How The New York Times’ content studio creates and shapes stories audiences love

October 5, 2018

Sponsored content is the “new black,” allowing app companies and brands to capture audiences with compelling and engaging content. The New York Times was one of the pioneers, establishing T Brand, a complete content studio, to create content experiences that are much more (and more effective) than native advertising. Our host Peggy Anne Salz from MobileGroove catches up with Graham McDonnell--International Creative Director for T Brand Studio and a frequent speaker at Mobile Growth Summit, to discuss best practices and approaches you can follow to create amazing content that strikes a chord with your audience.Peggy: Hey, hello and welcome to MobileGroove, the podcast series where frontline, growth marketing experts share their insights and experiences so you can become a better mobile marketer.  That is the point here and I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz from MobileGroove where I help my clients grow their revenues and audience reach through content marketing and on my watch this series will introduce you to the people who know how to drive growth.  And I just am very excited because I didn’t make the show in New York City, but we have our keynote today as a guest Graham McDonnell, Creative Director, New York Times.  Graham, first of all, great to have you on our podcast today.

Graham: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Peggy: As I said you were the keynote, it was quite a presentation, I’ve been able to review your deck, you know very impactful, great imagery, but how was the response to your keynote, was it exciting, what you expected, maybe even exceeding expectation, I don’t know if you had to take autographs outside, I have no idea, so what was it like there?

Graham: Yes, well not quite autographs

Peggy: Okay, not Elvis, alright.

Graham: Yes it got a good response, we had a good chat afterward with some of the other speakers and some of the audience members and again it’s kind of the way we try and structure the presentations, is to inject a little bit of storytelling into them as well.  Yes, so it’s always a fun crowd.

Peggy: I mean it’s interesting if you think about it, just in and of itself Graham, you’re at a mobile growth summit, it’s all about growth and we are talking about storytelling, which normally you know a few years in the industry would have been this warm and fuzzy thing that we didn’t think had anything to do with growth.  How did you make that connection?

Graham: Well it’s just you know storytelling is apparent in everything we do, you know you can all the way back to sort of cave paintings to hieroglyphics and you know it’s just an intrinsic part of human nature, so it’s natural really if you are trying to advertise something or promote a product or service that storytelling would help people do that.

Peggy: And in your point, you know speaking as creative director at the New York Times, you know storytelling is a bit different there because you do have a story, you have the story which is the New York Times and then you have the storytelling which is trying to make, I would imagine the story and the presentation more of an enhancement, less interruptive, probably some native advertising or thinking from the strategy of native advertising going into that.  How do you actually bring all of that together at the New York Times?

Graham: Well I guess the first thing is, you know a lot of the time we get clients coming to us and they sort of say things like you know we like a VR film or we want AR or you know whatever the move, you know bells and whistles, sort of flashy toys, but it’s really important for us and especially for our audience, if we want to truly connect to think about the story first and then how to tell it afterward.  There is a slide in the presentation actually where I say you know even in the word storytelling itself, the story comes before the telling.  So, I think it’s really important to take a step back, think about the type of stories that your audience wants to engage with, and then think about how to tell them afterward.

Peggy: I mean there’s always for everything, a best practice or how to approach it, but I won’t stay at that high level because that might be less useful and not really the actionable advice I want to hear.  Maybe easier to just walk me through how you create that together with your clients, you know how do you approach this or not approach this so that you’re honing in on what will resonate with your audience.

Graham: Yes, well it’s first of all you hit the right nerve there when we talk about partnership, because it really is the best stories come from when we really dig deep with the client, obviously no one knows the client’s business better than them, but no one knows our audience better than us, so put those two together that’s really when you get the best results.

And then the process really is not to get ahead of yourself, like I said.  Don’t really try and think about you know it could be a VR firm or anything like that, even though VR might be the best vehicle for your story, but it’s really important first to figure out the strategy, you know how, what, how do we arrive at the stories that we want to tell, and then once you’ve got that solid strategy and areas that you want to explore, and sort of topics and touchpoints, that the audience will sort of, it will resonate with that audience, that’s really when you can start digging deeper into the stories that you want to tell and the types of narrative that you want to come across in each of your pieces.

