Wednesday, September 9th, 2015 | 9 min read
Back in March, veteran Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran signaled a sea change in the media industry when he announced he was leaving his job to create a media company in partnership with Starbucks.
While worn-out journalists have for years sought refuge in the relatively cushy fields of marketing and public relations, Chandrasekaran’s move still came as something of a surprise to industry observers. First, he was leaving a senior correspondent position at one of the United States’ most prestigious newspapers – a job that any journalist would have a hard time pulling him or herself away from. Second, the coffee giant’s decision to enlist him to produce documentaries about U.S. soldiers showed that even the biggest mainstream brands are starting to see the benefit in making large investments to fund their own content operations.
Where brands like Starbucks were once happy to use newspapers, radio stations, and television networks as intermediaries for sharing their messages with consumers, they are increasingly cutting out the middleman and reaching these people directly through their own branded publications. Instead of interrupting someone else’s content with a short message about Red Bull or General Electric, these companies are producing their own stories that reflect their brand’s values, even if those stories do not explicitly discuss their products the way a 30-second TV spot would.
This trend only appears to be growing. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 69% of consumer-facing brands intend to create more content in 2015 than they did the year prior. And, as more big-time players enter the game, it sometimes feels like only a matter of time before every major company has its own high-quality media operation.
To be fair, the trend of brands as publishers is not exactly new. In fact, John Deere first started publishing The Furrow, its magazine for farmers, all the way back in 1895. But in recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in brands investing in content, largely due to the spread of broadband internet, the rise of social media, and the public’s growing sense of dissatisfaction with traditional advertising.
Without needing to shell out cash to print out a magazine or buy time on a TV station, brands can now publish their content to their own websites and distribute that content to the masses through their social media channels.
And while the barriers to publishing have been broken down, today’s consumers are less receptive to traditional advertising than prior generations. By one estimate, the average person living in a city in 2007 saw 5,000 marketing messages a day, and it’s no wonder that consumers have learned to tune out brands that try to give them the hard sell. Online, this fatigue has expressed itself in the way web surfers have learned to ignore — and sometimes block — the incessant banner ads that interrupt their reading experiences, making it even more attractive for brands to ditch traditional ads in favor of content that people actively want to read and watch.
For brands, this means that the way to be effective as a publisher is to deliver something of value to the target audience – something they won’t want to ignore. Above all, this comes from being relevant through timely, personalized experiences. Creating these types of experiences with great content can only happen when a brand truly knows its customer, which, nowadays, is the outcome of smart social listening, testing, the right technology, and good customer service (both on and offline).
While content isn’t likely to lead to direct sales the way a pop-up ad would, establishing yourself as a go-to destination for informative or entertaining content can help you build long-term relationships that pay huge dividends down the road.
Arguably no one has done a better job of this than Red Bull, which has spent the past decade building itself into an action sports media powerhouse that produces content as good (or better) than what people would find from a traditional media company.
By regularly releasing high-quality photo, video, and text content around the extreme sports activities most relevant to its young, male audience, Red Bull has been able to build a following among millions of people who might otherwise have never been interested in purchasing its energy drinks. And with breakout videos of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking space jump (38.8 million YouTube views) and Danny MacAskill’s freestyle biking tricks (39.2 million YouTube views), the brand has used content to position itself as both a supporter and key member of the action sports community.
While Red Bull’s content focuses mostly on star athletes rather than the company’s products, brand publishers can also be successful by shining a light on their own stories — so long as they do it in a way that is interesting to the public. As an example, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better brand publication than GE Reports, General Electric’s technology blog.
While the publication regularly gives tech lovers the latest scoop on exciting developments like the creation of this 3D-printed jet engine or the invention of a machine that generates electricity from moon power, every single story involves General Electric in some way. By showing off discoveries made by GE scientists and gadgets crafted from GE materials, the company not only entertains and informs its audience – it also highlights all the different ways the company is pushing science forward.
GE is also smart about how it distributes its content, which is a characteristic of any successful brand publisher. Producing great content is the first step, but it won’t be consumed unless you put your stories where people are likely to see them. GE does this by reformatting elements of its content in a way that will make it attractive for each social media platform. For instance, it promoted this GE Reports story about its turbine business by posting a cool GIF and a short description of the piece on its Tumblr page. Sometimes, it will boost its reach by paying to promote stories to relevant members of its audience on social media.
Finally, successful publishers are always focused on moving their readers closer to making a purchase – that’s still the end goal, after all. One brand with an interesting strategy of doing this is Royal Dutch Airlines, which produces a multimedia travel publication called iFly Magazine. Each issue whets readers’ appetites for travel with beautiful photo and video stories about some of the world’s most fascinating places, and then gives people links to book a flight to the featured destinations.
While Royal Dutch Airlines, GE, Red Bull, and a host of others have all been successful implementing the brand publisher model, it’s not always going to be a walk in the park. Companies hoping to follow suit will need to be careful to build credibility with their readers, as studies by Yahoo and Contently have found that people frequently find branded content uninteresting and untrustworthy. They’ll also need to be careful to avoid hard news subjects that would create a conflict of interest — for instance, you wouldn’t want to read a purportedly objective story about climate change legislation produced by an oil company.
Nonetheless, the future of the brand publisher looks bright. In the coming years, we will likely see more and more brands investing in strong content and gravitating toward video (as the latter continues to take over the web).
Indeed, when I spoke with Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi earlier this year, he predicted that we would soon see content-producing brands like Marriott and IBM purchasing media companies of their own.
And who knows? If the past few years of the brand-as-publisher boom are any indication, this bold prediction just might come true.
About the Author: Aaron Taube is a freelance writer and reporter based in New York City. Prior to striking out on his own, he worked as a staff writer at Business Insider and as a researcher/reporter hybrid at Law360.