Gustaf Stenlund
Gustaf Stenlund
February 13, 2018

It’s Valentine’s Day and what better way to celebrate the fact than with some top notch content by a leading content studio?
Last year, Variety’s talented in-house content team produced an exceptional campaign together with Focus Features called The Marriage that Changed the World. The objective was to raise awareness, engage the film voting audience and collect as many awards nominations & wins for Focus Features’ film, “Loving”.
Native content gave Variety and Focus Features the perfect platform to explore the history around the Loving case, beyond what was covered in the film.

In this interview, we cover:

Did you know that 69% of consumers spend longer on quizzes on Valentine’s Day?

Talk us through the creation process, from content brief to the end result.
Focus Features wanted to promote “Loving,” about the period leading up to the Loving decision that made interracial marriage legal across the United States.

Having covered the issue of interracial sex and romance through the decades as pop culture and entertainment took it on, we knew we were sitting on a rich vein of material for a historical survey of changing attitudes; we saw that as performers and artists challenged old “miscegenation” taboos, Variety’s coverage had evolved.

We presented Focus Features with an archive-driven series of articles covering the period presented in the film, showing how the entertainment industry struggled with the same racist attitudes the Lovings were confronting.
Focus Features came on board in early December 2016, and asked for one significant addition to the concept: They wanted the final article in our series to survey anxieties about Federal policy on civil rights (including policy racial discrimination, gay marriage, transphobia and more).
We settled on a package of 12 pages comprising five articles. Most of the sourcing would be from the Variety archives, but the final article would include original interviews with several pundits and newsmakers, and allude to other entertainment properties that had broken ground, including “Star Trek” (first interracial kiss on network TV) and “Will & Grace” (which helped normalize gays on TV).

Focus would provide stills from the film and access to the famous Life Magazine photos of the Lovings at home. Variety would supplement those images with images and clips from its own archives.
The package, titled The Marriage That Changed the World, was scheduled to go live online in the first week of January 2017, just as Oscar voters were returning to work after the holidays. Not coincidentally, that was also when Oscar nominations voting opened.
The schedule for the project was quite compressed, which meant we had to put down strict deadlines for all involved, including Focus. We had a researcher and writer working in tandem throughout December, while our Content Studio handled digital hub design and searched the archives for material. The writer, Bob Verini, was chosen for his expertise in old movies, so he was able to supplement our own suggestions with his own deep knowledge of interracial couples on film.
We hired a page designer who had worked for Variety before and already understood the needs of a feature package, and settled on a page template that we could populate quickly but still looked beautiful.
After minimal changes from Focus Features, we went from approved outline to shipping pages in about four weeks.
What would you have done differently?
In a perfect world, we would have started earlier.

Normally a project like this needs a minimum of six weeks from approval to print date; we did this one in about four weeks, and to make matters worse, we were executing in December, when many sources, staff and freelancers are travelling or altogether unavailable.

It put a strain on internal resources. Fortunately, Focus and Variety were able to work well together and had a smooth process.
What did you get right?
Internally, we joke about Variety’s archives being like potato chips — once you start, you can’t stop. That experience isn’t widely available to the public, though, since archive access is an additional subscription charge that few individuals take. So we were able to mine some of the astonishing, amazing, occasionally horrifying, always fascinating nuggets that were in Variety. Its reporters were recording history as it happened, at the most grass-roots level, from Klansmen protesting movie theaters to radio stations banning songs to world-famous movie stars standing up for themselves and others. We were able to bring a bit of that back out into the open.

From the Variety Archives: Fox's "Pinky" was one of the films hit by censorship of the time

We framed the role of pop culture and entertainment not only in reflecting social change, but advancing it. There were always brave people pushing the cause of equal rights throughout the decades, and while that record has plenty of blemishes, and Hollywood could be cautious to a fault, in the end there’s much for the industry we cover to be proud of.

On a more granular level, we struck a great balance between promotion and reportage. Readers enjoyed the articles, which proved timely and relevant, aside from their promotional value for Focus. In that respect, it was the best kind of branded content: It was material that served our readers and the promotion for “Loving” was organic and unobtrusive.
As a premium publisher, how do you make sure that you consistently produce high quality content?
We try to be skeptical, ask the extra question, make the extra phone call, think extra hard about the headline, look an extra long time at the photo options (and ask for more if they’re not good enough). It starts with getting a writer on whom we trust, and who has a proven track record (think about it as casting – get the right writer for the job!). We allow time for the editor to then get feedback to the writer and ask for revisions.

Coming from the editorial side at Variety, we apply the same standards of reporting, writing, editing and fact-checking to branded content as to our editorial content.

For branded content, the client weighs in at the beginning, approving overall direction and the topics of each story, and then approves the copy at the end, but the vast majority of creative and editorial decisions are made by Variety’s team, not the client’s.
How do you measure the impact of your content campaigns?

We look at reach and engagement metrics on each level of the campaign – from social metrics, to traffic driver reports, to backend results on the hub itself. This gives us an idea of who is engaging, for how long, and where their attention is highest or dropping off.

With each completed campaign, our team is able to improve our strategy for the next campaign given our learnings. These adjustments take place on both the content creation and distribution strategy level.
What do you predict for native content during Valentines in 2018?

We predict that short-form content with a positive, “share love with those who need it most” message will be the predominant type of native content. There will also be an uptick in short form that speaks about “loving yourself.”

How do you predict native content will change in 2018?

We will see more native content than ever with many new adopters to the form of advertising. With this increase in content and creators, there will be a tightening on content regulations.

These regulations will not only come from the FCC but from individual content platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Learn which content types and distribution times that work the best on Valentine’s Day.