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David Spark on Brand Journalism

David Spark is an 18 year veteran of tech marketing and journalism. He’s been in over 40 media outlets in print, radio, TV, and online, has been involved in podcasting, video, and came on to talk about Brand Journalism.

John:  Give us your elevator pitch. What do you do and how do you do it?

David: I own a company called Spark Media Solutions. We are brand journalists, which means we create media for companies to increase their thought leadership in this space. The angle that we’ve been really successful with is building influencer relations through content. That is, I think, the best way to make a friend with somebody: to create content or interview them. If you want to be their best bud, that’s probably the best way to do it. I don’t think I’ve failed at that yet.

John: You were just quoted recently in Forbes. They had a whole article about content marketing. There are a lot of ways to fail at content marketing. You can’t just jump into this and assume that because you are doing what everybody is doing it’s going to be right.  Talk a little bit more about that. Where do people screw this up and what do we have to look at?

David: I should say I despise the term “content marketing” because I think it’s insidious. I think to say to someone, “Here is some content.” But it’s also marketing. It’s like someone would want to drop it like a hot potato: “Ah! I don’t want this! Who wants this crap?”

The industry uses content marketing for their own selves and understands, “We’re generating this content to ultimately sell product.” But if it’s delivered to someone as marketing material, even though it’s “subtle,” as this writer described in the Forbes article, it’s still not good.

This is the big thing, especially if you have a very complicated product: Most people are not morons, although I get a lot of arguments like, “Everybody is an idiot. You can easily sell them to whatever.” Most people are not morons, and if you are trying to soft sell something or sell something insidiously, they’re going to pick that up. They’re going to sniff that out. If you can sniff it out, they can sniff it out as well.

We have a big thing about doing everything above board, like it’s really clear what we’re doing. We’re just generating content with these people and we’re trying to build our brand and build our thought leadership through this. But if you try to do something weasily, it’s going to slap you in the face. It may work short term, but it’s not going to work long term.

John:  I definitely agree with that. That whole duplicitous nature, that kind of like “baiting the trap”, is the feel that I get with some of this stuff.

David:  It’s all how you approach it. If you make it clear what you’re doing, then everyone’s above board. They had this whole thing about, “Oh, never do a fake blog. Don’t do a fake blog.” If you’re trying to pull a fast one on your audience, don’t do a fake blog. But there have been fake blogs like the fake Steve Jobs thing that have been hugely successful because they are above board on what they’re doing.

When Wal-Mart – the very famous case – hired someone to blog for them and try to do it all clandestine, now you are not being above board. They refer to this as transparency. But I like to stay above board, saying “Hey, we’re all on the same page here on what’s going on.” That’s really what I’m trying to get through. As long as you are doing that and you are true to your nature, then you’ll be fine. It all depends on if the audience wants this kind of stuff. That gets into a deeper discussion of building your editorial voice.

John:  I agree with you. One thing that’s been oversold is the idea of transparency – the fact that you should show customers and prospects everything that’s going on in your business. That’s not it at all. It’s about remaining above board, being honest with what’s going on – not telling them everything that’s going on.

David:  Right. But again, you can create something fake as long as it’s clear, “This is a joke. This is fake,” and say who is in on the joke. There are examples of this that work really well. You can create fiction, too, and that can work really well as well.

John:  I know you have some stand-up comedy experience. I’ve noticed a recurring theme in a lot of stuff. You have an article I’ve linked to about getting Twitter hashtags to run. All that stuff is built around humor and kind of being clever. Talk a little bit more about that. How does that fit into the mix? How do you make it work?

David:  If you look at the top trending hashtags at any given time – and I’ll start with the Twitter thing – you will notice half of them are memes, and they’re usually issues that people want to talk about or people come up with.

Coming up with a great punch line is not the trick. It’s coming up with a great setup.  I’ll give you a perfect example. There’s the classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” There are actually about a thousand punch lines to that joke or saying. I used to have a whole bit in my routine. There’s an old joke of, “You like your women like you like your coffee: hot and black.” That’s an old, old line. It’s an old joke. I used to do a whole series of variations on it. I think the brilliance was, “I like my women like I like my coffee,” and then I came up with 100 punch lines to it. They would be like “sitting in a mug that says: I love Mondays,” or “pounded into a brick, or concealing the smell of smuggled heroine”. These are variations on that.

Similar to these Twitter hashtags, I think the brilliance comes from – and maybe brilliance is overselling it – but the success of the viral nature of them comes from how can I come up with that “Why did the chicken cross the road” or the “I like my women like I like my coffee” setup that people want to write 100 punch lines to?

You’ll notice that’s essentially what those meme hashtags are. They’re just great setups for other people to write punch lines for. That’s kind of the trick to succeeding in a meme-generated trending hashtag. Not all of them have to be that. The meat of that article about how to trend on Twitter is all based on live events, actually. I think that’s really where you can actually get a lot of success – in live events.

Going back to comedy in general, we do a lot of this in video stuff. Again, it all depends on what the client wants and if it’s appropriate to their brand to put in comedy. Some don’t want it and some do. It just all depends on what they want.

John: Let’s talk a little bit more about brand journalism. One of the big problems I see everywhere is classic marketing people – advertising people – have viewed social media and all these things as another channel to force the same garbage down. “Check out our product and buy it.” Brand journalism is a different approach. I feel it’s the way that these channels are actually meant to be used. Talk more about what you do on that front and contrast that to the garbage that’s gone before.

David:  People have been hyper complicating this and I’m going to make it really simple. Forget about brand journalism all together. Just think about how any 

media outlet becomes successful. They become successful by writing content, creating videos, producing radio shows and whatnot. The more they produce of good quality content that the audience wants and gets the interviews with the key people in the industry, the higher their stature raises in the industry. Therefore, the editorial outlet becomes very, very popular. By also maintaining their editorial integrity, they become very popular and they gain an audience through that.

Take that same exact concept on how any editorial media outlet operates and just apply it to your brand. Do nothing different. Do that exact same thing, because that’s exactly what you are shooting for.

Think about it. Wouldn’t you love to have the brand equity of a Time Magazine, of an ABC, of any media outlet that’s out there? Wouldn’t that be awesome? Well, start behaving like them.

True, it’s not as easy to all of a sudden amass a whole editorial team as big as that, but you can do something small, especially if you are in a very niche market. It’s very possible to do. Just speak to what your audience cares about.

John:  How do you combat the idea that these brand journalists are just marketers in disguise?

David:  Here’s my whole saying about that. There are good doctors and bad doctors. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers. There are good journalists and bad journalists. There are good brand journalists and bad brand journalists. I can’t speak for all the brand journalists out there. I can only speak for what we do.

If someone else is going to do crap, which it happens, and unfortunately, it hurts my reputation as well, because whenever that happens it puts a mark on the industry and puts a mark on me. Ask any other professional anytime bad news comes out about another lawyer or about another doctor. It hurts them as well. They don’t like seeing it either. For those who choose to keep doing the marketing, you’re just hurting the industry and you are hurting yourselves. That’s really all I can say on that.

As I said before, we try to stay above board. We have in our contracts that myself and my whole company is completely transparent about what we do and what we create. We refuse to do ghostwriting because we know it would damage our brand and inevitably damage our client’s brand as well. It’s very important to maintain your editorial integrity.

While other people are doing their thing, I can’t control it. It’s not going to help you if you keep doing it. If you want to be a pure marketer, go be a pure marketer. That’s fine. But don’t be a marketer that claims you are also a brand journalist and you’re not actually keeping the ethos of brand journalism.

John:  Right. Talk a little bit more about the ghostwriting thing you just mentioned. That was interesting. I haven’t heard somebody lay that out.

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David:  The only way that we will agree to do “ghostwriting” (and it’s not really ghostwriting) is we’ll create content and not put anybody’s name on it. Therefore, no one labeling in it at all. We’ve had situations where clients come to us and ask, “Will you ghostwrite and put our CEO’s name on the thing?”

We know that’s going to be damaging because it will somehow come out that the CEO didn’t write this and find out that Spark Media Solutions wrote it or something. That hurts our brand and it hurts our client’s brand. It’s going to do nobody any good.

What we suggest in a situation like that where they say, “Well, the CEO doesn’t have time to write,” I say, “That’s fine. Let me interview the CEO and I will publish an interview with the CEO.” I’ve got no problem with that. That’s fine. Then the CEO gets his voice out there.

There are ways to do what you want to do without ghostwriting and trying to pull a fast one on the audience. This just goes back to if you do that, you’re not being above board. You’re trying to pull a fast one on your audience. It’s a slippery slope to even worse behavior. I will say that.

John:  That kind of begs the question: You’re talking with somebody about ghostwriting on behalf of the CEO. You say, “No. We can’t do that.” So what happens at that point? Does every company have to have somebody that can do this role and be the spokesman in blogs, or videos, or whatever? Somebody’s got to step up then?

