Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Touchstorm’s Alison Provost and Jeff Martin along with KBS+P’s Jonah Bloom. What Touchstorm and KBS specialize in is editorial video content for brands. This is where the brand takes the stance of an educator, providing information about a subject they know most about, such as Sony showing how to hook up a Google TV. It’s the type of information people are already searching for. Agencies like Touchstorm and KBS capitalize on search terms, and give brands the chance to provide video content based on what their research tells them will do well, and to which a brand can credibly offer authoritative information.
ReelSEO Interview With Alison Provost, Jeff Martin, and Jonah Bloom, Part 1
Alison Provost is the founder and CEO of Touchstorm, Jeff Martin is the Vice President and Director of Search Marketing at Touchstorm, and Jonah Bloom was recently promoted to Chief Strategy Officer at KBS+P after nearly a year as the head of Content Strategy there. And he used to write for Ad Age, too!
Here’s a video from Touchstorm that explains what they do:
Alison Provost, Founder and CEO of Touchstorm
We created Touchstorm to create a whole new form of brand communication. So all of the sudden broadband is here, and video is a big thing, and yet for a brand it’s so easy to just continue with the TV model, do the pre-roll, and interrupt.
But in the current environment when you can really syndicate a video and you can and go to multiple kinds of screens, it really makes sense that a brand is one of the most credible voices on the web. And a brand has so much research and background on the web that they really deserve to be able to speak to the consumer in a whole different way and create a whole different relationship and not be kind of the big bad brand, but be a consumer’s aid.
First and foremost, we have to help the brands figure out what kind of editorial content they can make. We’ve developed an incredible tool called Search Revelator that enables us to tell a brand what kind of content they can make that will hard-wire the content for success in search. The second thing that we do, and it’s not our primary business, but we do it when we need to and a lot of brands need it, is we actually produce the editorial videos for the brand, bringing in great talent that can represent the brand in an informational way and not a selling/advertising kind of way.
But the real core of the business is that we then created a gigantic network, center-of-the-page network. So instead of being an ad network we’re a content network. We do not pay publishers for the center of the page. We market the content for content’s sake because publishers need that content and we put some cool technology tools around it, and we enable publishers to do some nifty things, and we also monetize through pre-roll and other ways. But the primary thing that we’re all about is building our network. I think it’s now top 15 in Comscore out of about 4000 content networks.
So it’s a really big network, it ranks ahead of Facebook as an example. So we take on brands’ good editorial content and we put it under the banner of Howdini.
So Howdini is like The Today Show if you want to think about it in television terms, and the brand is our guest who’s going to come on and give us some information that people need that’s highly searchable. And then those videos are given to publishers and they run them, and we measure it, and we tell the brands what they’re doing. And to do that really well, not all of our “guests” on our show can be brands. We have a lot of videos that we’ve produced or curated from other quality producers and then co-branded with them, so it’s like Howdini and EmpowHER for Health or whatever it happens to be. We’ve got a whole bunch of videos running that are not paid for by brands and that creates a whole new form of brand communication. And it comes to audience development and retention and making sure that Howdini is getting really well known on YouTube and other major social places.
Jeff Martin, Vice President and Director of Search Marketing, Touchstorm
Search is paramount for everything we do. It’s at the core of our content strategies. Essentially through Search Revelator, we find out what the questions and needs are of consumers and that enables us to help the brand create content that they, as an expert, can naturally answer. Though the content is essentially created for an audience that is already waiting for it, they’re asking for the actual content and we can show that they are asking for the content, and show them exactly what they’re after. Once we have the content, then we distribute and engage with it in many different places. They’re published in websites, video streaming sites, digital on demand, as well as mobile devices. So we do our best to make sure that the content gets to everywhere the consumer wants to see the content. So it’s really a full-circle solution we’re providing brands.
Jonah Bloom, Chief Strategy Officer of KBS+P
You’ve actually given a great account of what we try to do. I think what you guys do so well is ultimate and scale that process, but obviously for a lot of brands getting into the kind of content arena is pretty scary business. They’re used to having a campaign mentality, where they come out and every so often they say what they want to say about themselves. What we’re trying to do is persuade them they need to speak in a way that’s always “on,” that the consumers are always going to be looking for them. They need to speak in a way that’s relevant and useful to the consumer and that plays into the consumer’s demands. And I think you just talked about a bunch of really killer tools they can use in order to do that.
But my role and my colleagues’ role in KBS’ content is to figure out how to help those brands get into that world, which tools to employ, what tool is going to help them analyze this, where can they credibly speak, where is the consumer’s demand for that potential content, and to hand-hold them into that arena. And a lot of them are used to the idea of, “OK, I know what my brand message is, and I want to push that out into the world and apply that in a certain way.” But I think we have very similar goals in that we’re saying, “That’s no longer the model, it’s not about saying what you want to say, it’s about finding something the consumers really want and are demanding to hear and figuring out how we can credibly speak to that demand.” So I think in many ways, I think we have very similar aspirations.
ReelSEO: In other words, you guys make content from brands that people are actively searching for rather than throwing in their face with a pre-roll ad?
Jonah: That’s our ambition, anyway. It’s not a perfect world, it doesn’t always work that way, which is why I think we all need to get a lot out of the data. But that’s certainly our aspiration.
ReelSEO: Is selling a brand on making content and not a traditional ad, is that difficult? What are the challenges that are involved?
