5 content lessons everyone can learn from ZANews’ journey [Content 2013]


Content marketing has become a firmly established trend over the last couple of years. As brands move to become more like publishers, marketing themselves through quality content, there are lessons people more well-versed in traditional content production can learn.

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A great example of a brand having to market its content, rather than using content to market itself, is ZANews, a puppet-based satirical news network which lampoons South African and global political figures.

Thierry Cassuto, who co-founded ZANews with internationally renowned political cartoonist Zapiro, today took to the stage at the Content 2013 conference to share some of the lessons he’s learned from 10 years of trying to actually find a home for the ZANews product (and marketing it once they’d done so).

1. Unique does not equal original
You’ll here a lot of people telling you that your content has to be original. That’s a bit of a misnomer, given that it’s impossible to be truly original.

More important is finding something unique in what you have to offer, be that the way your content is delivered or the characters it uses. As Swiss film-maker Jean-Luc Godard once said “It’s not where you get it from, it’s where you take it to.”

ZANews takes a lot of cues from British political puppet show Spitting Image which, at its peak, had 16-million viewers. It’s also aware of its place in a long tradition of satirising political figures. What makes it unique is the characters it uses as well as Zapiro’s signature cartoon style which is applied to the puppets.

2. Find the right platform for your content

Cassuto and Zapiro spent years trying to shop ZANews to a variety of broadcasters. All however turned them down. “People aren’t ready for this,” was the message they got time and time again.

When South Africa’s national broadcaster the SABC, finally commissioned them to do a pilot for what was then called ZNews, it seemed like they were onto something good. Unfortunately a shift in the country’s political fortunes (Jacob Zuma ousted the Thabo Mbeki in the elective conference) meant that the broadcaster was no longer interested in the pilot, which heavily satirised Zuma.

The pilot eventually leaked to independent newspaper the Mail & Guardian, which posted the video in its entirety. The views it got there made the ZANews team realise the potential of online. It immediately set up deals with the Mail & Guardian and other online publishers before eventually launching its own online portal.

Although ZANews does still have deals with broadcasters in the country, its bread and butter is online these days. That gives it a lot more freedom to do what it likes with its content, which is seriously important when your job is lampooning high-profile figures.

Cassuto is certainly a convert and actually reckons the commissioning model of television is dead. In fact, he says, “original content cannot happen” in any country where there are monopolies on free-to-air and paid television.

3. Protect your IP at all costs

Cassuto actually reckons losing out on the SABC deal turned out to be a blessing, because it allowed ZANews to retain its intellectual property (IP).

Holding onto your IP means that you get take your content in whichever direction you want. And you can’t really market your content effectively if you don’t really own it.

4. Partner with the right people

In the early days, says Cassuto, ZANews was heavily dependent on partnerships. One of those was the Mail & Guardian, which lent it credibility. But it also formed good relationships with the now defunct video platform Zoopy and budget airline Kulula.

Both were brands with a lighter edge, something that worked really well with the ZANews content. Yes, you need money but it’s important to chase the right kind of money. It sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget.

“The only things brands really want to find is content that will make their product stand out,” says Cassuto. ZANews definitely gave Kulula that. In later years it did the same for internet service provider Web Africa:

The association with ZANews meant that it was possible for the company to make a clever, funny ad without having to push its branding in your face.

There can be unexpected benefits to these kinds of partnerships too. At one point Kulula brought in a plane set for an ad sting. The airline let it keep the set even after it stopped sponsoring the show, allowing ZANews to make a “Politicians on a Plane” segment.

5. Have a plan B

When the Kulula sponsorship ended ZA News had to shut up shop for close to a year. In that time it learned the importance of having multiple funding avenues, from crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo to iTunes and offline retail sales.

Each of those, of course, requires their own form of marketing but collectively they meant that ZANews was able to keep the wolves at bay when things got tough.

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