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Why brands aren't becoming publishers

Why brands aren't becoming publishers Jack Krawczyk

If you have been reading tech press, ad trades, or stepped foot into a digital agency over the past year, you have heard a common theme: Brands are becoming publishers. The belief is that the spread of social media eliminates the need for a traditional publishing middleman, since the brand now owns its distribution through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

In theory, since Coca-Cola has more Facebook fans than the primetime audience for "American Idol" four times over, it should get more value from its own audience. The challenge with this belief is that inherently assumes that brands know how to create content that people actually want to consume.

There are brands that are completely dedicated to creating that type of content: NBC, Viacom, ABC/Disney...These brands have the formula for what it takes to make "hit" content, and even they can't get it right over half the time.

These content creation brands diversify their portfolio of content to hedge risk against duds (The Playboy Club, anyone?); brands like Starbucks, Coke, etc don't have the same type of risk luxury. This is the reason why brands won't become publishers: Either they already are, or they're waiting on the right solution.

Creating good content requires risk and commitment

When a brand is tasked with aligning itself with certain intangibles (adrenaline: Red Bull, happiness: Coke, athleticism: Nike, and so on), it's difficult to imagine investing countless months into a content program only to find it flop. Companies like Warner Brothers make several programs each TV season in order to spread risk against flops (not to mention how many content ideas that don't receive the green light).

Over time, content producers develop a mastery of what makes good content and what does not. They also develop an affinity for their content that takes on a brand of its own. This requires a commitment that many brand marketing teams aren't prepared to take. When the commitment is there, however, your brand can reap the rewards.

Have you read Travel+Leisure lately? Have you noticed there are a lot of articles promoting American Express? Did you know American Express actually publishes the magazine (and Food & Wine, and some others)?

American Express has dedicated a subsidiary company, American Express Publishing, to focus on this content creation alone. This is what commitment to being a publisher looks like.

Procter & Gamble does the same level of dedication, just check out some its productions: The People's Choice Awards, DinnerTool, and the Walmart co-branded Family Movie Night. That undertaking yields high brand exposure, but requires a large time and monetary investment. Most brands aren't ready to take this sort of leap, which leaves the brands-as-publishers movement splintering into two camps: Outsourced content management or guest publishing on proven content brands.

Camp one: Outsourced content management

Brands don't have the stomach for a series of trial and error in the content game to better understand how to produce their branded delivery. Companies like Federated Media and more algorithmically-based Percolate are centralizing content production and sourcing it out to partner brands.

Brands like Intel, Buick, Samsung, and MasterCard have used these services to create legitimate content experiences, with the risk hedged by hiring a secondary firm with expertise. This same type of sentiment drove the high valuations for Buddy Media and Vitrue: Understanding how consumers engage with content and building from that expertise.

This solution works best for brands that are sure that they want to develop a content program. It also requires patience, which is not always a marketer's top virtue. For those marketers, the second camp is a better fit.

Camp two: Guest publishing on proven content brands

The emergence of content consumption platforms like YouTube, Funny or Die, and Buzzfeed are taking the attention of consumers across the internet. Viewers turn to these content experiences for a quick laugh, to catch up with fun gossip, or just to watch dogs on skateboards. These platforms have already built and understand their audience, and they will help a brand create a custom content experience.

Funny or Die has been creating sponsored videos, such as the Zach Galafianakis hit "Between Two Ferns" (brought to you by Speed Stick). Buzzfeed can connect you with Mike's Hard Lemonade's tips on how to creatively have a drink in the warmer months.

YouTube is a bit different, but working with partners like Maker Studios to help build content that consumers will natively integrate into their content consumption experience.

These forms of content publishing have a considerably shorter shelf life than creating a trusted brand, which leads to a higher cost per engagement, but substantially lowers a brand's time investment risk.

The emerging opportunity

The reason these forms of engagement are growing stem strongly from a reduction in consumers' desire to engage with "traditional" web ad formats that do not align with a user's expectations. Opportunities in the field of "brands as publishers" are emerging to provide risk management platforms for content creation.