The other, most important thing and this is what people forget about is, the brands sort of services or products aren’t the story themselves, it’s really, really important to tell a human story for it to be relatable and that’s a point that a lot of marketers tend to forget.

Peggy: And how do you keep people on track, because this is about also storytelling on mobile I am assuming, so mobile or at least multi-channel.  Are there any format barriers or requirements to consider while you’re doing this, I mean the easy one, of course, is always vertical video, you know we know that one, but what about the, one is the storytelling, the other is fitting the format, how do you make that balance?

Graham: Well again like I said before, it’s kind of trying to get execution out of your mind and thinking of the story, once you’ve got that story and you think right we are in a good place here, then it’s about figuring out the best way to tell it.  Not all forms of execution are the best ways to tell every story, so it’s not like it’s you know sit here and say video is the way forward, or you know long-form articles.  What we have found out though, we’ve got huge data teams at the New York Times that every time we release a new piece of content we get new insights and new data points that help us better create content in the future.

We know that at different times of the day people are consuming data on different devices, and some stories are better told in long form, so as much as people are talking about you know snackable content, and don’t get me wrong, this is great on mobile and that might be the way to tell the story, some stories you know might be saved on mobile and to be consumed later on desktop.  Or iPad obviously.

Peggy: So let’s go back there for a moment, we were talking about the format, obviously there’s no real hard and fast rules here, but maybe there is something that you have been able to pick up in the user behavior that tells you more about how to approach this, you know how to create a story because you know, for example, the right times or the right context.

Graham: Yes well that’s all about when you engage with the user right?  So if you know that your story, let’s say we have, we’ve nailed our story, we know this is going to be told primarily short form on mobile, we know at what times of the day our audience are using those devices, and when to target them so this becomes a much more sort of data-driven approach where our audience development teams will know when to serve the right content at the right time, that will increase the engagement, there’s obviously no point, again if you flip it on its head let’s say we’ve got a real sort of data-heavy infographic that’s best consumed on desktop or tablet, there’s no point really in serving that during commuting times, because obviously, the people are just interested in their mobile feeds at that point.

Peggy: It’s all about being innovative and creative and also emotive and effective.  These are all great words, that we hear but I’m also wondering if there isn’t a rule of thumb about what absolutely doesn’t work?  We know what works, we know what we have to do, do you have an example or a case study or what went, when metrics really went south instead of north?

Graham: I can’t give any specific examples, but I will give you the best example of the biggest trap that a lot of content marketers fall into and that’s trying to tick every box and clients are very guilty of this as well, trying to push creators into it and that’s trying to in our piece we are going to have four videos, we are going to have three infographics, we are going to have a big content up full of every.

Peggy: Yes the whole list of everything that’s super cool, some AR, just throw it in there right?

Graham: And it kind of turns into a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of content, when really you know and again each of these pieces of content might be great but unless you’ve got a very, very, very strong narrative that sort of links each piece to the next, there are so many points that drop off and opportunities for them to lose the readers going from one execution to the next, a lot of the time we advise that these would be much better as single pieces or as some sort of you know like content series or something and don’t get me wrong, we’ve fallen into that trap ourselves a few times in the past, so it’s learning from those mistakes and just making very, very focused stories rather than trying to throw the kitchen sink at the readers.

Peggy: Well that’s a great segue because that’s exactly what we don’t want to do here, we do have to go to break, but Graham when we get back we’ll be talking more about what you do to put the story into storytelling over at the New York Times and hopefully also some key takeaways and a checklist of things that you can do to do the same in your mobile storytelling in your app or in your company.  So don’t go away, we’ll be right back.

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Peggy:  And we're back at Mobile Growth and our guest today Graham McDonnell, creative director New York Times and also the keynote at our recent mobile growth summit in New York and Graham right before the break we were talking about you know why is this necessary and we sort of know that, you know the ad blocking numbers are there, record numbers are using ad blocking tech to block ads, I’ve seen other numbers from Verve, for example, you know millions in the UK and other countries that they serve are just bored of their ads, just don’t like them and think they’re dull.

