Studio 96

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Welcome to Studio 96’s Blog

How I (and the Rest of the World) Ended up in Content Marketing

Hey everyone, welcome to Studio 96’s blog.

I’ve been in operation for a couple months, ensuring some basic pillars of my business 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 be apt to begin the series with how a 22-year-old 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 congruence of a shattering economy and online media taking reign to print. By 2014, career journalists began pivoting careers as pay grew as low as eight cents per word. A four-hundred-word article, which might take six hours or more to write and edit, could cost an online outlet only $32. 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.

Neil Postman, one such media prophet.

Neil Postman, one such media prophet.

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 platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as traditional outlets like CNN, Fox, and the New York Times would allow opinion, advertising, and editorial sections of papers muddle together more than ever before. They feared that public knowledge would suffer from eye-catching visuals obscuring nuances of an entire article. They argued this would lead to a media climate that turned out to be just like 2016’s, a climate of “fake news", of “crooked” Hilary and “crazy” Trump, of Russia’s alleged hacking, and Wikileaks.

2016 was also the year that branded content started really 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?

2016 also happened to be the year I declared myself a student of Journalism.

My team conducting a practice camera test in class at NYU’s Carter Institute of Journalism. College, eh?

My team conducting a practice camera test in class at NYU’s Carter Institute of Journalism. College, eh?

I did it for no other reason than I liked to write and could graduate with the two majors on time. 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, 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 truly 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 the 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. Corporate marketing budgets are equipped to pay producers a higher salary per word than an editorial 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.

I realized that when brands bring an audience to their own publication, instead of paying for views where people seek out editorial news, a whole new, symbiotic media ecosystem exists. In this world, brands own up to the responsibilities of truthful journalism, lest their brand reputation tarnish, and editorial papers are free from planting their reporters on sponsored content assignments. If all goes well, a brand’s own blog engages their unique audience better anyway, yielding a far better return on investment.

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.

Mural in Contently’s New York office

Mural in Contently’s New York office

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. The rest of this blog will probably be about that content strategy process.

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 back to Contently’s software platform. 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, too. This cost a lot.

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.

But through my work at Contently, I realized this: there is certainly room for honest engagement between brands and their customers.

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 just pictures 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.

People my age 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’s makes its money from methods indifferent to society and the planet at best, and straight up dangerous at worst.

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.

My mission is also stated here. With that, I’m concluding this post. I’m excited to get started regularly publishing, and am eager to see the community of founders, startups, brands, and marketers we’re building.

—Aya Abitbul