Alison: It was a lot more difficult a few years ago. When we first started, frankly, decision-makers at the top were required to understand the beauty of the proposition of somebody in the middle ranks. Even maybe today, these decision-makers at the top can have a little bit of trouble grasping branded content because it’s genuine innovation. But the incredible thing about a brand’s expertise, making content that serves the consumer, it does a series of things if you’re a top marketer. All your advertising and everything you do is geared to achieve those things. So, for example, brands want to create a deep relationship with consumers, where consumers voluntarily engage and they don’t have to push themselves onto them. Well, with editorial content they very much do that. Brands are always trying to help people understand what their fundamental essence is as a brand.
With P&G Oral Care, that’s going to be oral health, that those products really make you healthy. Well then, that’s where the expertise comes from. So using that expertise very often talks about what is essential to the brand. Something else….just take an automotive advertiser, they spray advertising like crazy to aim for the 2-4% of people that are at any given moment in the market for a car, and they narrow their demos so they can afford to do that the best they can. Talking to somebody about a car through editorial means, or whatever it has to be, naturally targets those people whether they’re in your demo or not. They’re seeking that information, they find you. So it’s a very efficient method.
And finally, the neediness of the consumer: When a mom is up at 3 in the morning and the baby’s crying, she doesn’t know what to do, and Pampers’ and Johnson & Johnson is there to tell her…You’re really creating a good, instant, deep, profound relationship with a consumer that can take 20 years of brand advertising to achieve the same thing that you can achieve in 5 minutes by really helping somebody.
Jonah: What I would add to that is that frankly, with brand advertising today, you may never be able to achieve that. Because one of the problems is, especially for those brands that don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing budget, it’s very difficult to interrupt the consumer. And to get where they should or shouldn’t be interrupting the consumer with your brand message versus actually being drawn towards the consumer, and being chosen by the consumer, for the quality of your information.
But even if the answer is, “Yes, interrupting the consumer with your brand message is still an effective methodology,” it’s very difficult to do. We have a hugely fragmented marketplace, consumers being able to find thousands and thousands of bits of data on any subject they’re interested in or entertained by, and you really have to stand out in that world. You really have to be useful to them, and I’m not sure that an interruptive model can work. That’s why we’re all trying to play in this content space.
I think more and more brands are starting to understand the role that a more editorially-driven content can play for them. In a social world, they’ve understood that they need that because their biggest advocates need ways to talk about their brands, and want those kind of tools to talk about the brands they believe in. So they’re trying to almost activate the base of people who are already their fans, but sort of want different ways to go about talking about those brands.
ReelSEO: What rules do you guys follow in making branded content?
Jonah: There are a bunch of different guidelines that we try to put into place and we try to coach brands through. More than anything else I would say, I’ll put my sort of spin on “Location, location, location” and in the case of brands, “Be authentic, be authentic, be authentic.” If you’re not speaking something you can credibly speak and you’re not speaking about it in a way that’s believable and useful and all those things, then you’re probably wasting your time. That’s the number one thing I preach.
Alison: I would reinforce that. Our number one rule is that the brand has to be speaking on something that they have genuine expertise on. There are a few examples where brands wanted to make videos on something that just wasn’t what they knew. They couldn’t have a credible position. The second rule we make them follow is that, “they can’t sell.” I guess it’s kind of like the Supreme Court, the porn decision, “We know it when we see it.”
I don’t know if you know what selling is when you see it: you start talking features and benefits and that’s not a good thing. So it’s sharing information. We also make a couple of versions of the video in our case, so we have some that the brand can have on its own website that might…like a picture of Iams Dog Food or something isn’t blurred out or a little fuzzy. It’s more front and center. We don’t do that kind of solicitous product placement–you will see the product, but we don’t sit it there so you can see it there the whole time.
We also say that the personality, the expert, not only has to be a genuine expert but they have to be a TV-quality expert, somebody who communicates beautifully. We also try not to script them (we do have a client or two where we do have to script them…Prilosec, where you have FDA regulations). We really want more spontaneous information that can’t be planned ever so carefully by the brand.
ReelSEO: Jonah, I saw something where you said, “Exxon isn’t going to come out with some kind of environmental ad, but there are people out there who would find them credible.”
Jonah: Yeah there are people out there who are going to think Exxon is a credible source of information on the environment, but I guess I’m just not one of them.
ReelSEO: What kind of metrics do you guys see with the brands you represent? And how do you measure a video’s overall success?
Alison: We look at three measures in particular, and lots of sub-measures, but the big ones are, reach, determined by view count and number of views per person, and engagement, measured by the percentage of the video that is watched by the average person, which tends to be really up there around 70% or so. And then finally, for some brands, especially eCommerce brands, conversion, that there was some sort of click and that people went on to engage further with the brand one way or another be it, entering a database or signing up for a sweepstakes or clicking over to Amazon to buy the product or whatever it happened to be.
Jonah: I would second that. All kinds of different brands have different goals and we start from that perspective of “What are you trying to achieve for your business?” but we always encourage people to look for (and actually in the PR industry I think one of the key drivers of this) an outcome, rather than an output. In other words, reach is really key for many brands and we respect that and we work towards reach, but I also think that it’s really important that you see some sort of behavioral outcomes that Alison was talking about (click-throughs, etc.) I think in the TV world, a lot of brands need training but it’s OK if they can just say a million people watched this versus 150,000. But I want a million people to actually do something and demonstrate that they were moved in some way to change their behavior based on the content that they saw.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview with Alison, Jeff, and Jonah. We’d like to thank Paul Pettas at Kwittken + Company for his tremendous help with this article.