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Sept. 25, 2013, 12:04 p.m.

Branded and owned by GE, run by Atlantic Media Strategies, Ideas Lab is a test for brand journalism

“If people don’t understand what brand journalism can be, I think it could go sideways and end up being derided as another ‘failed journalism experiment.’ I’m bound and determined to see that that doesn’t happen.”

Brock Meeks remembers a time when online journalism of any stripe made media types as wary and disgruntled as sponsored content makes them today. Meeks, a ten-year veteran of MSNBC and former investigative journalist, says in the course of his own career, he saw web journalism go from second-class citizen to commanding the “respect and appreciation” of print.

Now, Meeks has moved on to what he considers the next big innovation in digital media: branded journalism. As of last month, Meeks is the new editor of Ideas Lab, a website — launched one year ago today — curated and operated by Atlantic Media Strategies but owned and paid for by GE.

ideas lab

Ideas Lab is meant to be an online gathering place for “thought leaders” in the “advanced manufacturing space.” To that end, Meeks create content, solicits and coordinates submissions from industry leaders — and checks in with GE on a daily editorial call.

That sort of relationship is sure to raise the hackles of those who recall when the lines between journalistic content and advertising were more clearly defined. For Meeks, Ideas Lab is a bellwether for the growing possibilities of broader trends that carry names like “native advertising,” “sponsored content,” and “brand journalism.”

“If people don’t understand what brand journalism can be,” he says, “I think it could go sideways and end up being derided as another ‘failed journalism experiment.’ I’m bound and determined to see that that doesn’t happen.”

Atlantic Media Strategies — a division of Atlantic Media, which separately publishes The Atlantic, National Journal, Quartz, and other news brands — is far from the only company experimenting in this space. To mention just one analogous example, Roll Call now features a defense policy blog “presented by Boeing,” which mixes sponsored content from the company (“QF-16 Aerial Target completes First Pilotless Flight”) with news stories. There’s a spectrum of brand/news-organization connection in these efforts, and Ideas Lab — with a completely separate site, branded prominently with the GE name, mentioning Atlantic Media nowhere on its homepage — is an interestingly bold example of branded journalism.

Shannan Bowen, social media strategist for the project, said she made it her mission to seek out online communities whose interests were relevant to GE and make sure they were aware of the site.

“The strategy involves finding out who the key players were, offline and online, in that space,” says Bowen. “Who were the most active people on Twitter, or on their own blogs? Who were the most active people in these policy discussions? We found they were typically the same people.”

Bowen regularly distributes guidelines to contributors on how to get their pieces shared; she might draft tweets, offer tips on interacting with commenters, or request that the daily email newsletter be forwarded to a contributor’s organization.

A year in, this effort has gained Ideas Lab only about 100 followers on Facebook and 3,000 on Twitter; in an effort to grow these numbers, Bowen says she wants to spend more time promoting the site at in-person events.

With its one-year anniversary, Atlantic Media announced today that the site had experiences “128 percent growth in monthly web traffic since launching Sept. 25, 2012” — but it’s not clear what sort of a base that growth builds on. “Ideas Lab is a great success in the burgeoning world of branded journalism and represents a new model for companies like GE to convene a community of thought leaders on the issues they care about,” Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley said in a release.

According to Jean Ellen Cowgill, president of Atlantic Media Strategies, if they wanted to, GE could be promoting any of the Ideas Lab content on Atlantic Media properties, but “they’re more interested in having the direct conversations with the people that they care about.” (The Atlantic is currently, for example, featuring a sponsored package from Delta. It attracted negative notice for a Scientology-sponsored package in January.)

What Ideas Lab offers GE, according to Meeks, is a way to deliver its own thoughts about the industry and the company directly to their ideal audience. Savvy companies, he says, are “becoming their own publisher and, because of all the digital technologies and platforms we have today, they’re circumventing that old line distribution method.” (GE sponsors or produces a number of other online sites, including Txchnologist, produced with digital consultancy Group SJR, and its in-house GE Reports.)

With the one-year anniversary, several GE representatives expressed happiness online at the site’s progress. “An amazing first year!” tweeted Helaine Klasky, GE’s global director of public affairs. “Wow, what a great first year. Thanks to all our contributors,” commented Gary Sheffer, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs.

Ideas Lab stories, published roughly once a day, are broken down into themes like “Global Competitiveness,” “Advanced Manufacturing,” and “Tech & Innovation.” These stories, which are Meeks’ focus, are meant to attract an audience that is one part “c-suite people making decisions” and one part young, savvy “people that are reading Ars Technica.” To attain that goal, GE wants to publish a combination of articles on relevant data and research, on the ground stories from American manufacturers, and, most importantly, perspectives of influential titans of industry. The “wish list of contributors,” Meeks says, includes household names and CEOs; the rest are picked up by scanning panel speakers at various conferences. (“In its first year, the site featured perspectives from more than 80 contributors from around the world, representing major corporations, academia, influential think tanks, entrepreneurs and innovators,” today’s release says.)

In talking to the folks behind Ideas Lab, the word I heard repeated most often was convener — a role media companies have long embraced and a goal for GE. In that way, the site is actually born out of GE’s already-extensive conference programming. Think of Ideas Lab as a way to keep those conversations going, and in GE’s court, without the added cost of bagels and coffee.

“I’m not particularly interested in listicles; I’m not particularly interested in articles that say, ‘Here’s 5 Quick Steps to Bring Back Manufacturing in the U.S.A.’ Those types of articles are fine for some people, but that’s not the kind of stuff I’m interested in printing on Ideas Lab,” says Meeks. “It’s easily digestible, but stuff you still have to chew on, and can make you think.”

In the next few months, Ideas Lab will be expanding its multimedia efforts, building out slideshows and video, as well as hosting more events and pushing for a stronger social media presence. But for Meeks, the most important thing about Ideas Lab content is that it doesn’t have to be about GE.

“We discussed before what the philosophy is about covering stories and about covering the industry and what part GE should play in that, and there’s no pressure at all — they want the site to be focused on bringing the best ideas and thinking out there,” he says. “They don’t want it in anyway to be a platform just to get GE’s ideas out there, and that’s another reason why I was really on board to come on board here. There’s none of that pressure at all.”

Cowgill confirmed that, while GE owns the site, they have shown considerable flexibility in terms of what kind of content and “variety of voices” that appear on it. And although he wouldn’t entertain the notion of a hypothetical situation in which other of Atlantic Media’s properties were printing negative coverage of the company, Meeks says he’s confident that Ideas Lab will look and act nothing like the poorly disguised advertisements you see “other folks doing.” (He wouldn’t name names.)

“I consider myself a storyteller, and the client has given me full rein to live up to my storytelling potential, and I look forward to that,” says Meeks. “All the stuff I have done throughout my career, in terms of being intellectually rigorous and honest, all of that is going to be poured into the Ideas Lab.”

Image by Matthew Bradley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 25, 2013, 12:04 p.m.
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