Break out the birthday cake: it's hard to believe it, but as of October 20th 2016, Great Big Story, CNN's socially distributed branded content video network targeted at Millennials, has turned one year old.

While an independent subsidiary of Turner and a CNN spinoff, it is not a news network. It produces a number of videos per day, telling nonfiction stories with a positive and inspirational bent.

No matter which metric you focus on, whether it's audience, engagement, or soft metrics likes buzz, the rapidly growing video network exceeded its 12-month target 6 months in. Here's how Great Big Story did it, and what they learned in the process:

Establishing Value for the "Mother Ship"

Great Big Story has blazed some new path for its parent company, Turner Broadcasting, and now serves as a model for other things Turner may want to do in the future.

Great Big Story's leadership has learned plenty of things they can share with Turner. Sometimes it's about culture; sometimes, something else entirely. These lessons can be pulled out and leveraged within Turner as a new way of doing things. That's a huge way in which Great Big Story is evaluated: how much it helps Turner succeed.

Accepting your "Unfair Advantages"

They have learned to lean into the strengths of their parent. "We absolutely get meetings because of who our parents are," admits Chris Berend, Great Big Story's cofounder. "I make no apologies about that at all. That's part of the opportunity. So in that sense, we have some unfair advantages." But the real advantage is that CNN President Jeff Zucker was willing to "go for it."

Despite getting meetings because of their parent, Great Big Story still has to deliver to their advertising partners. Says Berend: "We're often coming in as a solution they've never thought of before."

Charting a Unique Path

"Great Big Story is set up separately from CNN on purpose," says Berend. It was a big leap for the CNN brand to spin Great Big Story off so that it has 100% editorial independence. "This is not a news brand," says Berend, who thinks the clean break between the brands was necessary. "As soon as you see CNN, you think news."

Had they created a new division within CNN called Great Big Story, it may not have worked. They had to do it the way they did it. After they left the Time Warner Center, "there was absolutely a creative shift." The people who came over from CNN might have news backgrounds, but our creatives were/are looking to do something different. On a day-to-day basis, Berend is the only "umbilical cord" that goes back to CNN.

Treating it as More Than an Experiment

Great Big Story not only boasts an entirely different monetization model from CNN, it also operates with its own P&L - and is expected to be a contributor to the overall Turner business. "This is not a loss leader for us," says Berend. "We are expecting this to be standing on its own two feet."

"This isn't just an elaborate learning experience. We are expected to make this a healthy business." They have a one-year plan and now a five-year plan that has them going from one source of revenue to four or five. Some of those things will be entirely new to Turner and CNN. Some Turner executives felt that there should be no revenue expectations for Great Big Story in its first year - that it should be allowed to grow organically. But leadership learned that putting an emphasis on revenue keeps you focused.

Learning from Mistakes - and Iterating Quickly

Another lesson learned in the first year: there are definitely places where they spend time or money or both on something that didn't work, and that's okay, according to Berend. The traditional banner ad on the web had "virtually no return," Berend says. Very quickly they started to turn their efforts into audience acquisition. Now, when they go on sales calls, advertisers haven't heard of them from a story in Ad Age or another industry publication; they've heard of Great Big Story because of a story in their Facebook feed or on YouTube.

It's hard to plan ahead, especially when the digital landscape is changing so quickly. Facebook's algorithm may change tomorrow, and Great Big Story has to react to things like that. Yet this is a risk for the biggest media companies: what to do about Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and the rest. "The media dynamic has been turned upside down." But Great Big Story's inoculation to market fluctuations is going to be on the quality of their content, so they work on mastering storytelling and less so on chasing the "platform of the moment," as Berend tells it. "Our investment needs to be in the people and tools to tell the story."

The results? Their engagement metrics are almost unheard of in the social media landscape, to the point where they might make a 2-minute video, and they can keep the typical Facebook follower engaged for 1:50.

What's Up Next

In the first year, Great Big Story was able to work with roughly one dozen brands; branded content makes up a large percentage of their revenue. They're producing a show for the Weather Channel for later this fall. Custom production like that - program development - looks like it may play a big part of Year Two. International will also be a significant portion of Great Big Story's focus in Y2 and beyond: sponsorships, partnerships, and distribution.

Down the line, will it be hard for Great Big Story to keep its brand integrity? Berend admits that they have said no to some advertisers and partnerships that he doesn't think would be right for their audience. If they were a startup off the street, they might've taken some deals like that -- but because they are backed by Turner, they have been able to take the long view.

Your business might be in a far different situation than that of Great Big Story, but ask yourself these questions:

1. Are you leaning into the "unfair advantages" you may have?

2. Are you learning from your mistakes, and adjusting nimbly?

3. Are you taking the long view with your business?

Published on: Oct 24, 2016
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