So we know why, let’s talk about the results, what makes this really worthwhile, it’s one thing to say yes you can engage the user, but ultimately we want to know about the impact on the bottom line or some key metrics.  What’s the story over at the New York Times?

Graham: Well I mean our brand studio’s probably one of the oldest out of all the major publishers and then probably still is the biggest, I came from the London office, so I helped start the team over there, and we grew our sort of international studio into Paris and Hong Kong, before I moved over to New York, and what we found is, you know since we were sort of leading the pack a lot of the way, we found what worked and what didn’t work and we found some really, really startling facts, with how our content performed against brands content, and it was really, really exciting, so it, what we actually found was that there is 526 percent more time spent on our content than on when brands give us their content to promote, just flat.  So yes I mean that’s quite astonishing proof really that our style of storytelling and the way in which we go about telling the particular story really does resonate with our readers.

Peggy: I mean this reminds me of a book I read not long ago because I interviewed your, I interviewed her also for a podcast, Teresa Cramer who was saying that you know it’s the content marketing that’s driven by journalists that really resonates because journalists you know New York Times, understand storytelling, I mean it’s in your DNA.  Is that part of the competitive edge you have, because I mean 500 plus percent over content from a brand compared to when you are you know on board and shaping it, that’s significant.

Graham: 100% yes, I mean there is quite a clear divide obviously between the newsroom and advertising it’s very church and state, we obviously can’t use any of our, any journalists or anything from the newsroom but the studio itself is staffed with fully qualified journalists and a lot of them have come from our competitors, and what we try to do is always keep the audience in mind, you know when you think about it, branded content is just product placement really, the same way that a sort of you know an influencer might promote a product in their feed on Instagram or on YouTube, is essentially what branded content is.  So if the audience is coming to the New York Times expecting New York Times journalism and content then it’s only fair that our branded content should hit those heights as well.

Peggy: To give me an example, I mean we’re a podcast so we can’t see it, we are just going to have to describe it, but tell me about one of your coolest campaigns where it was just like the story, you know it just ticked all the boxes, it was really on the mark, it did what it was supposed to, it was effective and maybe also you know incredibly interesting and innovative from a content marketing perspective.  What campaign comes to mind for you?

Graham: Well, the example that I gave in the presentation at mobile growth summit in New York, was around our Volvo campaign, so all, Volvo had this vision that nobody would be killed or seriously injured in a Volvo car by the year 2020.  And they came to use to ask us to promote this, so we sent a team over to Gothenburg to find out how they were planning to reach this goal and what we discovered was this amazing story around this, they’ve got a team there, that get called out to analyse ever time a Volvo is involved in an accident, within I think it’s a 50 mile radius of the base, now it would have been easy to create a piece of content around the latest safety features of the car or you know how Volvo have tuned the brakes or tuned the safety features you know, to achieve this goal, but instead we told this much more human story and it kind of followed this guy through his day, started in his home, you know how he goes about cooking his breakfast and things like this and it’s just a much more engaging story we did it in a two piece video series and it was a real big success for us.  It was, it kind of set the tone and again the style of the videos was kind of documentary style which is very common of what you might see on the New York Times, so it felt very natural for the audience to consume it in that way.

Peggy: There’s a lot here probably also that resonated with your audience because again they were you know app marketers, growth marketers, and you know performance marketing great stuff, you know can’t knock it and certainly can’t have an app business without it, but I would image that part of your advice to them is to say take a look at your app and see if there’s a story there that you could be telling because that’s a way to engage the users and ultimately also boost user acquisition, you know there are many ways to that goal, is that what you advice is to app marketers, is that the fit, should they be paying more attention, should they be looking at the story within their apps, maybe looking at the heroes of their app users and trying to promote that as part of the story of the app, rather than just say hey download my app.

