Every trend, fad and meme has its day and “branded content” is having its moment now that the New York Time’s Monday business section has discovered the phenomenon of publishers further blurring the lines between journalism and marketing in its piece on 4.8.13 by Tanzina Vega: “Sponsors Now Pay for Online Articles, Not Just Ads.” The usual publications are cited: Forbes.com and it’s “BrandVoice” (“Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience”), the Atlantic Monthly, Business Insider, Mashable just to name a few. I think a bigger trend is being ignored: and that’s marketers going direct to readers and building their own audiences, cutting publishers out entirely except to rent their traffic and push clicks to their own media.
Forbes has taken its share of criticism for being one of the first old-school publishers to open up its digital pages to advertorial, but Chief Product Office Lewis D’Vorkin isn’t apologetic. His e-book on the Forbes.com editorial/advertising model is a convincing argument against the old church/state Chinese wall model of advertising-supported but segregated-independent-objctive journalism. In his treatise, D’Vorkin goes right after the old-school editorial purists and essentially wishes them good luck as they slowly starve to death while the old interruption model of advertising further withers under the impact of AdBlocker and Tivo-ad skipper technologies.
The Times article cites one dissenter, Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic: “I am aghast at this…Your average reader isn’t interested in that. They don’t realize they are being fed corporate propaganda.”
Average reader? At least they’re reading and not rotting their brains with a diet of Bravo staged-reality shows about Real Wives and Hoarders. Getting into the sanctimonious mosh pit of editorial objectivity and journalism ethics is to enter into a surreal religious war on a pointless par with the dyophysite controversies of the fifth century: no one cared except the patriarchs and metropolitans but nevertheless wars were waged and people died.
The Internet Advertising Bureau and the Magazine Publishers Association have long been setting down the rules for making it clear to readers what is pure and impure. Putting tinted boxes around marketing content, sticking the word “Advertisement” atop the headline …. I ran into this issue as early as 1996 when Forbes.com sold daily content sponsorships and gave the advertisers a tall vertical unit we invented called the “Skyscraper.” The smarter sponsors used the space to run a story as opposed to an animated Punch-The-Monkey ad, and before long we had to revise our terms and conditions to ghettoize the more egregious offenders with the scarlet letter of “Advertising.” Digital advertising models have long looked for the online equivalent of the little word “Advertorial” that magazines used to segregate special sections bought by the Economic Development Commission of Mississippi (“A State To Grow In!”) away from the serious, independent stuff. Now even Google News is trying to keep the sponsored stuff out of its pages.
I think the Times missed the bigger trend: marketers going direct to their prospective buyers by becoming their own publishers, producing their own media and using professional editorial placements only to rent names, just as marketers have been renting circulation lists for decades to drive their direct mail campaigns. Here’s some early manifestations and enablers of the Marketer-As-Publisher trend:
Corporate-in-house produced newsrooms: Ever since corporate websites became de rigeur in the 90s, corporate communications has always carved out a loney section of the brand’s main website to post press releases, executive bios, and the usual investor relations information. Now some are going right into the business of publishing stories – not the usual releases for the press, but content for the customers – under the rubric of corporate newsrooms. Best example I can think of is what Intel has been doing for years with its newsroom at newsroom.intel.com. Cisco also has a newsroom. These are being used as white paper libraries, curated collections of relevant industry news links, and original daily news and commentary, all backed up by some form of community/social participation function.
Branded partner produced content: these are sites produced in partnership with a media company. Intel is in a partnership with Vice.com called The Creators Project. Red Bull is also into it this sort of advertainment.
Online “magazines”: these are the digital evolution of the type of print product that companies such as IBM or the Four Seasons Hotel chain would hire Forbes Custom Publishing to produce and distribute to their customers. Now the digital version of “vanity” magazines live under their own domain identity (vs. being an extension of the core brand’s domain like the Intel newsroom) Now they produce them with their own editorial staff. A great example is Adobe/Omniture’s CMO.com:
Talent: A lot of inexpensive and talented business and B2B editorial talent displaced by the digital disruption in the their former newsrooms is available with some prominent tech talent crossing over to corporate gigs – and not in the usual PR/flak capacity but as corporate staff writers and editors. From the highest end of the mastheads with people like Fortune’s Rik Kirkland going to McKinsey a few years ago to edit the McKinsey Quarterly and oversee the firm’s editorial strategy to Steve Hamm, formerly of Businessweek, going to IBM to become a communications strategist, or Dan Lyons leaving Read, Write Web, Forbes, and the Daily Beast to join Cambridge digital marketing startup HubSpot…. the talent is out there looking for some relief from the churn and chaos of the traditional press and the sweatshop conditions of the blog networks.
Cheap tools: web development used to involve a lot of enterprise software licenses for content management, analytics, etc. Say goodbye to Vignette and Interwoven and hello to WordPress and Drupal. If the tools are good enough for AllThingsD and The Economist, then they are good enough to a corporate content marketing site. And they have the added appeal of being cloud/SAAS based so the more daring marketers can side-step the corporate web mafia and the CIO’s office with their brown-suited procurement standards and office of project management and start publishing immediately.
Drivers: in closing, what’s driving chief marketing officers, heads of corporate communications, and digital marketers to launch their own editorial efforts?
First – developing an audience of loyal readers is no different that developing and attracting the attention of prospective customers and building loyalty among existing ones. Corporate content is about going direct to the right audience and cutting out the editorial middle-man.
Second – digital marketing is all about the content that a marketer pushes through the distribution channels available. YouTube for corporate video. Tweets, Facebook pages … this stuff demands a steady supply of fresh content and getting that content from an agency or third-party is like trying to perform surgery in a haz mat suit with robotic arms. Why depend on a third party when you can own the capability internally.
Third – agility. Corporate publishing is about reacting, not just to opportunities like tweeting about random blackouts during the Superbowl, but to crisis communications when every second counts. When your offshore oil platform catches on fire, the world isn’t going to the New York Times for your mea culpa and updates, it’s hammering on BP.com. (I’ll get into “dark site” production in a future post.)
So what? I think the immediate impact of corporate content isn’t journalistic ethics but the challenge it places on the professional service firms that feed clients with editorial services. Namely the PR firms writing releases, CEO speeches, white papers, etc. and the digital agencies that build custom microsites and other digital initiatives for marketers unstaffed to handle the challenge of staying technically adept. And finally– the traditional and not-so-traditional “objective” press. They will either produce the content as a service to the corporate advertiser or see their former editors and reporters get hired away to do it under the more stable umbrella of a big organization with deep pockets. That the press is now selling the opportunity to publish corporate content next to their own reporting is a foregone conclusion. Hand wringing and saying one is ethically “aghast” is the personification of the cliché, “pride goeth before the fall.”