I've spent the last several months talking to dozens of brand managers, advertising executives, digital agencies, PR firms and publishers, and the mantra is consistent. They call it different names -- "branded content," "owned media," "content-based marketing" -- but it is essentially the same thing: the use of content to position the brand as a trusted source of information and a thought leader in its space.
The concept certainly makes sense. The evolution of digital media -- particularly the rise of the social grid -- has created the opportunity for brands to move beyond traditional advertising models -- to engage with their customers directly as thought partners and content providers and to become part of the public conversation.
Audiences are using the social grid to organize information for themselves -- they are serving as information aggregators, editors and syndicators. This dynamic creates the chance for brands to build relevance and trust with their customers by participating, convening, aggregating, syndicating and publishing "branded content" across multiple channels in a thoughtful way.
By behaving like a media company -- focusing on information that customers care about, rather than on promoting its own capabilities and products -- a brand can build a deeper and richer affinity with its customers.
So, traditional advertising is out and content-based marketing is in, right? Not so fast. This stuff is harder than it looks.
The challenges involved in creating content are legion. Most organizations lack the skills to do it on their own. Their traditional marketing partners are highly evolved at positioning products and capabilities, but do not have the DNA to create editorially independent content. And few organizations would want to take on the challenge of hiring and managing a pack of publishing professionals.
And then there is the "consider the source" problem. While the brand in "branded content" brings with it many positives, it also conveys a built-in bias that can undermine the content's credibility.
So, what's a brand to do?
Well, if the conventional wisdom is that every company act like a media company, it is instructive to look at media companies.
It is well documented that the business models of traditional media companies are eroding as audiences become more fragmented and difficult to reach cost-effectively and as marketers shift their advertising dollars into digital.
Scores of distressed media properties with strong brands, good circulation lists and credible editorial positions are struggling with their broken models.
Hmmm. Act like a media company while the landscape is littered with dead and dying media brands? That doesn't sound too appealing.
But "branded content" does not mean duplicating traditional media business models; the goal is to appropriate traditional media's position as a trusted source. So maybe all those dead and dying media brands present an opportunity.
Rather than try to create "branded media" from scratch, what if brands bought or licensed distressed media properties, rethought them as lower-cost digital properties and allowed them to run according to professional editorial standards?
Now you'd have a legitimate content platform, with a real editorial position and loyal readers; you'd have a small team of publishing professionals operating independently, and you'd have access to the audience to develop direct marketing programs and market research.
In this scenario, "branded content" would be one step removed from the brand itself, carefully crafted to be of the brand but not to be the brand. Unlike traditional custom publishing or advertorials, this form of media should not explicitly tout the sponsor's products and capabilities. Rather, the focus should be on a high-quality digital editorial product that meets the reader's needs under a well-established media brand.
Still, this is not traditional media, insulated from issues of bias by having many advertisers. This is single-sponsored, closely associated with the owning brand. That's the point, and it needs to be acknowledged. A slight tweaking of the editorial position would help. How about we shed the old-school media persona of the single source of answers? The role should now be that of a trusted advisor -- there to set the agenda, provide unbiased context and to act as a convener and aggregator of credible information from multiple sources. This approach fits perfectly into the ethos of the social grid, which distrusts centralized authority, and it should mitigate any lingering reader concerns about bias.
Yes, every company should act like a media company -- sort of.