Verizon's New Content Marketing Tech Website Hits A Snag

Leaked Email Claims Carrier Forbids Coverage of Net Neutrality

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The wireless industry is facing a branding conundrum: how to get smartphone-adoring consumers to love their carriers too. Verizon's latest effort, a broad content marketing campaign, tripped hard out of the gate.

Late last month, the nation's largest wireless carrier -- and sixth largest advertiser -- quietly launched an online publication, called SugarString, devoted to, by its own account, "thoughtful tech-focused stories."

On Tuesday, the tech publication Daily Dot reported the carrier forbids any stories on the website dealing with two topics: espionage and net neutrality. Daily Dot cited an email from the editor of SugarString, Cole Stryker, who called the two issues "verboten." The telecommunications giant has been heavily involved in recent debates on internet service provision and government surveillance.

Verizon denied the accusations. "SugarString is a pilot project from Verizon Wireless' marketing group, designed to address tech trends, especially those of interest to our customers," Debra Lewis, a Verizon spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "Unlike the characterization by its new editor, SugarString is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology."

Ms. Lewis declined to comment further. Mr. Stryker did not return an email request for comment.

SugarString has not published an article since October 27th.

Verizon is not the first brand advertiser to try its hand at consumer-facing publishing. In January 2011, Best Buy launched a multi-channel network, which included an online magazine, pieces on "new-technology primers" and an intent to sell ads. The network has since fizzled out.

So far, SugarString appears to be competing with general interest web publications aiming for viral content, like Vox Media and Buzzfeed. It has published stories on a range of topics, including Facebook's real-name policy and "the nine weirdest North Korean e-books." One recent article focuses on domestic abuse, an issue Verizon has repeatedly highlighted since publicly maintaining its NFL sponsorship.

The carrier has been active around content-marketing and SugarString signals a heavier investment in the space, according to Shane Snow, chief creative officer at Contently, a company that licenses software to brands to help them manage content-marketing projects.

"The content and design of this site are great, so far," Mr. Snow said. Verizon could succeed at building and retaining its own audience on SugarString -- instead of buying eyeballs from other media properties -- if they "kick ass at everything else," including feature-style storytelling about subjects they can report on fully, according to Mr. Snow.

But success won't come easy. "The thing that worries me about this site -- and other moves we're seeing in the industry -- is when the brand moves away from information and entertainment and tries to get into news and politics," Mr. Snow said. "It's hard to pull that off."

Brands need to be completely transparent when they're creating editorial-style content so readers never feel duped. "It is easy to do this with topics that are more educational and entertainment-focused in nature, and much harder, if not impossible, to do this with hard news and retain credibility or not trigger the silent alarm that thoughtful consumers have when we feel like we're being fed propaganda," Mr. Snow said.

The content-marketing push comes as the company is looking to a new chief marketer. On Oct. 3, Verizon Communications, the parent company overseeing wireless and broadband, hired Diego Scotti as CMO. Historically, Verizon has positioned its marketing around its network coverage and reputation. Mr. Scotti, the former CMO of J.Crew, has a reputation as a strong brand marketer.

In 2013, Verizon Communications spent $2.4 billion in U.S. advertising, according to the Ad Age DataCenter.

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