When Shane Snow finished Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2010, he had no interest in getting a job in a newsroom. “I became a freelancer by choice,” says Snow, 29. Having paid his way through college doing everything from designing infographics to building niche ecommerce sites, Snow had a good idea of what to expect as a free agent. Many of his peers, however, weren’t as comfortable tracking down assignments and managing payments. “I saw all the problems that unfold for this community,” says Snow, 29. Meanwhile, one of Snow’s friends, Joe Coleman, was looking for writers for his company and running into his own frustrations about finding qualified candidates. “We wanted to help these two groups meet each other,” says Snow, who in 2010 teamed up with Coleman and a third founder, Dave Goldberg to start Contently, an online marketplace for writers and publishers of any stripe.
Fast forward a few years later, and the New York-based firm has 27 employees, a network of 27,000 freelancers, and such Fortune 500 clients as American Express, Philips, and Proctor & Gamble.
Entrepreneur’s Sarah Max spoke with Snow about why brands are focusing more energy on storytelling and what it means for the future of media.
ENTREPRENEUR: Was starting a company part of your plan when you went to journalism school?
Snow: Before I went to journalism school I decided I had three goals. One was to build a media business, two was to write books and three was to one day teach.
ENTREPRENEUR: We’ve seen an evolution of corporate content from unabashed marketing to legitimate storytelling that is “authentic.” What, in your opinion, qualifies as authentic content?
Snow: It’s easier to talk about what it isn’t. Inauthentic is when you’re not writing with the end user in mind. If someone engages with you and at the end you feel tricked or betrayed, that’s not authentic. It used to be keyword stuffing. Now it’s tricking people to click on stuff and not providing value or delivering on the promise.
There are three ways we see brand publishers telling stories. One is telling stories about things they care about and being host brands. It’s sort of the baseball stadium equivalent of a JetBlue sponsorship; it’s thank you JetBlue but let’s watch the game. Second, there are brands telling their own story, which we see more and more. GE has a guy whose job is to mine the company for interesting stories. For example, they did a profile of the man who invented the jet engine and is still alive. The stories are about GE but are things that interest people. I don’t see that as inauthentic at all. The third is brands telling stories about their products. That’s more direct, but still works. Take organic food. Once you know about the farmer, you want to buy your veggies from him.
ENTREPRENEUR: Producing quality content isn’t cheap. At the end of the day is it worth it?
Snow: Red Bull putting an ad in the newspaper is going to give some return on investment, but Red Bull owning the brand will get a lot better return on investment. I think we’ll see brands start to compete with niche publications.
ENTREPRENEUR: The Contently site says “No longer are we bound by so-called rules of who can be a publisher and who can't. The Internet changed that.” How do you reconcile this with some of the tenets of journalism that you learned in graduate school?
Snow: You’re asking the question that keeps me up at night. There are a few ways I reconcile it, but a big one is social media. You have the opportunity to directly connect with these audiences instead of going through traditional media. But because of and this hyper-connectedness there’s a huge incentive for companies to behave well in that environment because people will call you out very quickly. The pitchforks come out when something smells bad. I think it scares brands enough to cause them to want to do things right. In the long run that system makes it impossible to be successful being a bad actor.
ENTREPRENEUR: If ad dollars are all going to branded content, where does that leave old-fashioned investigative journalism or stories that aren’t aligned with a deep-pocketed brand sponsor?
Snow: Another model will have to exist. Some ad supported media companies will still remain but a lot of what we see in media and entertainment will be ad supported by a single advertiser instead of many advertisers.
ENTREPRENEUR: Many traditional media outlets frown upon or prohibit freelancers from writing for commercial clients. How do freelancers walk the line?
Snow: Three years ago when we started it was a much bigger worry. We wrote our own code of ethics and talked to editors about when they wouldn’t hire writers who do corporate work. Largely it’s about the disclosure and the transparency. I think every journalist should have an ethics and disclosure statement. I was a Domino’s pizza delivery guy. If I get a gig at The New York Times to write an investigative story on Domino’s pizza I would disclose that. I think there’s a little bit of a double standard. Photographers can shoot for a commercial client and no one yells at them when they show up to shoot editorial.
ENTREPRENEUR: Does more branded content meant the demise of long-form journalism?
Snow: People will keep reading feature stories. Paradoxically, I think tiny screens have opened the door back up for long-form journalism and feature stories. We have several clients now working on long-form stories that they’re taking a couple months on and paying reporters good money for. We’re seeing more of those assignments being put through the system. I think that’s a leading indicator brands are interested in this. From a company standpoint, someone who reads for 30 minutes is way more valuable. Long-form reading and television isn’t going away. I don’t think suddenly all of us who love novels will stop reading novels just because there’s BuzzFeed.
ENTREPRENEUR: Do you mean actual books or e-books?
Snow: Personally, I like paper books because I spend too much time in front of the screen. The books I want to skim I put on the iPad. The books I want to read under a tree I buy in print.
Sarah Max is a freelance writer in Bend, Ore. She has covered business and personal finance for more than a decade for such publications as BusinessWeek, CNNMoney.com, Money and The Wall Street Journal. In 2009 Sarah got a first-hand look at the ups and downs of entrepreneurship when she helped launch 1859 Oregons Magazine, a quarterly magazine and website for which she is executive editor.