There aren’t many quiet spots around Times Square to conduct an interview. But upstairs at Caffe Bene, on the corner of 49th Street, you could be in a different city. The street noise and the tourists seemed a lifetime away as I spent an hour in intense conversation with Mike Hess, head of marketing at Storyful.
We had plenty to discuss.
Caffe Bene is not only a wood-lined sanctuary. It’s also just a step or two from the soaring tower which is the home of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation at 1211 Avenue of the Americas. Storyful was acquired by News Corp. in 2013 – appropriately, perhaps, given the company’s deep roots in traditional reporting, and Murdoch’s fabled love of newspapers.
The idea for Storyful, Hess tells me, came up over Guinness in Dublin. The founder was Mark Little, a well-known broadcast journalist with Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the Republic of Ireland’s answer to the BBC. It started out as a service to publishers, seeking to validate the use of social content for news purposes. The principle, Hess explains, was: “It’s better to be right than to be first.”
Clearing the news
Mainstream news sources were adjusting to the new reality that stories were breaking first on Facebook or Twitter. The raid which killed Osama Bin Laden was famously live-tweeted by an ordinary user of the platform in 2011: Storyful, Hess told me, really came into its own with the Arab Spring, a series of events where social media led mainstream sources in reporting.
The question, of course, is: “When is reporting really reporting, and not just a member of the public publishing unconfirmed conjecture as a status update?” The answer, for Storyful, lay in an old journalistic idea – that a deep understanding of sources if needed if they’re to be used reliably. Especially in an environment where social news is being published and shared at blinding speed.
For three-and-a-half years, Storyful dived into social wellsprings of hard news for clients like the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, pre-clearing sources by examining data not just from the obvious platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but also, for example, from Reddit. “Reddit is a closed network,” says Hess, “where memes and conspiracies are born,” but where communities are activated by an interest in distinguishing the true from the fake.
From learning when an Al-Shabbab video was actually made, to establishing the true geo-location of social users claiming to be eye-witnesses to news, Storyful’s newsroom – yes, an actual, human newsroom – cleared hundreds of pieces of content every day.
And then brand marketers got interested.
Safer social for brands
“Brands are now asking questions we’ve been asking since our inception,” Hess explains. The importance of social marketing, and especially influencer-generated or user-generated content, puts brands in the same bind as news organizations, even if not quite as much is at stake.
“Five years ago,” says Hess, “brands were turning their noses up at social.” They now know that social is where “authenticity and engagement starts,” and not – not nearly as much, anyway – with brand-generated messaging.
Storyful, Hess says, “helps brands with the strategy of seeding their [social] eco-system,” using its data trove to find social content (with a strong emphasis on video) and catch the trending wave. It will also handle key administrative tasks like getting permission to re-cycle user-generated content for commercial purposes.
“Unlike Brandwatch or Sysomos,” Hess says, Storyful is still not a “pure technology.” There are two live newsrooms now – one for the ongoing hard news business, and a separate one to clear content for brands. “Tech gets us 45 or 50% of the way there,” he admits, “but the intensive, hands-on process gives clients peace of mind.”
Online is a war zone
Peace of mind is hard to come by when the web is notoriously strewn with fraudulent news stories, and content which is political dynamite, in addition to adult-oriented and outright criminal activity which has been with us always.
Storyful’s background sensitizes it to these growing problems. “Fake news isn’t new to us,” Hess says. “We’ve been dealing with it since our very inception.” If content seems to have been fabricated, or altered from an original state – “Don’t publish,” Hess says.
“A high level of validation is intrinsic to our business, including, age limits, competitive problems, and the context around the asset.” We talked about the problems of using assets which originally appeared alongside a problematic symbol like Pepe the Frog, or the difficulties for the Trump campaign when a Trump tweet was traced – by Reddit users – to an explicitly anti-semitic thread on a white supremacist message board.
It seems like there’s a new problem every day. Shortly after I met with Hess, Facebook told a German court that it couldn’t be expected to monitor and remove all hate posts. Yet another reason for marketers to lie awake worrying about where social content they’re using came from – where the branded version might ultimately appear.
Yesterday, the Times of London reported that ads by high-profile brands were appearing on terrorist websites, and even around YouTube videos posted by terrorist-associated accounts (leaving us to wonder just what Google can and can’t monitor – not a new question by any means).
Responding by email to a request for comment on the Facebook story, Hess writes:
“Monitoring simply isn’t enough. Identifying keywords is a step in the right direction but the critical context around the use of the word – or the picture – is the heart of the matter. To simply locate or monitor an instance is to do half the work. That is why Storyful advocates so fervently for a model that leverages the best of expert journalists and content strategists and the power of monitoring technology. This still comes down to context and determining that requires a rigorous process that employs technology and is conducted by ethical professional held to the highest standards.”
The problem for brands is only going to get worse – especially, as Hess says, because platforms have a “crescendo” effect. A posting on Facebook, for example, can triple a Twitter effect, he says. No longer can people sit back and say, “algorithms are all we need.”