform pretty well, too (like this recent post discussing chocolates at MOA).
On the other hand, the Q&A posts with celebrities that are visiting the mall have performed decent, but they just haven’t been worth the effort (and they require a lot of time, as you might imagine). Also, our “this month on Instagram” posts have been a lot of work, too. Not sure those have been worth the time either.
Then, we have one series we’re still evaluating: Our partnership with MSP Communications. We contracted with MSP to write one post a week for 25-weeks–25 stories approaching the lead up to our actual birthday (August 11). The idea? To get an outsider’s perspective and voice on the mall. So far, it’s worked pretty well, but we’ll explore guest posting more in the months ahead.
What’s been the one post that’s surprised you, in terms of audience reaction?
Our 25th anniversary stories–those talking about how people have connected with the mall over the years (like this post about people who have been married at MOA over the years)–surprised us. People have such an emotional and nostalgic connection with the mall. And, a lot of times, they want to share those memories on social media. We didn’t necessarily anticipate that.
How do you measure results? How often do you measure/share?
Traffic has increased month over month since we relaunched the blog two years ago. We also look at where traffic comes from. We’re an international destination, so what people from Germany and China are reading on the blog matters a lot to us. We also review how long people are staying on the blog.
Anything to add?
A big part of the purpose of the blog is to bring the human part of the mall to life. As has been widely reported, malls are dying. But we’re thriving! That’s because we’re more than just a mall–we’re a destination and a culmination of the best in retail, food, and entertainment.
Make no mistake about it: Edelman’s Trust Barometer is a fantastic resource each year. I love it. It’s usually full of great content many people use in blogs, e-newsletters, and client recommendations throughout the year.
But, don’t forget, it is a sales tool. And, this year in particular, it’s a fear-based sales tool.
It’s actually designed to scare the bejesus out of you. At least, that’s always been my take (Note: I am not an Edelman employee nor have I ever worked for or with Edelman).
And, this year’s report is no different. If you read the report, you might actually think the world is coming to an end.
But here’s the thing: It isn’t. In fact, I could make a pretty good case that not only should the report not scare the pants off you–it should make you feel pretty darn good about your work.
In a few spots, at least:
Trust in execs is at al all-time low, but trust in “people like me” is at an all-time high
Sure, it’s not great news that our exec partners are no longer trusted by the masses. But, let’s be honest–that’s been a long time coming. What’s more the fact that “people like me” ARE trusted is pretty good news for corporate communicators. Think about it–what is one audience that corporate communicators frequently use to reach the employee masses? MANAGERS! And managers are, you guessed it, “a person like me.” We’ve been communicating via mid-level managers for YEARS. And, frequently, it’s one of the more effective communications channels we use.
Media are trusted less and less–that’s OK, we have owned media channels, right?
So the media is trusted by fewer people than anytime in recorded history, apparently (actually, it’s only down three percentage points since 2012, so let’s not get nuts here). That’s not so great on multiple levels. But, it’s not the worst news in the world for brands because this isn’t 1984. Brands have had access to all sorts of publishing tools for years that allow them to tell their stories directly to consumers without going through the media. And, according to the Trust Barometer, trust in “owned media channels” is actually up 2 points from 2012 to 2017. So, for those who have been investing in corporate blogs, podcasts and other owned media for the last few years, worry not, you are just fine.
Employees are clearly the most trusted people to deliver messages–time to start educating the heck out of them
When it comes to financial performance and operational performance, 38 percent of survey participants said they’d trust an employee–while just 20 percent said they’d trust the CEO. That’s absolutely shocking, considering many employees have no idea how to read a financial statement. But yet–there it is. What about in times of crisis? 37 percent of participants trust an employee, while just 21 percent trust the chief exec. These stats are alarming–but they also provide an opportunity for us communicators: To educate our rank-and-file employees on issues from financial performance to business goals to crisis situations. Again–something we’ve been doing for quite a while. It’s just time to up our game.
What about you–thoughts on the relatively recent Edelman Trust Barometer?
For years, what’s been beaten into our head?
Drive all social traffic back to our corporate blog and/or web site.
We own that content.
We can drive leads on our site.
We can track user behavior more accurately.
Drive all social traffic back to our corporate blog and/or web site.
And, for the most part, that’s been true. We have been doing that. And, it’s been working.
Except here’s the thing: I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true anymore.
Hear me out.
Let me give you an example.
Dave Kerpen is a agency owner and big-time influencer in the social space. If you’ve been online long, you know Dave’s been a fairly big deal for a long time. He’s owner of Likeable Local, a long-time influencer and now, a LinkedIn “Influencer.”
Dave’s business is social media and digital marketing consulting. B2B. Straight up. His company has a corporate blog. But, he doesn’t show up there much.
Where does he show up? LinkedIn. In a big way.
