How CNN’s Great Big Story Blends Branded Content with Quality Journalism

by Cate Lecuyer  |  09.01.2016

There is a common thread that runs through renown reggae artist Lee “Scratch” Perry, paleontologist Jason Poole and his team of dinosaur hunters, and Somalian refugee Famo Musa who now lives in San Diego.

In all of their lives technology plays a special role—specifically Intel technology—which serves as the centerpiece of Great Big Story’s four-part branded content series to show how advancements in computing are powering people’s passions in ways previously unimaginable.

“We cater to the intellectually curious,” said David Spiegel, SVP, sales and brand strategy, Great Big Story (GBS) “The world is a fascinating place.”

The video site, which launched in October 2015 by CNN, produces digestible, three-to-five minute “mini-documentaries” that strive to tell interesting, unexplored stories about humanity. As the company grows, in addition to licensing and original production, branded content like the spots for its partnership with Intel has emerged as a significant revenue-producing aspect of the business model.

RELATED: New Video Site Great Big Story Helps CNN Target Millennials

In the spirit of native advertising, the videos develop organically, often stemming from a high-caliber editorial team with strong news judgement and ability to spot a good narrative, said Otto Bell, vice president and group creative director at Courageous, Turner’s first-ever branded content studio that produced the Intel series.

“We landed on these stories through some good old fashioned gumshoe journalism,” Bell said.

In the case of Dino Hunting off the Grid, for instance, Courageous Director Nicholas Brennan met someone at a conference who was involved in a dinosaur dig, and was struck by the level of computing power integrated into what’s often thought of as an archaic process pioneered by paintbrushes in the sand.

In The Scientist and the Magician, reggae artist Lee “Scratch” Perry continues to push musical boundaries, even in his 80s, by incorporating new computer technology into his live performances.

The third story, which launched Wednesday, is an intimate window into the life of Famo Musa, a Somalian refugee, mother, student and photojournalist, as well as the team of creative young photographers that she works with at AJA in San Diego. Musa moved to the U.S. with her family at the age of 12. Unable to speak English at the time, she used the power of photography to share her unique story and communicate with the world around her. Empowered through computers and the digital processing of images, she and her AJA team continue to give voice to those in need through photography.

The fourth and final video of the series is set to debut within the next couple of weeks.

During the production process, the subjects were equipped with new Intel-powered products, which were authentically incorporated into the series, while maintaining GBS’s quality tone and aesthetic, Spiegel said.

The videos debuted on all GBS’s channels—YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, its website and mobile apps—as well as under the custom Intel-dedicated playlist Unleash Your Creativity.

So far, they’ve generated over 2.7 million views and nearly 50,000 engagements, with particularly high numbers for the Lee “Scratch” Perry piece, where one-fourth of those who engaged with the video also shared it on their own social pages. It was also picked up by Rolling Stone.

“In the first four days, we hit what we committed to [Intel] for a month,” Spiegel said. “As a whole, this is going great.”

Around 40 percent of people who view GBS content on Facebook also turn the sound on—an indication of quality that bodes well for brand partners. While clearly identified as sponsors, “branded content doesn’t mean it can’t be great content,” Bell said.

In addition to Intel, GBS has inked 13 partnerships that have either aired or are pending, from Hewlett Packard and Warner Bros. to General Electric and eBay.

When it comes to production, Courageous works with a small, three-to-five person crew, with one director or producer who serves as the point person invested throughout the entire process.

“It stays with them from the moment they think it up, all the way through until after delivery,” Bell said. Hours spent off-camera getting to know sources and building a trusting relationship translates to intimate footage that uniquely captures people and ideas with narratives that educate and inspire.

“There’s a hell of a lot of craft,” Bell said, “that goes into telling these stories.”

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