Cracking the “effective content” code: Spotlight on Message Lab

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Message Lab’s CEO and Founder explains why every piece of content has to have a job

Let’s face it: our attention spans are shot. We consume content the length of tweets, Instagram captions, and TikTok-style video shorts. Most users leave a web page within 15 seconds, making quick decisions on whether content is interesting and worthy of their time. With so much competition for people’s eyes and ears, how can organizations ensure their content breaks through and does its job?  

We went straight to the source and asked Message Lab founder and CEO Ben Worthen―one of the eight founder-led communications and marketing agencies that make up Orchestra―how his team helps clients create content that not only keeps people engaged, but also drives them to take action.

Ben Worthen started Message Lab because he believed that organizations would get better results if they talked more about topics people care about and less about their products. He also understood that convincing the world that this is the case would require data to prove it. Prior to Message Lab, Ben was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he covered the tech industry and wrote more than 50 Page One stories. He was also editor-in-chief at Ready State and head of content at Sequoia Capital. Ben is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

What is your role at Message Lab, and what led you here?


I am the CEO of Message Lab, but early in my career, I was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. When I left, I heard the term “content marketing" for the first time during my job search. I realized there was an appetite for the kind of story-telling that I knew how to do as a reporter. I saw an opportunity to bring a journalistic lens to growth marketing to bridge the gap between what companies are saying and what people actually care about ― and to apply that on behalf of clients. 

Journalistic storytelling resonated with people in a way that traditional marketing didn’t, but it was oftentimes disconnected from business results. In some cases, people had just given up, thinking it was just too hard to measure its value. And at the same time, growth marketing had gone from having a growth hacker ― one person who went out to try to grow an audience ― to an entire team with VPs of Growth and Chief Marketing Officers. All of the headwinds in marketing were towards this highly measurable, demand generation-focused playbook. 

Yet most of the stuff those teams were putting out was total garbage. It was the stuff that you as a human being actively work to ignore, like ads on Google that we trained our brains not to look at, or loud banner ads on Facebook. They were employing what I like to call “spraying and praying.” It’s measurable, but it’s not a good experience for people.

The impetus behind Message Lab was: can we apply the same kind of data-based connections to business results that matter to the kind of content that people actually find valuable? Can we show the relationship between a well-written, well-designed story that someone gets value from and then buys something? At the outset, that was what we were trying to achieve, and then it became this laboratory of trying to figure out how to make it happen. 

What is your approach to your work at Message Lab? 

First, we determine our clients’ objectives. I like to ask the question: a year from now if you’re presenting to the CEO of your company and you can put three bullets on a slide, what do you want them to say? 

I believe ― and this is true for all of the companies that make up Orchestra ― our work can move the needle, but the approach and the tactics used are going to be different for every client, the audiences they’re trying to reach and the actions they want them to take. You can’t just add another URL to the internet. You need a strategy to find people and get them to do something that they weren’t intending to do, whether that's clicking a link, opening an email, or something else entirely. 

What do you see as the benefit of hiring people who have worked in newsrooms?

Journalists don’t have a monopoly on telling a good story, but if you’re looking for a shortcut, it’s not a bad way to go. They’re used to having editors over their shoulders asking, “Why does anybody care?” And if our goal is to create meaningful content on behalf of our client, that is good training. 

How would you define or describe “effective content?” 

Every piece of content has to have a job. And if you aren’t thinking that way, you’re making art, which is cool, but our clients aren’t hiring us to make art. They're hiring us to get a desired result. 

I’ll give you an example. For an audience of people looking for information, search is a great channel. And if you want to reach people through search, you’ll make something different than you would for Instagram. A beautiful sunset photo won’t rank well on Google, while a detailed, credible and reported answer to an intellectual question isn’t going to rock on TikTok.

On the other hand, you can have the best words in the world, but a piece of text won’t accomplish anything if it looks like garbage. You just viscerally won’t allow yourself to read it. 

Does your approach change at all during an election year?

While we’ve never had clients directly in the world of politics, we have seen that in election years, conversations on social media can become more political and that’s always something to bear in mind. Public focus will naturally shift to politics, so it can be a challenge to get apolitical information to people that they care about when their focus has turned to political content.

What’s one thing you worked on that you think best showcases what Message Lab can do, or that you are most proud of? 

We are delivering novel insight in a way that’s fun. We developed a resource on
the perfect article template that demonstrates how we can deliver interesting information that is well packaged. 

I’m also particularly proud of our work building data trackers for clients, which are conceptually similar to The New York Times’ publicly available COVID-19 tracker during the pandemic. Basically, you make a dataset publicly available and give people the ability to filter and segment what’s relevant to them. It lives on the same URL so that it can serve as a hub and a resource. 

I view this as a campaign in a box. Everytime you update the dataset, you can send an email out to your list. You can invite people to sign up, you can create any number of social posts based on the segmentation, and you can pitch it as a resource to reporters who can also filter through and draw their own narrative from the data. 

We successfully did this with a client. For over two years, we’ve found that people visited more than five pages per session when they came to the data tracker, which is incredible. A lot of external websites linked back to the tracker, which drove more people to it, and The New York Times actually wrote about it. 

Everyone who has great data that they package into a PDF report once a year should just think differently. You can get so much more mileage out of a tracker. For tech policy folks in particular, who might be trying to make broader points about what is happening in the world to inform policy, data is the way to do that, and we can help. 

Wondering how to make your story heard? Let’s talk