Graham: Yes, definitely and again I mean it’s not really my area of expertise but I’d say if you are promoting anything, whether that’s content marketing, whether it’s a brand service in app, anything it needs that interaction with the audience and yourself as a marketer, so the best way to engineer that interaction is through telling the story, so if you are trying to promote your own app, or you know a client’s app or something, if there is a good story to tell in there then that’s fantastic.  And again the best way to tell that story is through human experiences and human stories that apps might not – the only issue you can run into a little bit is whether that story doesn’t exist, you know one thing we get a little bit in the New York Times is when we’ve sort of got a half baked story and we think there might be something here, we don’t really have a golden ticket yet, but then you try and make up for the lack of story with execution, so something it can be you know you’ve got a half baked story and you say oh you know, we’ll just make it animate or you know we’ll add in infographics or something, that’s really no solution, you can’t really execution is not a substitute for the story.

Peggy: How would I, as an app marketer, how would I best, or someone with something to promote, how do I best work with the New York Times and your team, I mean should I bring the seeds of the story with me, or do I just come with my brand and say here you know do something.  How, what’s the best way to engage it’s sort of little bit like with influencer marketers, I’ve been doing a lot of research into that, you know and there’s really a basis for that relationship you should make certain that they really like your app or you know are sincere and genuine otherwise it’s going to be obvious when they are pushing it on YouTube that it’s all, that they’re bought, you know so there’s a way to interact there for best results, how do I interact best with the New York Times for the best results?

Graham: Well I mean like I said earlier the best content comes from a real partnership with the client, and what we don’t try to do is offer sort of like an off the shelf product, it’s not like giving you this piece of content and then you know that’s it and that’s all that, that’s the end of the relationship, the best partnerships come from when we are sort of deeply ingrained within the brand, we need to sort of mine this knowledge from the client themselves and the brand themselves to try and understand the types of service or product that they are trying to promote.  But then again I can’t understate how important it is for the client themselves to understand that you know we are the experts in the story telling, so the way in which the story is told we know our audience better than anyone else and we know what they engage with and what they don’t, so it’s important that we tell a story that is and tell it in a way that our New York Times audience is expecting.

Peggy: So you’ve made a lot of good points here and I’m sure that our listeners are going to want to find out more about this, because it’s very obvious this is really the way it is, you know story telling if when we are talking about retention, when we are talking about going deeper in the funnel, you know we are talking about grabbing people’ interest and emotions and that’s what you do through story telling, so how could our listeners stay up to, well stay up to date with what you are doing at the New York Times, maybe you’re blogging, maybe you’re elsewhere, maybe they want to contact you, maybe they have work for you Graham, you never know, so how would they get in touch with you?

Graham: Well I’ll be completely honest, we are not the best at promoting ourselves, we are obviously too busy.

Peggy: Too busy working, that’s often, but that’s a good sign, I like people who are too busy working because that means they are doing what matters you know.

Graham: We obviously are on all the major social channels T-Brand Studio dot com and we have a website that I think it being updated, later on, this year, but usually it’s a case of the cobbler’s shoes scenario you know you’re always too busy to make your own, but we, I think we push out I’m not sure of the actual numbers but we push out dozens of pieces of content every week and usually our twitter feed and Instagram is the best place to catch the latest one.

Peggy: There you go and you personally can people email you by any chance or contact you on LinkedIn?

Graham: Yes, of course yes it’s Graham McDonnell, I’m actually, I should after 3 or 4 years of being in development hell launching my own new personal website, this coming month that’s grahammcdonnell.co.uk and my latest show roll will be on there also.

Peggy: And that’s a wrap of today’s show, thanks for listening to this episode of Mobile Growth and a quick reminder to visit mobilegrowthsummit.com for a complete listing of our upcoming events. And don't forget to use the very special promo code MGSPODCAST30 for 30% off of your next order. And remember no matter what kind of app or business you have this is the destination for everything you need to move the needle on growth. So, until next time make it real, make it matter, and we'll talk to you again soon.



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