David:  I always think it’s critical that the people within the company can speak for themselves, their own voice. We would love to take on all the responsibility and create all the content for all clients we work with. We’d be crazy, crazy busy. It would be fantastic, but that’s not going to do you good in building your own thought leadership.

One of the things we do know and the reason we’re hired is creating content can be super-duper expensive if you don’t know what you are doing. You can also waste a ton of time and money doing this as well. That’s why we’re hired. We streamline the editorial and production process for our clients, for that matter.

But if people are not on board on creating content within the company themselves, if you’re not a good writer, there are other ways to do this. Are you good on camera? Are you good just talking in an interview? Maybe you’re not good overall, so we’ll have to heavily edit the interview. Maybe you don’t have a good speaking voice and we’ll just have written content. There are still ways to do this and get that out and get it from your voice.

Look, if nobody in the company can speak intelligently about the company and about the industry, I’m surprised you are still in business. Someone there has to be able to do it. If you don’t think it’s valuable, that’s what I find really foolish. You’re communicating with people anyway, so why not do it in a more public way so you’re not spinning your wheels having 100 of the same conversation with people?

This is one of the arguments I hear constantly: “I have no time to blog.” But my whole attitude is you should blog because it’s going to ease up all your other communications as well.

John: Getting back to timeframe, this is another thing that is a big deal. You talked about how people always underestimate how much time it takes to create content. What do you prescribe when you start working with a client? Unfortunately, we’ve got people that are hooked on AdWords, where, in six hours they’re going to know whether stuff is working or not. What kind of time do they need to get a brand journalism program going?

David:  There are both short-term and long-term goals that you can set up. We actually focus a lot of our efforts around conferences and trade shows. Getting back to the time and cost situation, it the cheapest, most cost-efficient way to create a ton of content in a very brief period of time. That’s step number one.

Also, if you go through a live event, you can get a lot of attention in just a period of a week or two weeks – or a day or two as well.

But if you don’t commit to it, that’s the other thing. You’re committing to everything else. You’re committing to your advertising. You’re committing to your business. You’re committing to your products. This is just something you need to commit to. But you can create little short-term plays and measure it. You can do traditional things like measuring traffic and measuring shares and stuff like that.

Many of our clients are in the B2B space. That’s the place that we roll the best. They have long-term goals. They have sales cycles that take six months to two years sometimes. What’s really, really key in those issues is relationship building, especially with the influencers in the space.

If you start branding your company as having relationships with these influencers and creating content through these influencers and the influencers know you, anytime you have a little fun content project they’re happy and eager to participate in it and they love your content projects – if you’re really selling to the influencers in terms of their participants and they like your content – then everything else trickles into place, because they end up  sharing it with their audience and you get access to the entire audience you want to get access to. We have learned that’s been the most successful. I try to measure success with my clients on how many relationships with influencers we’re getting.

John:  Obviously, leverage is a big part of this. The fact that you guys create content all the time and you’re doing audio, video, blogging and all that stuff, you’ve learned all the hard lessons. Just ballpark: if you were looking at trying to do this from scratch yourself versus the content that you guys can create, how much more could you get done in the same time? How much is a lift there between having to spend time?

David:  I’ll just give you an idea. Here’s a perfect example. One of our old clients is a company called The CMO Club. They bring 50-100 CMOs into a single room to engage and talk about marketing issues. It’s a great event. I am physically arm’s reach away from all these CMOs. In a single event, I can produce 20 videos and articles with these key CMOs.

If I was not at that event, here’s what would have to happen. “David, I need you to get 20 interviews with CMOs of various companies.” I have to call the companies. I have to then go to the media relations department. I have to then fly to all these places, probably with a crew or book a crew in the location. I have to clear all the questions with the media relations department, and they’re going to probably want to see the end product as well. Now we’re getting into crazy six figures. It’s going to be super crazy expensive.

Alternatively, for a lot, lot less money, you just go to an event and I’m physically there, I’ve got camera equipment, and I’m standing two feet away from you and I say, “Hey, I’m shooting this video for The CMO Club (or for this other blog, or for this other event). Can I ask you a question about what you just talked about on stage or what we’re all taking about at this event?” My success rate is in the 90th percentile and higher using that technique. We just go with the technique that works the best and is the most successful, and costs less for the client, too.

It’s a really powerful, powerful statement when you go to an event and you put 15-20 influencers’ faces and names on your blog with your branding around them as well. I’ll have a microphone that has the company’s logo on the mic flag. That’s hugely powerful. It’s a series of implied endorsements even though they’re not talking about your company.

