Melanie Deziel | Branded Content Consultant & Speaker

Tag: content marketing

On The Road Again: #CMWorld

It’s been almost three months since I hit the road for a conference; I spent the bulk of June and July navigating a two-stage move from NYC to New Jersey, and I’ve been hyper-focused on my work helping some local publisher and brand clients get their content up to snuff. I’m so excited to be packing up my new carry-on and heading to Cleveland for Content Marketing World!

I’ll be speaking Thursday September 7th at 10 a.m. on the BrightEdge Stage, teaching how to make the most of native ads (on all platforms) in a mobile world.

If you haven’t had a chance to grab tickets yet, there’s still time through Monday. You can use my link, here, and code “MDEZIEL” to save $100, too.

But as anyone who’s attended #CMWorld knows, it’s not just about the speaker sessions. More than 4K of the worlds top content marketers are gathered there, and the networking opportunities are endless. The social engagement is off the charts, the vendors bring out their top-notch swag, and there are endless chances to connect with industry influencers from around the world.

A shot from last year’s #CMWorld event

I’m honored to have been included in Traackr’s list of the top 19 influencers to know at the this year’s CMW event, with the likes of Jay Baer, Casey Neistat and Michael Brenner. Check out the full list to see the caliber of folks who are going to be there.

CMI also included my perspective in this roundup of expert advice for avoiding common content marketing mistakes.

I’ll be sharing my #CMWorld experience across platforms, so if you can’t make it out to Cleveland for the event, be sure to follow along on Twitter (@mdeziel), Instagram (@meldeziel), Facebook (Mdeziel Media) and anywhere else you consume your content.

Courting Your Customers With Content

I make a lot of analogies when I talk about content strategy to try to make it more relatable, and relationship and dating analogies seem to work well. (One of my previous blog posts, which used Tinder as a framework to help you Swipe Right on the best practices and Swipe Left on common mistakes continued to be a favorite.)

These analogies seem to work particularly well when we think about content as a way to build a relationship with customers.

In a way, buying banner ads or making incredibly sales focused content is like walking in to a bar and proposing to everyone you meet, the moment you meet them. You assume that merely because they showed up to the same bar, they’re qualified and that they’ll be open to your invitation. You can almost feel the hot sting of rejection that would follow a swift slap on the side of your face.

And sure, you can keep proposing to everyone you pass. And maybe… eventually… someone will actually take you up on it and come home with you. But the chances of them being the right person, who sticks around and creates the long-term value you’re dreaming of, is pretty small.

Your chances of entering a healthy long-term customer relationship are much higher if you put in the effort to build the relationship, nurture the connection and lay the proper groundwork before going in for the proposal.

It’s not all about you. You need to listen to your consumers, both the things they explicitly tell you and they things they shouldn’t have to. Read the comments, take the calls, and take a long, hard look at the data. See high bounce rates on content like someone leaving a date early: was it something you said? Nobody accepting your invitation to click through to your content? Maybe you need a more compelling invitation, or a more compelling party to invite people to.

Give them gifts
Maybe not flowers and chocolate (although that’s nice too) but you should be offering your potential customers valuable information, resources, discounts, access to events, and entertaining content. You should be offering something that’s more for them than for you, showing you care about them and their happiness, that you respect their time and money, and that you want to be additive to their life. With brands as with friendships and dating, those are the people we keep around.

Put in the time
Like fine wine, saplings and caterpillars, some things take time to teach their true potential. Customer relationships are one of those things. A great first impression or interaction is just the beginning, a first date that went well. To keep that relationship growing in loyalty and value, you need to continue to cultivate it over time. Keep showing up. Keep bringing value. Keep listening.

A Journalist’s Love Affair: The Rise of Sponsored Content

This article was written by Ayelet Abitbul, a student at the Arthur J. Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University. She shared her completed project with me and I’ve offered to host it here on my blog. To learn more about Aya and her work, check out her website


As the fourth fiscal quarter approaches, it marks nearly nine years Americans have spent recovering from the aftermath of Wall Street’s 2008 negligence, from the perilous matchbox of subprime mortgages, faulty loan ratings, and lax lending standards, which was detonated by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and which exploded into the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression. Though nearly every industry spent the past near-decade inching towards recovery, with employees yearning to get back into their routines of gilded 2007, some have paved new routes, creating jobs never before occupied in their industries, transforming and redefining their entire trade. The media industry is one, as journalists have found opportunity and reward applying their skills in a new kind of work: sponsored content.

