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March 31, 2015, 10:17 a.m.
Audience & Social

Why Storyful is expanding its business to work with brands

It’s one element of a broader expansion for the social news agency, which is also growing its product team and working on improving its core trend-detection technology.

— During halftime of a February 2013 basketball game at Mississippi’s William Carey University, cheerleader Ashlee Arnau ran toward the center circle, did a front flip, grabbed a basketball, and flung it into the basket from half court.

The video went viral. An original video of the shot has nearly 1 million views on YouTube, the highlight was shown on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and Arnau appeared on the Today Show.

But in January, nearly two years after it was filmed, the video turned up in another place, alongside videos of a jet skier doing a backflip, a horse rolling around in dirt, and a series of other Internet videos: an AT&T commercial.

For the campaign, AT&T worked with Storyful, the social news agency, which in recent months has expanded its reach beyond news organizations to focus on working with brands.

Storyful, founded in 2009, built its reputation around finding, verifying, and licensing videos and other social media content around news stories, from big news events like the Arab Spring protests and the war in Syria to smaller viral moments. The Dublin startup was acquired by News Corp in December 2013, and its focus on expanding its business to commercial and creative work is just one of a series of changes that have been implemented since the sale.

In December, Storyful’s chief revenue officer Rahul Chopra took over the role of CEO from founder Mark Little. Little took on a new role, director of editorial innovation, as a number of other high-level hires were also made last year. It’s also been reported that Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor ousted as part of the paper’s phone-hacking scandal, was set to be rehired by News Corp and would be involved with Storyful — though Little said recently “we’ve had conversations” but “she’s not taking over control.”

Storyful has built out a creative desk, grown its product team to work on new tools to detect trends on the social web, and also launched public partnerships with Facebook.

“We’re in the business of diversifying what Storyful does at the moment,” Little told me. “We built a business model around news, and part of the reason why I sold the company to News Corp was to allow us to build out the business model that supports the journalism that we do.”

Over the past seven months, brand marketing has grown to make up 10 percent of Storyful’s business, chief revenue officer Michael Sadicario said, estimating that the company has worked with up to 2,000 clients in that area.

In March, Storyful announced partnerships with public relations firm FleishmanHillard and Youku, a popular Chinese video-sharing platform. The company also worked with Pepsi at SXSW in Austin to produce interactive social media displays showcasing user-generated content in multiple locations around the conference. As audiences continue to become more fractured, brands are looking to different areas to reach customers, and Storyful is pitching itself as a way to help them “identify with real people and real things that are happening in the world,” Sadicario said.

“There’s no video of someone saying, ‘Oh my God, I can’t get wifi right now. AT&T to the rescue!’ But there are stories that help them engage on social media and other distribution channels,” he said.

A demand for viral content

Though hard news is still Storyful’s bread and butter, it’s seen increased demand for viral content, like weather videos and memes, from both brands and newsrooms. As a result, Storyful created a dedicated creative newsroom. Historically, its newsroom had covered big events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars, but that duty has been passed onto the creative team, Storyful news director Mandy Jenkins said in an interview at Storyful’s Dublin headquarters. “Now we can have a team that really can focus in on that stuff,” she said. “Because in that case, you’re not necessarily caring about getting a video from a bystander. It’s the conversation element, so getting those tweets and vines and memes.”

To accompany the launch of the creative team, Storyful built Trendswire, a tool it developed to better detect and track what’s trending on the social web. Storyful’s goal with this is to help its staffers find better second-day stories surrounding the reaction to whatever is trending, chief product officer Adam Thomas told me.

“What’s all of the crucial social media reaction to it? How can I understand this in a better way? Where are the key contacts and key players in this story? Do they have other social accounts that may play into the story? That kind of context and background allows us to do more than regurgitate the story and actually take an original angle on it,” Thomas said.

As part of this effort, Storyful is continuing to look toward other areas of the Internet to mine for trends, as well as places where it can gather news; Little emphasized that the company needs to focus on multiple social platforms. Last week, Storyful announced a partnership with the messaging service Firechat. Little said Firechat could become a “mobile newsroom” to help reach sources and gather communities in locations where it’s currently difficult to do so. For distribution, however, he said he’d focus more on WhatsApp or Snapchat as means of broadcasting to an audience.

“People should be choosing the way they expand with a real consideration of the fact that nothing will be the same in two years,” Little said. “Probably the dominant network on the social web in five years’ time is being tinkered with by a 17-year-old in some basement in Rangoon rather than coming out of some major international social brand in Palo Alto or San Francisco or Mountain View.”

Rapid growth

Storyful has seen significant growth on the technology side in the past year — growing from four staffers to more than 20, according to Thomas — as it continues to expand. In November, it announced the creation of an R&D center in its Dublin office to upgrade the company’s core technology.

Since it’s grown so rapidly, Storyful has split its technology staffers into three distinct teams: One group is focused on improving its internal workflow tools, another on bettering how Storyful content is delivered to its clients, and the third on social discovery and working on algorithms to better find trending topics — “the slightly more top-secret stuff,” as Thomas put it.

The product team works in two-week product cycles, and when I visited the Dublin newsroom earlier this month, they’d just finished developing a new feature in the Storyful Newswire called Collections, which is meant to be a more effective way of tagging and organizing content.

“Right now, the newswire basically gives these what we call Storylines, which are basically primary tags for collecting content,” Thomas said. “But they’re just a little bit too rough and ready for our editorial team, and we wanted to approach a more holistic sense of pulling in a bunch of content.”

He gave the Charlie Hebdo attack as an example of a story that would be suited for the new collection system, with the angle changing so rapidly from the specific events in Paris, to the larger reaction and manhunt in France, and then to the global response.

“There’s sort of no way to do that under a tagging system,” Thomas said. “You really want to bring that into a collection.”

So after the developers build something like Collections, they hand it off to Storyful’s editorial team, who then try to “break it as much as possible,” Thomas said. They then give feedback to the developers who will continue to build and iterate.

The relationship between the editorial and product teams has gotten much closer in the past six months or so as the waves of new staffers on both sides have gotten accustomed to their new roles. But over time, that relationship has become more effective and beneficial for everyone, Jenkins said, because “we want to avoid having them make us a tool we don’t want to use.”

“We’re eating our own dog food and everything here by using the tools that they’re making — not only for us to use, but externally too,” she said.

POSTED     March 31, 2015, 10:17 a.m.
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