Dave blogs using LinkedIn’s publisher feature on a regular basis. He was part of the early “Influencer” program, so he had a big edge. But still–he’s out there posting on a regular basis. In fact, Dave’s made 184 posts on LinkedIn since he started writing there in January 2013.
And, his posts are getting big-time traction.
Take this post, for example, from March. As you can see, the post has generated more than 700,000 views, more than 4,000 like and more than 600 comments.
Those are big numbers. Numbers, I dare say, he wouldn’t get on his blog these days. And, more importantly, he’s reaching the RIGHT people. After all, LinkedIn is widely regarded as THE professional network. It’s full of people looking for jobs, tips and advice in the business world.
Now, Dave does include multiple links within each post back to the Likeable site. But, he’s choosing to post on LinkedIn–not his blog.
Another example: Medium. You know, the tool Ev Williams created as an ad-hoc blogging platform for those without a blog.
We continue to see people and brand posting here (including Periscope, which uses Medium as its blog, as far as I can tell).
For example, you probably remember Hank Green’s post from a couple months ago.
The angle: Green basically ripped Facebook’s engagement metrics for videos to shreds. It created quite the hub-bub among internet and social media types.
And he chose to publish it on Medium–not his personal site (YouTube, in this case, where he has more than 2 million subscribers).
The metrics weren’t all that crazy–2,000-plus recommendations, 2,000-plus likes. 80-plus comments.
But you know who one of the first people to comment on the post was? Facebook product manager, Matt Pakes.
So, clearly the post drew interest. Clearly, it made a mark. And again, he made it on Medium.
So, is this a trend just starting to break? Not sure.
It’s just something I’ve noticed lately. More people not publishing key pieces of content on their owned media properties–and instead, posting them on “rented land” like LinkedIn, Medium and Facebook.
One of my favorite blogs is the Content Strategist. It’s full of interesting, insightful and easy-to-read posts about everything in the content world.
And it’s full of stories that bang on the “all brands are media” drum.
That should come as no surprised to anyone. The blog, after all, is written by Contently, a content shop with clients like Coca-Cola and AMEX.
And Contently is hardly the only one banging that drum either. In fact, it’s been a steady drum-beat for the last 4-5 years.
All brands are media.
Say it with me: ALL BRANDS ARE MEDIA.
Except, they’re not.
Not even close.
So, why do we continue to perpetuate this blatant lie?
Why do we continue to pressure our colleagues into something that is just not going to happen for the majority of brands?
Why do we continue to pursue an approach that is 1) a HUGE under-taking and switch for most brands, 2) a huge cost, and 3) does not guarantee success.
Sure, there are companies like Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Microsoft that have created engaging and award-winning digital publications full of stories that involve their brands.
But, for every Red Bull, there’s a Verizon (you remember Verizon’s failed attempt at brand journalism, right?).
For every Microsoft Stories (which is actually pretty good), there’s a Van Winkle’s (Casper’s new entry into brand journalism).
And for every Coke, there’s a slew of companies out there that just don’t have enough to say to sustain an ongoing brand journalism effort.
Yet, here are the Contently’s of the world, pushing them into it (go figure–there’s money at stake, after all!).
Why am I such a skeptic? Let’s look at a few key reasons:
Is is ownable content?
Just take a peek at Coke’s popular “Journey” home page. What do we see? Content revolving around: the Grateful Dead and Coke (interesting), USA women’s soccer (they’re a sponsor), and cozy campers. Wait, what? Cozy campers? What the heck does that have to do with Coke? Now, if the article talked about tiny houses that are full of Coke-related memorobilia or something–yeah, you might have something. But, who’s going to Coke’s site to learn more about the tiny house movement? Am I the only one that thinks that’s odd? Coke is hardly the only one guilty here. Every time a new “brand journalism” site pops up, it’s full of content that’s not particularly “on brand.” So, let’s say you’re Best Buy and you want to start a digital magazine. You have a lot of leeway to write about pretty much anything in the world of electronics and technology. But, would you write about ice cream? No–because it doesn’t really tie back to your brand. That thinking must make too much sense though… 😉
All content–NO selling?
Let’s peek at Microsoft Stories–a site, by the way, that I LOVE. I’ve written about my affection before. But, a “brand journalism” site, nonetheless, that is completely editorially driven. Take a peek at the home page–what do you see? Fantastic editorial content. A well-organized home page. Great visuals.
Now, what DON’T you see? Not one ounce of selling. No call to action. No “buy here” (although, in this case, that would be weird). Not even a “subscribe by email” CTA. Nothing. Not a whisper of a sell. So, that tells me this is a 100 percent awareness play. Now, I know big companies like Microsoft sink millions of dollars each year into building awareness. I know that’s a key goal. But, how many companies are set up that way? How many have the luxury of sinking millions of dollars each year into a very expensive endeavor like Microsoft Stories with the goal of simply “building awareness.” Why can’t sites like this sell a little? Why can’t they include a CTA here and there? Why couldn’t they do that? I have yet to hear an answer I find reasonable.
