That was the question, in so many words, that Williams CEO Keith Bailey put to Ackerman McQueen in 1998. Williams, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based energy and telecommunications company with a market cap of ˜$10 billion, was competing against even bigger giants in the energy sector (and every other major brand in every industry) for national ad space.
At the time the Alaska Pipeline expansion and domestic resources were hot issues, and keeping a dog in the fight for a company like Williams meant ponying up big bucks for advertising. And there was no guarantee it even reached the people he meant to reach.
Ultimately, Bailey only needed to get his brand and information out to energy stakeholders, industry professionals, people on the trading floors in Chicago and New York, research analysts, the EPA and government officials who made the decisions that would affect his business, and others working directly with energy companies. In other words, Bailey simply didn’t need every schoolteacher or accountant who watched Frasier to see Williams ads.
So rather than continue trying to put Williams in every room at extreme cost, Ackerman McQueen began considering how they could bring all the people Williams wanted to influence into “one room” and speak to them directly. Energy News Live, one of the first forms of branded news, was born.
What Is Branded News? That Sounds … Not Credible.
Branded news and brand journalism are strategic constructs based on the idea that brands can use a news space to report on and disseminate news and information pertaining to their brands and its constituents. Most commonly it is an in-house media network with its own newsroom and journalists entirely dedicated to the topics affecting the brand and its audience.
The concept was originally pioneered by Ackerman McQueen in the form of Williams Energy News Live (ENL). Before ENL, stakeholders, government officials and industry professionals who needed news and information regarding energy technology, stock, business, regulations, weather and other issues were waiting through major news broadcasts to catch minute-long snippets with only some of the information they needed. ENL put up energy-focused news every hour on the hour, 8 hours a day, for a full ten-minute segment. The entire industry began to rely on Williams for the full daily rundown of everything energy.
You might think that kind of power being held by only one company in the industry would lead to bias. However, unlike with traditional news, which is beholden to profit and advertising to drive content, branded news is intended to strengthen the brand it is associated with. Currently trust in the mainstream media is at an all-time low. According to Gallup, only 32% of Americans report at least a fair amount of trust in major news outlets, down from 55% in 1999. Young people are especially skeptical, with only 26% under the age of 50.
Brands, as experts in their fields, are in a prime position to step in as a more reliable and credible authority. Since bias will certainly be called out by competitors (and consumers) and ultimately harm the brand, there is no incentive for corruption. If Williams wanted to keep top industry professionals, stakeholders and government officials who dealt with energy for a living coming back to “the room” for the most up-to-date, relevant news in their field, Williams had to get it right, and they had to be comprehensive. It is a higher journalistic standard than mass news will ever be held to.
How Branded Newsrooms Are Built: Then vs. Now
At the time Energy News Live was launched, there was no YouTube or Vimeo. Most people had dial-up internet in their homes, and broadband connections were just infiltrating workplaces. Creating quality live online video that audiences could actually watch was a challenge. Initially Ackerman McQueen had to use what today would be considered an extremely basic media player, but even though the technology was in its infancy, the graphics, content and journalism was ahead of its time in terms of quality.
For ENL, Ackerman McQueen hired all the on-camera talent and journalists with few exceptions – many were involved with the energy sector previously. They worked with architects to build flagship studios in the Williams tower in Tulsa, Oklahoma and in Washington, D.C. as well as bureaus in Washington, D.C. (Capitol Hill), Chicago, Illinois (Mercantile Bureau, New York City, NY (NASDAQ), Sacramento, CA (State Capitol Bureau) and Vienna, Australia (OPEC). Each location had on-site correspondents and influential guests, including government officials, and industry leaders regularly appeared on the broadcast as well, to provide further insights.
Though the technology has changed greatly, the branded newsroom is built similarly today. Media companies must create a physical space with locations that have a connection with people who are influential to the brand. They must hire with that in mind – looking for the kind of niche experience paired with journalistic experience to bring thought leadership audiences will associate with that brand. Newsrooms and studios may be run internally or externally, but regardless must have an intimate relationship with stewards of the brand.
Why Brand Journalism Might Be Right for Your Brand
Red Bull is making a name for themselves sponsoring and covering action sports. Airbnb is documenting several series on travel, including original videos focusing on real stories about unexplored places, strangers who meet on journeys and other heart-melting and heart-pounding adventures. Adobe’s CMO is directly reporting on media, entertainment and brand growth. Major brands across the board are seeing the value and effectiveness of talking directly to their audiences through branded newsrooms and brand studios.
Even in the days of Energy News Live, when data analytics were … about as advanced as the video tool, Keith Bailey knew he was reaching his audience. His colleagues would joke with him about the news they had watched earlier in the day. High-profile government officials and traders would appear on the shows for interviews. Tony Knowles, then the governor of Alaska, once said, “I want to say thanks for Energy News Live. Anywhere there’s an energy event happening, you’re there to report it. And I really appreciate it – I know a lot of people depend on it.”
Now brands can see their influence in numbers. As you consider building your brand narrative, joining industry conversations and distinguishing your brand as a thought leader in a highly saturated internet environment, branded news is a strategically sound way to foster brand loyalty and audience engagement with less cost and waste but with maximum influence. Audiences will turn to you for the information they need to make decisions affecting your brand. You will build a reliable reputation. You will become the focal point in the entire conversation as you bring everyone into your own room.