Melanie Deziel is one such journalist. When Deziel graduated in 2013, she, like thousands of hopeful others with Master’s degrees, faced a barren job market. She earned a traditional editorial education, graduating in 2012 from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor’s in Journalism, and in 2013 from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications with an M.A. in Arts Journalism. But unlike many other Master’s students headed for the ranks of high finance or the cradles of bureaucratic academia, Deziel was dedicated to a line of work that financially recovered slower than nearly any other: the media industry.

According to Pew Research Center, from 2007-2012, fourteen-thousand six-hundred news journalists lost their jobs, and magazine writers were cut by thirty-five thousand. For few references, the Tribune Co., corporate owner of the Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, declared bankruptcy, the entire photography staff at the Chicago Sun-Times was discharged, and the largest circulating daily in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger, laid off 45% of its editorial team, all by 2012. The few journalists still employed worked for a pittance, as tight budgets and low salaries were compounded with the rise in online media, which drove subscription revenue down while demand for traditionally printed, paid content became freer.

On entering the recovering economy, Deziel reflected: “I was looking how to put my [investigative and editing] skills to use in a different industry or in another context. And that’s how I ended up on the brand-story telling side.”

Deziel working as Editor-in-Chief at the Daily Campus, UConn’s student paper, in 2012. Credit: Rachel Weiss/The Daily Campus

In 2013, Deziel began as one of the first journalists experimenting with sponsored content, hired by the Huffington Post to create pieces for brands like Nature Valley, Citi, and American Express.

Advertiser-backed media created by journalists, or sponsored content, had been around for some time in the form of advertorials. But around 2013, Deziel explains that brands began ditching copywriters and in-house marketing staff as their primary story-tellers in their ads, replacing them with classically-trained ones—journalists.

“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Sponsored by Netflix

“Brand-story telling,” or the practice of “helping advertisers tell better stories” according to Deziel’s definition, has seen a steady increase in the past five years since the recession. Essentially, it’s when advertisements are written in the form of articles, in the “voice” of the publication, and laid out, either in the paper or on the news site’s homepage, alongside regular editorial content. Brand-sponsored content falls under a larger umbrella of “native advertising,” as the advertisements appear “native” to the environment in which they’re displayed.

In 2014, Deziel was then recruited to launch the sponsored content team for The New York Times, building today’s T Brand Studio team. Deziel explained that her team was “set up like a mini-newsroom” with the same goal as HuffPost Partner Studios: “to help advertisers tell stories that live on, write in a way and create content in a way that would appeal to the New York Times audience.”

There, she wrote what became a pedagogical piece of sponsored content, titled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” Commissioned by Netflix for their upcoming season of Orange is the New Black, Deziel used video, infographics, digital illustration, and traditional type to describe the inequalities female prisoners face in a system logistically designed for men. The piece climbed to the top 2% of all content viewed on the New York Times’ website in 2014, and won the Online Marketing and Media Award (OMMA) for Best Native Advertising Execution.

Advertorial in Disguise?

When asked about the difference between the infamous “advertorial” and sponsored content, Deziel says, “I think there’s a lot of people who see them as the same thing, and in many cases they are.” She explains that advertorials are exclusively brand created, where companies are “buying a full page ad and happen to fill it with words instead of pictures.”

According to a New York Times audience-traffic report, there’s a quantitative difference between the two, too. By the end of T Brand’s first year, the New York Times reported that there were 632% more visits to T Brand Studio-produced content than advertiser-produced content, and users spent 526% more time with the former. On Facebook, T Brand content outperformed that of advertisers by 1,613%. According to the Times’ 2016 year-end reports to its investors, the T

Brand campaigns generated 6% of all ad revenue from only 50 brands, which totaled $33.6 million—double the studio’s revenue earnings of 2014.

That a single campaign price begins at around $50,000 and can reach into the multi-millions provides further financial incentive to grow the Studio, says Sebastian Tomich, VP of T Brand Studios. “This business is not easily replicable,” he reflects, but “it’s something The New York Times can be the best at.”