John: That’s a great point, the fact that it extends beyond the event. You’ve done all this work to build a great event and get all these great speakers. To be able to stretch that into content that you can use the rest of the year is a huge plus.

David: I should also mention that’s if you’re producing the event. A lot of times – almost always – we go to events that our clients aren’t producing, sometimes not even sponsoring for that matter. We just go purely as press and create a ton of content. The event producers love us as well because we’re creating a ton of content and recognition for their event as well.

John: Yeah. Even just having a video crew on the floor attracts attention as the kind of hype people want.

David:  The number of times people take photos of me holding the microphone interviewing somebody with the camera equipment or the mic flag, which has the logo of the company on it, gets tweeted out, Instagrammed out, or Facebooked. That’s a nice little side benefit I never really expected.

John:  How about virtual events and things like that then? Obviously, that doesn’t kind of play into this model. Do you have clients that try and do stuff around those events? The bigger question is we’ve heard a lot over the past couple years about live events kind of declining and dying off, do you just say that that’s wrong that people need these personal connections or can we work in the virtual world?

David:  I’m in the San Francisco Bay area. I was just at an event that was packed to the gills last night. There may be industries where they’re falling apart, but I mostly roll in the tech industries and I have not seen a slide at all. I know running an event and producing an event and trying to get people to your event is extraordinarily hard. I wouldn’t want to do it full-time. We actually do produce some events. That can be extraordinarily stressful. But, man, I keep going to events and they’re packed – tons and tons of events. People still come out to it. They still see the value in it.

I should also mention I think the reason for that is I think the quality presentations have gone up dramatically. I used to go to events and think all the presentations were horrible. I think now since we have TED Talks and SlideShare where people can put presentations, they’ve jumped dramatically. I was at this one conference just a few weeks ago – Velocity Conference – and I thought all the presenters were phenomenal. You’ve probably seen this at conferences, too. You go to a conference and the person presenting is horrible – just God awful. What happens to the Twitter stream? People are just slamming this person left and right. You want that?

It used to be before Twitter, if you had a horrible presentation, you had a horrible presentation and that was the end of it. Nobody knew about it, except the people in the room. But now if you do a horrible presentation, everyone around the world knows it.

John:  The back channel is a fierce judge. That’s for sure. Anything else you want to tell us about as far as what you guys do or is there anything we missed here?

David:  We create tons of great content. We build thought leadership. The focus of content building to influence relations has been hugely successful for us. Check out all our fun videos on our site. The ones that I’m most proud of lately were we went to the RSA conference. If you don’t know, it’s a big information security conference. It’s a huge, huge conference. Tons of security professionals. For the last two years I’ve been roaming around the floor asking all these security pros to just tell me what their password is. As you might imagine, I get some rather funny reactions out of that. The first year I did it I actually got some people telling me their password on camera, which I thought was really strange.  But they did.

John:  We’ve been tracking over the past couple shows people using Google Glass wearable technology. I wanted you to check in on that. What’s your opinion on Google Glass? Are you pro, con, or looking forward to getting a set or never buy a set?

David: I love the idea. I think it’s really cool. It is a little unnerving, a lot of people think. But you know what? Facebook is a little unnerving as well. The thing is we’ve seen all these demos of virtual reality type things and being layered on top of our real world. But it requires one to hold up a cell phone in front of their face and walk around, which people just don’t do, so they’ve been more kind of demo type things.

But the Google Glass thing is kind of amazing. I think where it’s going to be monstrously powerful is in facial recognition. I can go to an event and I can literally scan the room, and if you can identify you are John Wall, then immediately I can get access to things like your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn, etc. and have all this info. I can scan the room and also do searches, like “Who in this room is doing this kind of work?” I can immediately pinpoint those people and go directly to them. That, I think, is powerful. It’s also going to be powerful I think in dating. Who is available? Who is single in this room?  I think that’s going to be pretty powerful as well.

You constantly hear people complaining, “Well, what about privacy and what about security?” But every time they complain about it, when they start to see what this can do, they’re like, “Well, I’ll give up my privacy and security for that because that’s damn cool!” I think this is just going to be a continuation of that.

The EFF and the ACLU are going to fight it tooth and nail because they see what’s happening to it, but people give up personal and privacy information for more capabilities than they have before. And it will just continue to happen. That’s why I see Google Glass will just continue on. But I think that will be the big power, is once you get facial recognition. That will be huge.

John: That sounds good. David Spark, thanks for joining us today. We appreciate having you on.

David: Thanks for having me.