Three lessons learned from creating custom content

by Raj Mukhopadhyay

Raj Mukhopadhyay is the Executive Editor of C&EN BrandLab, our custom content studio for the C&EN chemistry newsmagazine. Here she takes a look back at the creation of the studio, the exciting work that’s been done on behalf of our clients, – and what we’ve learned along the way.

C&EN BrandLab entered the science marketing world in May 2017. As its executive editor since its inception, I have had the thrill of growing C&EN BrandLab into a full-fledged custom content studio that serves clients and meets their content needs. But, along with the thrill, there are a few lessons that I’ve learned (or had reinforced). The lessons have always ended up being valuable for our clients as well, because it gives them insight into how this process really works, and how we can best work together.

But first, for those of you who haven’t heard about C&EN BrandLab: I and my team offer chemical, pharmaceutical and instrumentation companies new ways to reach scientists. We use innovative narrative formats to tell stories about chemistry that we know are of interest to readers of C&EN and ACS journals. We’re among the first to offer native advertising within the scientific arena. The studio, which is part of the C&EN Media Group, also offers more traditional custom products, such as white papers and ebooks.

In being the first custom content studio to offer native advertising for the chemical enterprise, we’ve learned a few things about creating sponsored content! One critical lesson is that awesome content starts by having a true partnership with the sponsors of these campaigns. We realize any insights into our processes and what we’ve learned can benefit brands and agencies interested in native advertising, too. So in the spirit of sharing, here are three main lessons I’ve taken away during my tenure so far:

1) Know what will resonate with readers.

My most important lesson is something I always had a gut feeling about but didn’t know for sure until I started this job: A good story is a good story, branded or not. Yes, we must heed the needs of our clients in creating branded-content pieces, but we must also think of our readers and what they care to read about. A good story satisfies both the client and the readers.

We use innovative narrative formats to tell stories about chemistry that we know are of interest to readers of C&EN and ACS journals.

How do we know what will resonate with our readers? We hold ourselves to the same principles as do our journalist colleagues on the editorial side of the magazine. We ask if the story being told is about something new, exciting, unknown, quirky, humorous, or speaks to the human condition. If the story has a compelling angle that leaves readers with something new to mull over, the story will resonate.

We did this for HP’s printing division last year. Until we started our partnership with them, I hadn’t thought about the role of chemists in a company like HP. I thought the company would be on the lookout for engineers for its workforce. It turns out my perception was wrong, and it was a perception that HP set out to correct by teaming up with C&EN BrandLab: the iconic brand for computers and printers hired chemists! The result was a story about the chemists who tackle challenging scientific questions in HP’s printing division. The story demonstrated that chemists have rewarding and interesting careers doing science at HP.

2) Access to experts only makes the story better.

How do we find rollicking good stories? My team and I spend a lot of time talking to our clients and doing research. Some chemical companies have diverse interests, ranging from electric batteries to skincare products. To find the stories that best showcase a company’s interests, getting access to the client’s subject matter experts is vital. These are the people who do the science day in and day out; they are the ones who can most accurately tell us about the work, its ramifications and implications, and how it fits into the big picture of the chemistry enterprise. Being able to talk to them helps us find unusual and new angles to explore in our stories.

Our campaign for Lanxess North America shows how getting access to a company’s experts helps us tell stories that don’t always get told. By speaking with Lanxess experts around the world, including the company’s CEO, we got the inside scoop on what the company’s mission and vision were for the future. 

This is also true of projects that don’t involve native advertising. White papers and ebooks, for example, are a large part of what the C&EN BrandLab team does. These pieces of custom content deliver a lead generation component for our advertisers to fill their sales pipelines. As these tend to be more technical in nature, it makes even more sense to have access to subject matter experts who have the technical and scientific expertise to give us the details that make the white papers and ebooks valuable resources to our readers.

3) It takes a village.

A story is not the work of a lone creative mind. By the time a sponsored story gets published, many people have had a hand in it.

On the C&EN BrandLab side, we have various people who all do their part. I, C&EN BrandLab’s account manager, Rose Stangel, and the director of global ad sales, Stephanie Holland, usually begin by talking with a client to understand what their goals, objectives and aspirations are for the brand. Then, with that knowledge in mind, I, the senior editor of C&EN BrandLab, Erika Berg, and other team members brainstorm ideas to fit those goals into a compelling story.

Once we identify a story angle, we ask the client to give us access to subject matter experts. As I noted earlier, access to an organization’s experts gives a story a more intimate feel; it allows us to get to know the organization—and the science—better. These experts are generous with their time and expertise, and the writer gets material from them, as well as from outside experts that the writer identifies on their own.

The writer, Erika and I develop the story and get feedback from the client. Once the story is approved and fact-checked for scientific accuracy and context, we bring in C&EN’s copyeditors and designers. The piece transforms from a Word document into an engaging story with design elements that draw readers in. Then, the client gives us feedback on the design and we do some rounds of revisions. (One of our favorite design elements was an interactive Zamboni machine etching away at the ice to reveal the headline behind it. Take a look here.)

All the while, our marketing experts have been developing the overarching campaign for the launch of the story: such as mapping out the retargeting ads and social media promotions. We suggest appropriate keywords or other targeting needs based on the goals of the brand. Usually, a story is meant for our entire global audience, but key pieces can be targeted to a subset in order to help a client develop new audiences. 

In short, it takes no small amount of effort by a number of people to bring a story to life. What does this mean for you? Make sure you have the time to do the rounds of feedback and get sign-off from all the approvers.

As an example, we worked with the PR agency Ogilvy to create campaigns for The Chemours Company in 2017 and 2018. Both campaigns had many people from different organizations working together to create memorable stories. A successful project is when every person in the group gets the time to do their part. It ensures a piece gets created that brings satisfaction to C&EN readers and gives the client something they are proud to have as part of their portfolio.

These three lessons have now become the backbone of C&EN BrandLab. Whether it be a technical ebook or a narrative-driven profile of a scientist, we believe in working with all the stakeholders involved in the project, relying on the knowledge we have about our unique audience, and finding the right people to tell their stories. Taking time to ensure these elements are in place will always key to a great story.

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