Turner and CNN's 'Great Big' digital Investment

Jeff Zucker
Getty Images

To capture youth viewers who are turning away from TV toward digital platforms, media companies are finding that they have to invent new online divisions. CNN's big bet is "Great Big Story," a digital-first outlet focused on short, timeless documentary-style features rather than hard news.

"Great Big Story is unlocking new and incredibly desirable audiences for CNN, new sponsorship opportunities and new content opportunities, such as our production partnership with The Weather Channel," said CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. "It has global appeal and isn't bound by headlines or news of the day. It's a perfect complement to our legacy business, which is also thriving. What's not to love?"

In its first six months, Great Big Story amassed almost 40 million monthly views across platforms, averaging 730,000 views per video and 22,000 shares. The average age of its 6.2 million fans is 27 years old, a hard-to-reach millennial demographic. Eighty percent of its views are mobile. At its Digital Content NewFront presentation in early May, Zucker said that "We are telling amazing and impactful stories, and I think you agree we are succeeding."

Now, it needs the ad dollars to follow.

Turner CEO: Excited to blur the lines of advertising content

Great Big Story is more than just a departure from CNN's style of news. Its model is optimized for social media. The outlet has a website, but it doesn't care if its viewers watch its videos there. The two- to three-minute long videos are also directly posted on Facebook and YouTube. And, they rarely appear on CNN.

"I don't think we're naïve in how people behave," said Chris Berend, co-founder of Great Big Story. "At CNN we have one of the biggest home pages on the internet, and it's stayed very strong. When you're just starting out, we felt like we would deliver the video to where people were instead of trying to coax and beg and spend a lot of energy trying to pull them to us."

From a business standpoint, Great Big Story's only form of advertising is branded content. Instead of seeing ads directly on or around its clips, sponsored stories that align with the company's mission are woven in between editorial. In its first six months, Great Big Story secured two advertisers: and HP.

"I think there is an appetite on the brand side to build beautiful content together," said Katrina Cukaj, executive vice president of portfolio sales and client partnerships for Turner ad sales. Turner is the parent of CNN and part of Time Warner. "I think they are very much trying to figure out this scrolling environment we have and how their consumers deal with it."

As online readers become immune to seeing traditional ads splashed across the screen, branded content — also known as native advertising — is an interesting model. Media companies claim consumers are less likely to gloss over your ad because the materials are something they are genuinely interested in.

Mindy Kaling in "The Mindy Project"
Fox (and Mindy) push limits of native advertising

Lucie Greene, worldwide director of The Innovation Group at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, confirmed that there is a "renaissance" of branded content right now as media companies try and find new ways to generate revenue. At the same time, brands are putting an emphasis on higher production values considering younger consumers are adverse to traditional ads.

"They actively reject things that are heavily branded," she said. "The fact that there are no obvious adverts on this platform work in its favor."

But, creating good branded content can be quite expensive. Media buyers say branded content campaigns from top media companies like 23 Stories x Conde Nast or The New York Times' T Brand Studio start at $250,000 a campaign. A Conde Nast spokesperson said: "We do many branded campaigns, some on the brand level, and some larger on the corporate level, so it's not one set fee." The Times said: "We do not discuss the terms of advertising agreements, but our goal is always to work with the client to devise a solution that fits their budget and objectives."

"In an age of ad blocking, viewability and all those accountability factors out there, how do we get our brands and our clients closer to the content so there is an experience that a consumer can engage with properly?" Turner's Cukaj postulated.

Sources, however, say that part of Great Big Story's pitch is that its branded content is cheaper than other premium publishers. While prices weren't disclosed, Cukaj called Great Big Story's ad offerings "cost-effective," because it is produced in-house by its brand studio Courageous.

"Nothing is outsourced," Cukaj said. "This team is fully dedicated to the studio, comprised of award-winning journalists that deeply understand the Great Big Story perspective and has access to the global resources of CNN and Turner."

Turner CEO: Bringing dollars back to TV

Great Big Story has massive plans for expansion. Its partnership with The Weather Channel will give it an hourlong, eight-part weekly prime-time TV series called "That's Amazing" this fall. It's also going to premiere "The Great Big Show," a weekly TV series that highlights its best content.

Berend, who is also vice president for video development for CNN and CNN Digital Studios, said in addition to growing its audience, it's getting inbound request to make content for other companies. The company is also seeing a market for content licensing and sales in other countries. Demand is especially high in Scandinavia and Korea.

"You'll see those three pillars begin to emerge in the next six to 12 months," Berend said.

Zucker did not disclose how much CNN invested in Great Big Story, just saying it was a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investment in the division.

"The business is already outpacing every metric set for it, so I have complete confidence that it will attain its financial goals as well," he said. "Great Big Story is not only a top priority for CNN, but also for Turner. I can assure you that it will be provided all the resources necessary to continue its rapid growth and success."

But JWT's Greene points out with every media company claiming to be the next big thing in digital, there's stiff competition. CNN isn't exactly known as a lifestyle company, so creating non-news content is a departure for it, she said. Making Great Big Story a stand-alone brand is a smart move, but then it loses a bit of the boost it would have got if it was heavily tied to CNN.

In addition, she wonders if Great Big Story's news coverage may hurt it. Younger readers are savvy about advertising, and knowing the outlet's strategy to mask ads in branded content could hurt it.

"The reality is, the same millennial that reads Buzzfeed is reading Fast Company," Greene said. "It's almost problematic to be too transparent about your strategy because the audience will know it's branded content. It defies the logic of it trying to be a stealth editorial platform."

Disclosure: The Weather Channel is owned by NBC Universal, the parent of CNBC.

UDPATE: This story was updated to include comments from Conde Nast.