Companies like Percolate are taking a bet on making this an algorithmic approach, which helps reduce the cost of management. Media buying technologies like Adaptly, Sharethrough, and UNIFIED are driving the ability to grow their distribution through Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, and other platforms.

Ultimately not all content programs are going to work for brands, but banner and other interruptive ads certainly aren't going to work either. We're in a current landscape where the brands who are taking the risks today are getting to learn quickly to ultimately reduce their costs in the long run.

Jack Krawczyk is senior product marketing manager at StumbleUpon.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Beautiful woman with questioning expression and question marks above her head" image via Shutterstock.

As Director of Product Management at Pandora, Jack Krawczyk is focused on leading the product technology team that is responsible for delivering advertising solutions.Prior to joining Pandora, Jack was the Head of Monetization at StumbleUpon, where...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Ainia William

2012, September 14

Tej Kholi Grafix continuously asserts that you should hire a mentor who will help you set up your small business. It is important to select a coach who has previously practiced business in your niche.

Commenter: Andrew Boer

2012, September 13


You are right that publishing meaningful and engaging content is hard, and many publishing brands are still struggling to create content that engages their audience -- at the moment. But we are just at the beginning. Brands are going to become content publishers and they are going to compete with advertising driven publishers. It is inevitable.

You are right that Brands perceive the opportunity for brands to own (rather than rent) their audience and circumvent traditional distribution channels. But there are three other reasons you didn't mention that are driving the trend.

1) Content Marketing is the only SEO strategy that is going to work. Search is huge, and Google loves content above all else. As such, the entire SEO industry is transforming into the Content Marketing industry. (Camp One)
2) It is the only PR strategy that is going to work. The press release is basically dead, and the best way to to create awareness is to demonstrate thought leadership in your sector. The entire PR industry is ALSO transforming into the Content Marketing industry. (Camp Two)

3) It is the only social media strategy that is going to work. Building a social media strategy without a foundation of content is pointless. (Camp One and Camp Two)

PR, SEO, and Social Media + Sales collateral make up about 30% of the marketing budget. Which is about what brands say they are spending on content marketing.

Why they might succeed: it isn't just that distribution channels are down. There is a big trend towards author driven distribution. Social and search are increasingly favoring the author, not the publisher. In other words, people are increasingly tending to read and follow specific individuals, and search is increasingly weighting their content based on *who* wrote it (author rank), rather than *where* it is (page rank).

This is a big advantage for brands, because they can co-opt/cherry-pick these "featured authors" and leverage their audiences. And this is good for authors; if they can "move their audience" and get compensated more appropriately for the value they create. This is bad, of course, for the publishers -- who are now competing with the same people (brands) who pay their bills.

American Express Open is not *just* creating business content. It is having Guy Kawasaki create business content. If you trust Guy, you will read his content wherever he is. We are in the era of movable media.

Does this have to be done with an entire new division to leverage content creators? We think it probably doesn't. Happy to share case studies with anyone where it worked for big brands like Williams Sonoma at a very limited scale. ([email protected])

Commenter: Seth Lieberman

2012, September 13

Jack- this is a great article thanks for sharing. At SnapApp.com we work with a large number of both B2C and B2B brands and we're seeing some interesting differences between the two sectors when it comes to publishing. Historically (over the last few years) brands have started to work hard to engage directly with prospects and customers and that often takes the form of interactive content but also customer service and interactivity through social media. Typically this is done through a self contained app or widget and the marketing action is directly linked to the content. This is very effective for B2C both for new acquisition and retention. However- this is much less effective for B2B.

We are now seeing folks (at least on SnapApp and a few other places) adding a new take on content marketing which is very similar to what American Express is doing in your article. They still can find success interacting with users and putting content such as a white paper or presentation behind a lead gen form but more and more they are writing, building, creating content that is relevant and interesting to their target customers but is not a hard sell. They are using content to build community and thought leadership and instead of asking for you to sign up or buy right away they are nurturing through content marketing. This is one of the key ways B2B can leverage Facebook, a traditional wasteland for B2B.

We still find Content is King, but Context is the Kingdom.