Does prohibitive costs make this a Fortune 500-only play?
Let’s make a short list of the companies that have employed digital magazines to date. Let’s see: Red Bull. Coke, AMEX. Microsoft. Noticing a trend yet? Is this whole brand journalism trend just relegated to Fortune 500-level companies? It definitely takes a serious commitment. Financial and structural. So maybe the whole “Brand as Media” mantra is really just aimed at 1,000 companies or less? Maybe it’s just for the largest of the large. Maybe it’s just for those looking to boost brand awareness at the highest levels. That rules out a whole lotta companies. A whole lot.
In the end, the truth is this: All brands CAN be media. In theory. Sure. But, can all brands really do it? Do they have the stomach for it? Can they execute? Do they have the resources? I’m not so sure.
Relatively recently, Verizon joined a number of big companies in the business of brand journalism. The new site, SugarString (interesting name, right?), is full of original content produced solely by Verizon. According to a recent WaPo article, the site will publish “thoughtful tech-focused stories that track humanity’s climb towards the new next.”
It’s hardly the first brand to try brand journalism.
Coca-Cola has been a pioneer of sorts in this space–most recently, it revamped its site, now titled “Unbottled.”
GE has been producing GE Reports for quite a while now.
But, will this brand journalism trend continue? Will it eventually metriculate down to midsized and smaller brands? And, does it even make sense as a viable marketing approach?
Let’s examine some of the popular theories–and discuss why I believe brand journalism is a non-starter for 99% of the companies in the U.S.
First, there’s the resource issue.
This is the biggest and probably most important hurdle for many companies. Note how big the companies mentioned above are–Coca-Cola, Intel, Cisco, GE, Verizon. I mean, those are all Fortune 500 companies with massive marketing budgets. Now, they did make the decision to invest in brand journalism–but make no mistake about it, that is a significant investment. The ongoing costs associated with maintaining a site like SugarString almost eliminate 80% of brands right off the top. To keep a site like that going requires a full time editor (or two) and a team of freelances or full-time writers to source content. Those are resources very few brands have access to.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
What’s the common refrain we’ve heard the last number of years: Publishing tools have leveled the playing field. Brands no longer need mainstream media to tell their story–they can tell it themselves through a blog (or brand journalism site)! While that reasoning may be true on the surface, the much bigger issue is this: Sure, you can create your own brand journalism site. You can tell your story directly to customers and circumvent the mainstream media. But you what? It’s damn hard work building a site like that from the ground up. Sites like Unbottled started just like every other blog or news site–with 0 visitors. Building an audience from scratch is hard work–ask anyone who’s done it. And maintaining that audience is even harder, in many ways. So, when Verizon goes and takes on something like SugarString, my first reaction is: “I wonder how long that site will stay around.” Because they’re going to have to build that audience–and then they’re going to have to work like hell to keep it. Remember, this is all about eyeballs and impressions–if they’re not getting those, all the brand journalism in the world ain’t worth squat.
People don’t care who wrote an article–all they care about is the headline
I’ll grant you headlines are important. No question. A good headline brings in readers. But, to say most people don’t care who wrote an article? You’ve got to be kidding me. You actually think an article written by SugarString would carry the same weight as an article that’s been published in the New York Times? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? One is written by a team of freelancers who may or may not be trained journalists. The other is written by some of the finest and most experienced journalists in the world. I realize, to an extent, that since so many stories are shared and consumed on social these days that the source is often minimized, but to say the source doesn’t matter. That’s just pure insanity. I don’t care what any survey. I refuse to believe that. I think most people are smarter than that. They still want good, quality content. They want credibility. They may not trust the mainstream media like they once did, but they still pay attention. And they still look at the content they produce a lot differently than they do a brand site.
Who wants to get their news from a wireless service provider?
I know they’re only writing (largely) about the tech space, and most likely, topics that are closer to their sphere of influence, but who’s looking for news from Verizon? Who wants to hear the latest on tech from Intel? And who is looking for news of any kind from a soft drink company? For the life of me, I just don’t understand why anyone would seek out this kind of information from any of these brands. I mean, I get it, articles and posts get shared via social. They come in “sideways.” There is some pass-along value here. But, is that sustainable? Will those traffic numbers add up in any meaningful way? Is that kind of traffic the RIGHT traffic? And, will people really start trusting brands as news sources? I certainly hope not for the sake of mankind…
To be clear, I’m not saying companies shouldn’t continue to create content (in the form of a company blog, for example). Brand journalism, and what Verizon and some of these other companies are doing, is a bit different. And, I just don’t see it being sustainable–or a good fit for many companies at all.
In fact, I’d say for roughly 99% of all companies, it’s not a great idea at all.
Disagree with me? Let’s discuss in the comments (or via social).