Forget Verizon SugarString. Brands' Editorial Publications Are Finding a Rhythm

But Can True, Compelling Editorial Co-Exist With Marketing Imperatives?

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Van Winkle's, a site created by the mattress marketer Casper but described as a journalistic publication.
Van Winkle's, a site created by the mattress marketer Casper but described as a journalistic publication. Credit: Van Winkle's/Casper
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The media business, depending on whom you ask, isn't exactly booming these days. But that hasn't stopped hot commerce startups like Casper (mattresses) and Airbnb (lodging) from starting their own editorial publications.

Some of these brand-launched publications have died in infancy, while others are still going strong, seen by their corporate overlords as useful content marketing and customer engagement pieces.

"Ultimately, our goal has been to drive loyalty in the relationship with our existing customer base," said Jon Goldmann, who edits Five O'Clock, a digital magazine from shaving company Harry's.

The question is whether compelling, independent editorial and marketing results can simultaneously emanate from brands' publications, and how.

Mr. Goldmann, in addition to editing the magazine, serves as director of brand engagement for Harry's. He makes no bones about it: Five O'Clock is part of the company's marketing apparatus.

But, he said, "We aren't necessarily beholden to shill or sell anything that Harry's is selling." The magazine frequently publishes narrative journalism and service content, the type of stuff you might find on the website of any New York-based digital media company.

Mel, from Dollar Shave Club, a Harry's competitor, resembles a general interest magazine, rather than a shaving trade journal. Executive editor Zak Stone recently analyzed the status of medical marijuana in California, while Caroline Moss, a freelance writer, looked at why dads are big fans of the transportation app Waze.

Van Winkle's was created by mattress startup Casper, but the publication was intended to be journalistic, focused on chronicling the science and culture of sleep. Skeptics would note that the founding editor of Van Winkle's, Jeff Koyen, a veteran journalist, was replaced by Michael McCutcheon, who also serves as director of content for Casper.

But Mr. Koyen, who has since joined Vocativ as editorial director of brand publishing, said he had a "lovely time" editing Van Winkle's, and that "there was no marketing involved."

Luke Sherwin, who co-founded Casper and serves as chief creative officer, said Van Winkle's prioritizes quality over quantity. The publication initially promised 10 pieces of content per day, but that's no longer the plan. With a full-time staff of four, and a larger group of contributors, Van Winkle's has been able to reach an audience of approximately 500,000 unique visitors each month, Mr. Sherwin said.

He voiced a desire for Van Winkle's that was shared by some other brand-launched publications: to become self-sustaining. The site, he said, was never meant to sell mattresses.

"There are more efficient places to put your money if you want a unit economics approach to marketing your mattresses," he said.

Because Harry's funds Five O'Clock as an editorial outlet with a marketing purpose, Mr. Goldmann said his magazine isn't "beholden to advertisers," and he doesn't foresee Five O'Clock running ads in the future.

But some brand-launched magazines are courting advertisers, just like pure-media companies.

Uncubed, a platform for finding tech skills classes, publishes Wakefield, which it calls "a daily guide for anyone interested in tech news and careers."

Wakefield makes money from selling ads and publishing "dedicated" issues of its daily newsletter, which is the publication's primary platform -- though it also has a website. The publication recently partnered with investment management company Wealthfront to create a personal finance guide for millennials.

While Five O'Clock is marketing, Wakefield is "a very entirely independent entity," said Guy Cimbalo, who edits the magazine and serves as Uncubed's editor in chief. He said the publication exists "solely to give people an honest and unbiased look at what's going on in the tech world."

When asked if corporate relationships ever impact Wakefield's coverage, Mr. Cimbalo didn't waver. "We've never killed a story in terms of serving a brand or because one of our clients," he said. "Maybe we've been very lucky .... It truly has not been a problem once."

For brands that have journalistic ambitions, the key is to create a separate, walled-off part of the company that can pursue that goal independently, New York University journalism professor and media analyst Jay Rosen said in an interview.

"I think maybe they believe that they want to be media companies, but most of the time they haven't thought that through," Mr. Rosen said. "So they end up doing something that isn't very interesting at all, like marketing publications, or advertorial publications ... "

For many of these publications, the goal is not content virality, but rather to engage and please brand customers. But it's hard to gauge how much traction the outlets are actually getting online. Van Winkle's, Mel, and Wakefield don't meet ComScore's minimum traffic threshold for reporting; Harrys.com, which does not break down traffic for Five O'Clock, received 530,000 U.S. multiplatform unique visitors for April.

And brand-launched publications aren't getting four-star reviews across the board.

"In general, brands do not have an appetite for journalism," said one individual who worked on a startup-launched publication but did not want to be identified. "They think they do, and it gets them press and a cool factor."

In this individual's experience, the publication's staff was acutely aware that they were the only part of the company not contributing revenue.

"Brands are very soon going to lose their appetite for trying to run publishing departments," the individual predicted.

Joe Lazauskas is editor in chief of Contently, which provides a platform for brands to do content marketing. He's in favor of brands launching publications, but only as part of a strategy, with a clear objective. "The biggest risk is publishing for the sake of publishing," he said in an email. "It's like throwing a birthday party at Arby's -- you could do it, but why?"

There is something of a graveyard for brand-launched publications, though the same can be said of media company-launched publications these days.

Lodging startup Airbnb introduced Pineapple magazine in November 2014, but never published a second issue.

Verizon, after only a month, pulled the plug on SugarString, a website that The Verge called a "bizarre tech news experiment." Critics had quickly pounced on a report, based on a job pitch sent to some tech journalists, that SugarString writers would be prevented from writing about domestic spying or net neutrality. A quick consensus emerged that Verizon's ownership of a news site focused on technology presented too much of a conflict of interest for it to ever be viable.

SugarString may be a cautionary tale, but it's not destiny for every brand publisher. While there are conflict-of-interest concerns inherent to writing about hygiene products for a site backed by a hygiene marketer, for example, the stakes and reader expectations are arguably lower than at the intersection of tech, privacy and national security.

The Oyster Review, another retired brand publication, was a literary magazine created by Oyster, which was an e-book subscription service. Oyster shut down in September 2015, though the company's co-founders -- and many other staffers -- began working for Google's books department in an acqui-hire.

Kevin Nguyen, who served as Oyster's editorial director and edited the defunct but still-online magazine, said the publication was a "big part" of why the Google deal happened.

"Oyster was a relatively small player in the digital book space with an new, unconventional business model and experience," he said in an email. "The Oyster Review allowed us to punch above our weight class. We had access to authors, editors, and readers we wouldn't have ordinarily reached. For a moment, we became a vital part of the publishing conversation."

Mr. Lazauskas, of Contently, said the barrier to entry for would-be brand publishers is getting lower. "New vendors and technology means that you don't have to go out and pay an agency millions of dollars to build you a site," he said. "You can hire a few good in-house editors, find a good technology partner, and go kick some ass." And that's exactly the formula a lot of brands have been following.