This reconfiguration of journalistic talents inspired other publishers to jump on the sponsored- content bandwagon, too. Today, in addition to T Brand and HuffPost Brand studios, journalists have found work in the Washington Post’s WP Brand Studio, Conde Nast’s 23 Stories, and Forbes’ BrandVoice, among others.

But financial incentives are not exclusive to publishers. Grace Gold, a freelance beauty journalist, believes that higher compensation for brand-sponsored content can provide a journalist with “the financial freedom to write the editorial stories you actually want to write, instead of cranking out a ton of low-paying editorial stories you don’t feel very passionate about, just to pay your bills.”

What’s Left for the Watchdog

Unlike Deziel, not all are so quick to welcome branded content on the same pages as their news.

Dr. David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, asks, “Does it make the place better or worse?” He continues, “I’m fine with feisty advocacy marketing in which a company makes a claim as honestly as it can. I’d just be happier if the company posted it on their own site.” The biggest problem in sponsored content, he believes, is that “readers may mistake it for actual journalism if the label is too small or unclear. The wall can be too thin.”

Deziel emphasizes, however, that at the New York Times, the “wall” between branded and editorial content production involves two separate wings and “literally two separate elevator banks, one for editorial and one for business.”

“We don’t go each other’s floors, we don’t sit next to each other, we don’t talk to each other. There’s no mingling whatsoever” she says. “Most of the folks that I’ve seen with strong, visceral, anti-content reactions are usually coming from a place of not understanding that the editors don’t have anything to do with it.”

Still, this answer doesn’t satisfy Dr. Weinberger’s primary concern, that putting “partisan work that looks like journalism literally next to actual journalism” is ethically contentious, for “even when it is properly labeled as paid for by a company, the proximity of actual journalism can elevate the seriousness with which the paid content is taken.”

Indeed, a study conducted by the American Press Institute (API) on graduates with a degree in journalism or communications found that 66% believe “sponsored content crosses ethical boundaries and will damage news organizations’ credibility.”

But despite these ethical concerns, Gold explains an attitude towards sponsored content she believes many journalists must share anyway: “ When you see editorial pay rates nosedive in half or in quarter over a few years, and you see sponsored content rates only increase, your perception changes.”

In “The Rest Is Advertising: Confessions of a Sponsored Content Writer” Jacob Silverman, who purposely wrote without a byline for Atlantic’s Re:think Brand Studio, admits “It was money that got me into the sponsored content rack.” For the “glossiest” pieces, he explains, some advertisers are willing to pay up to four dollars a word. His perception on branded content, though, hasn’t changed. He believes that “the line between what’s sponsored and what isn’t—between advertising and journalism—has already been rubbed away.”

Despite the media industry’s alleged poor financials, Silverman believes “the truth, after all, is that there is money in journalism. It’s just woefully misallocated.” While media companies are paying the highest salaries to in-house brand writers, he says, Silverman reminds his readers that “a mass of freelancers—whose work is necessary to the functioning of many publications—cadge whatever assignments they can and don’t complain when the checks take six months to arrive.”

He concludes, “such is the anticlimax of sponsored content: it promises to know the future of news, but in the end, all it’s got is cash.” Gold has some advice for these ethically-conscious readers: “subscribe to publications like the New York Times, to support good old fashion journalism.” A testament to Deziel’s defense of the separate editorial and sponsored content wings of the Times, Gold says, “The New York Times does sponsored content, but you can see it doesn’t influence what the rest of the publication covers.”

The Rise of the Content Guru

After she set up shop at T Brand, Deziel transferred to Time Inc. as the Head of Creative Strategy. She then set out on her own, working now as a private consultant for brands looking to get their content strategies off the ground. She’s an educator in this fairly new world too, frequently traveling to teach content strategy workshops to corporate staffs. She spoke in 2016 at over sixty events to more than twelve-thousand people, according to her blog. She also launched a native advertising industry newsletter, The Overlap League, that offers news and strategy tips in the blossoming native ad world.

In an interview, Deziel asks, “Perhaps we have yet to really see them. imagine the impact and the benefits for readers, publishers and advertisers once some of these big brands are able to shift their mindset and can begin putting resources toward telling great stories that may not yet have been told?”