In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, the opportunities for brands to connect with their market are endless.
The old model, where magazines, newspapers and TV channels provided a marketplace for brands to inform and persuade consumers is failing. It still has legs, because there is nothing that yet compares to the mass-market impact of buying a 30 second advert slot during a primetime TV show. However, the demise of mass media, caused by the move to online content consumption, audience fragmentation, and the cyclical downturn which has quickly exposed the structural issues in existing media business models, has created a huge opportunity for brands that are willing to engage their customers beyond their transaction.
There are many ways to skin a cat
Traditional media players argue that there is huge value in the quality and volume of audiences that they can amass, and this is true to a point. When advertising in a premium publication, the brand aligns itself with the goodwill, history and quality of the publication. But its becoming harder and harder to make this case, when that same audience can be sliced and diced, and reached more cost-effectively through a huge variety of online publishers and communities, PPC campaigns, email marketing, SEO, etc…
How can long-established and highly-reputable titles such as Businessweek be worth $1? Fundamentally, the reason is the major value of most consumer publications is their audience. And while Businessweek still has a valuable and influential audience, it no longer can claim to be the gatekeeper for that community (or even one of the gatekeepers). It can’t claim to be the one voice that holds the attention of that audience. So it can’t realise that value.
Why can’t a brand publish?
Publishers have usually been very careful to separate advertising from editorial. And many brands have been hesitant to be vocal on anything but their product, as it risks alienating part of their audience. But at the same time as self-designated “quality publishers” have been hit hard by falling revenues, lone bloggers, communities, and small online publishers have built up audiences quickly and inexpensively. And many brands should be asking themselves the question: “Why can’t we be a valid voice in our area of focus/expertise?” (See The Case for Digital Custom Publishing for a fuller look at the benefits).
The new publications that seem to be doing well in the current environment are adapting to the new business reality. They aggregate and syndicate lots of content in (see iMotorMag). They have good distribution systems (ShortList is partcularly impressive). They have small teams, leverage technology well, and are taking audience from newsrooms 10x their size. For an ever-decreasing investment, brands can, and in some cases are, doing the same thing. The question is, why push all promotional efforts through a publisher (proxy), relying on them for limited reporting and metrics, when you can own part of the audience yourself?
So what does brand publishing get you?
- An interested audience
- Longer engagement periods
- An ongoing and persistent relationship
- Detailed usage data
- A content footprint (helps search rankings)
- Pre-sale credibility before customers
I’m not suggesting that all brands start publishing expensive custom magazines. That can be a way for some premium brands, but publishing is moving forwards. Its more about hosting a conversation than churning out perfectly edited features. Here are three different approaches that can be adopted:
- Custom publishing
This is the most expensive option, and would usually be outsourced to a skilled custom publishing agency. Relentless Energy’s site is one of my favourites. Built for the energy drink owned by Coca Cola, it publishes very high quality video about extreme sports, music and culture, long form articles, blog posts, and custom software. This is a great way of marketing to a targeted audience, building the credibility of the brand within that tight knit community.
- Having a conversation
As far as I’m concerned, every brand should be producing content through blogs, tweets, flickr accounts etc on a scale that is relevant to their products, customers, and market. By not being afraid to express opinions, a brand can build personality and resonance with its audience. In addition this basic customer engagement is a transparant and much-appreciated method of collecting and answering customer feedback. Lots of other people have blogged about relevant case studies, so I will just point to this nice review of 5 good examples – it includes a company that has every employee actively using twitter, a company that dropped its cost-per-lead dramatically through content creation, and a company that made $3m in revenue through twitter alone. Content marketing works.
- Curating and aggregating
This is a way by which many brands can simply and cost-effectively set up a destination or source of content. It follows the more interesting new publishing models, by taking the focus away from bespoke content creation, and placing it on curating streams of content that are interesting to the target audience. It might be in the form of a digg.com clone, or a forum, or an aggregation of relevant UGC video, or a feedreader preset with relevant content sources. These might not be high-brow “publications”, but they provide places for the target audience to gather around… if a) they are of enough value (interesting/funny/relevant etc) AND b) well distributed. The problem with the first round of attempts at digital custom publishing, ie “microsites”, was that they generally were not search-engine friendly, did not update often with new content, and required push advertising to build any audience at all. By creating something of value to the user, and building in a distribution strategy, these publications can stand on their own two legs now that the costs of releasing a new “microsite” can be so small. A great example is Skittles’ site which simply shows a Skittles navigation widget on top of the Twitter search page for the brand name. Another good example is VB Raw’s microsite, which aggregates content from social media sources which are relevant to their audience.
One final example is a personal favourite of mine: Federated Media and JC Penney teamed up last year to launch the Fall Shopping Guide, a collection of content from popular woman-focused blogs prominently sponsored by the retailer’s Chris Madden Collection. JC Penney didn’t have the rights to review or influence the content, and the bloggers did not have to mention the aggregation to their audiences. Traffic started to grow, from search as well as bookmarking sites and RSS readers. Not long after, the site, was ranked 5th on Google out of 13 million results for the popular term “fall shopping” and ranked 2nd for “fall shopping guide”. See here for the aggregation (now without JC Penney branding), and here for more info.
Also worth reading on this topic are these posts on how publishers could react to this ” invasion” of their market: