Buzzfeed, Funny Or Die And Other Content Marketing Masters: Go Visual For Big Impact

A thousand words? That picture is now worth a million words.

That was my biggest takeaway from a conference bursting with them: the Council of Public Relations Firms’ annual Critical Issues Forum on October 24, which took a deep dive into content creation and marketing. Wading through the event’s Twitter stream (#contentfrenzy), I was far from alone.

To be sure, while the mobile revolution has given images and video more immediacy and power than ever, words are far from dead. During his opening remarks, Chris Graves, CEO of Ogilvy PR and event chair, dug deep into his agency’s vault for a grainy gem of film of its legendary founder, David Ogilvy, presciently admonishing the advertising industry of 50-plus years ago to “think like an editor, not like advertising people.” Why? Because research showed that readers of magazines were engaging with stories six times more frequently than with ads. Can you imagine where that rate must stand today, amidst long-hardened skepticism of, and ability to hop over almost all forms of pure advertising? (And is it any wonder that ad agencies are beefing up on hires from the “edit” side?)

The conference, aptly titled Content Frenzy, couldn’t have come at a better time. PR firms find themselves navigating a thicket of client service imperatives, ethical considerations, talent recruitment challenges and business opportunity, as the line between editorial content and paid media bends and blurs. Among the questions: what makes for good content – the kind that engages, informs and influences, all at once? How much disclosure of paid content is enough, and how different should it look from unpaid editorial? Where does the balance lay in promoting a brand and providing a “pure” content experience? And how do you measure effectiveness when page views are up for sale?

Many of the day’s sometimes combative A-list panelists could agree that our device-addled short attention spans crave a blend of images, video and text. Buzzfeed’s EVP of Operations Eric Harris sang the praises of listicles – short lists on all manner of trendworthy topics that his platform cranks outs like clockwork because its readers can’t get enough. Raju Narisetti, SVP and Deputy Head of Strategy at News Corp., parent of The Wall Street Journal, was unabashedly mercenary in summarizing his approach: constantly figure out what people want to see and read, and ask, “how do we monetize that?” Lewis DVorkin, Chief Product Officer at Forbes Media and self-proclaimed recovering old-school journalist, boldly quipped that newsroom culture is “calcified,” stubbornly clinging to the premise that journalists still set the agenda, when in fact that power has shifted to readers and viewers.

In other words, it’s all about audience. That’s something we’ve always known at 360 and follow as core operating principle. But while you can know an audience inside out, getting it to pay attention – always the Holy Grail – is getting tougher by the second. If someone told you just a couple of years ago that a platform limited to six-second videos (many absurd) would become the runaway new social media platform of 2013, would you have believed it?

There is no question that if visuals aren’t the whole story when it comes to content, they are the onramp to audience engagement. It has me rethinking the creative process, in which potent, indelible images, still or moving, are the new ‘big ideas’ from which everything else must flow — to stimulate thinking (if not serve as the ultimate solution), evaluated against one critical criterion: will it make them stop and notice? And once we’ve got them, where do we take them, and how do we keep them? That is where longer-form content can come in and play its proper role.

The growing power of video content as chief influencer was on full display during a presentation of award-winning work from this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Among it was “Dumb Ways to Die,” a disarming Australian public service campaign that reduced deaths from careless play around mass transit facilities by 20 percent. Its centerpiece, sing-song animated video became an international YouTube sensation, spawning game apps and other offshoots. Massive media coverage followed in kind.

Post-lunch mental fatigue was not an option, with a closing discussion on the power and perils of humor in brand-sponsored content. Chris Bruss, President of Branded Entertainment at Funny or Die, and legendary British satirist Tony Hendra (the trailblazing rockumentary “Spinal Tap” among his credits) waxed funny over what takes for brands to score with humor. Their two big admonitions: have skin thick enough to take hits – a good thing, because it means you actually broke through – and leave it up to professionals to be funny for you. To quote Tony Hendra, “there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.”

And really, who can argue? I’ll leave you with my top five quotes from a day brimming with them:

  • “Can content marketing save journalism?” – Chris Graves, CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations
  • “Let’s have relationships with people, learn their needs and then provide content that fills those needs.” –Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine
  • “Unless you’re Google, page views don’t matter.” – Adi Ignatius, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Business Review
  • “Tell a big story in small pieces.” – Shane Snow, Co-founder and CCO,
  • “Content isn’t an end. It’s a means.” — Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine

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