The blurring line between brands and publishers
Brands and publishers have always had a mutually dependent relationship, which has grown much more complex since the days of Mad Men. Brands want to engage their audience with content, and often look to publishers to help them.
For the purpose of this article, I should clarify that when I say “publisher” or “media company” I'm referring to a traditional information provider whose core business is content. In reality, “media company” encapsulates much more, from Starbucks to Kraft.
The complexity can be daunting ― who are publishers actually competing with? Some media companies in both consumer and B2B have recognized an opportunity to become agencies and brands themselves. “Publisher” means “product provider” now more than ever.
As brands dip further into content creation, publishers will need to be on their game to distinguish their offerings from vendor content — while also working closely with the brands on new ways to help them reach their target audiences. It's clear the old ways of doing things — pairing publisher content with brand advertising — no longer suffice.
There are a myriad ways in which publishers and brands are merging; here are several examples.
Brands move toward publishers
“The large brands are becoming media companies and they don't even know it,” said Uzair Dada, CEO and managing partner of Iron Horse Interactive, which offers a rich media advertising platforms. Some brands have been creating their own content for a while, whether it be a newsletter or a glossy magazine like Ralph Lauren.
Brands have wanted to be connected to content for decades. “What’s becoming new is that because of digital, brands can move from worrying about being beholden to media assets to becoming their own assets,” said Jason Brandt, principal of client strategy and development at digital agency Zemoga, which works with both publishers and brands.
That's evident in the mobile world as well. Kraft recently launched an iPad app called Big Fork Little Fork, which provides recipes and content for both parents and kids. During a demo of the product at ad:tech, Howard Hunt, vice president of The Hyperfactory (a Meredith-owned agency that created the app), noted that the app really wasn't about Kraft: “There is no Kraft. Has anyone seen Kraft yet?” He later added: “It's not Kraft's application flashing their brand everywhere; it's creating a utility."
Kraft's app is free until the end of the year, and then will be $1.99 to download. I couldn't help but wonder during the demo of Condé Nast's Gourmet Live app what the difference really was between the two food apps. Gourmet might have a history of certain editorial standards, but both provide informational food recipes.
Especially in the app space, brands have recognized the need to produce a utility rather than just pushing their brand. Otherwise, consumers will discard the app, said Emily Culp, vice president of global digital/consumer marketing and media at Clinique, speaking at the Digital Hollywood conference in New York.
“It's very difficult or challenging for us as a brand to come up with a very specific piece of education or some sort of service that we can provide on a continual basis to our consumers so we don't get disposed,” she said.
Even more so than creating their own content, brands are letting users create the content by providing the venue through social networks. Facebook has fast replaced the commercial site. Brands can have their own channel on YouTube.
“Brands can become publishers better by facilitating conversation rather than owning it,” said Chris O’Hara, senior vice president of sales and marketing at media buying platform TRAFFIQ.
Publishers can play a role by helping brands facilitate those opportunities, which they've always had the expertise at doing, whether through a trade show or a microsite, he said.
The move toward engaging a conversation and letting consumers create content is, of course, also taking place at the publisher level. Speaking at Digital Hollywood, Lauren Wiener, senior vice president of the Meredith Women's Network, said the last 10 years has been a sea change of editorial function: Instead of editors pushing content, editors are curating information and building a community of women interested in topics like beauty and fashion.
Sponsorship deals have expanded beyond microsites so that brands sponsor topical portals and social sites, often integrated within publications. Yahoo, for example, has launched portals for top brands, including American Express.
Studio One Networks produces targeted, independent editorial content sponsored by individual brands. The programs, backed by big sponsors like P&G, are sprinkled on thousands of sites throughout the Web. It's content syndication, but with a single brand targeting the specific audience while keeping editorial independence.
“This is all based on the fact that the old way of [display] advertising isn’t working online,” Andrew Susman, president of Studio One Networks, told me earlier this year.
Not all brands are creating or aggregating their own content, but they are distributing it in one way or another. The recent launch of the Starbucks Digital Network is an example of this. The company uses its built-in audience to provide a consortium of premium content that is locally focused and only available in Starbucks.
Technology companies like Facebook and Apple are media companies as well, serving as hubs for all kinds of content. As Fred Vogelstein argues in a recent post on Wired: “ … Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are becoming more than just dominant technology companies. They are well on their way to becoming the news, entertainment and communications networks of the 21st Century.”
Publishers move toward brands
Many publishers have responded to the lust for more content from brands by expanding their own product offerings. They're also enhancing their own brands, using their unique position to offer more products.
“Both need each other: Publishers need to be able to sell more than IP [intellectual property] ... Brands need to stand for more than just a product,” Brandt said.
Building mobile apps
The mobile platform presents a particularly appealing opportunity to publishers looking to expand their product offerings. While brands have used apps to push their own content, publishers are using apps to enhance their brands. Many publishers are getting creative in the app space, extending beyond magazine and news content to develop branded apps with utilitarian functions.
For instance, Rodale's Runner's World offers a SmartCoach iPhone app, featuring a training program. Kind of like when magazines produce complementary books, apps have become another way to enhance the publisher brand and/or sell additional products.
Increasing marketing services
Custom publishing is nothing new in the media business, but the role of marketing services offered by media companies is expanding, in some cases making them more like agencies. Take Hearst, which purchased media agency iCrossing and Meredith, which purchased The Hyperfactory. B2B media companies are also beefing up the marketing side of the business; earlier this month, UBM launched an integrated marketing services company called DeusM.
By having agency arms themselves, publishers are positioning themselves to capture some of the dollars brands are using to create more authentic marketing content.
In another example, advertisers are going beyond the traditional advertorial to create content more integrated with publishers. Iron Horse offers an “adverguide,” an ad unit in which advertisers will offer content like “which laptop are you?,” instead of just an ad for a laptop. “It's definitely much more informational than just having chest-beating ads everywhere,” Dada said.
Earlier this year, Forbes dramatically reinvented its business to push a new type of advertorial: its new AdSlant and Advoice blogging platforms allow marketers to pay for blog space that is integrated with Forbes' editorial bloggers. Kevin Gentzel, the chief revenue officer of Forbes, told MediaShift he spotted how companies wanted to become content creators. Giving them a platform to do so is about “embracing and not running from it,” he said.
The blurring lines of editorial and advertising might be more common, but Forbes has been criticized for crossing the journalistic lines. "Is it a genius move or does it permanently tarnish the brand and credibility of the outlet?" Chris Perry, president of digital at PR agency Weber Shandwick, told Advertising Age.