Rather than renting access to audiences via advertising, marketing and public relations campaigns, companies are increasingly looking to own direct relationships with audiences via brand publishing and content initiatives. But those at the beginning of their brand publishing journey face a key question: Build or buy?
The past year has seen high-profile companies adopting both approaches.
Among the buyers:
- Marketing software company Hubspot purchased entrepreneur-focused media company The Hustle, adding to the robust content operation it’s used for years to attract audiences and drum up interest in its products and services.
- JP Morgan Chase bought The Infatuation, a publisher known for smart, well-written restaurant reviews (which also owns Zagat) as it attempts to “own” the foodie audience.
- Publishing has emerged as a priority for sports betting companies. Penn National Gaming purchased a stake in sports media juggernaut Barstool Sports.
- Robinhood purchased MarketSnacks, a startup financial news publication and turned it into Robinhood Snacks, a popular digest newsletter on the financial news of the day.
Among the builders:
- Companies in the VC space, including Andreessen Horowitz’s Future, First Round’s First Round Review, Breakthrough Ventures’ Cipher and the growth of content-first funds like 20-minute VC.
- Coinbase’s FactCheck, a new publication that wants to go “direct” to the audience with the truth — an effort to cut out what the company argues are biased intermediaries and build reach through owned channels to evangelize and explain cryptocurrency.
- Acorns’ Grow, a personal finance publication focused on education consumers on money habits.
- Ad tech behemoth The Trade Desk, which is building a publication focused on data-driven marketing with “The Current” (and staffing it with former trade journalists).
- Salesforce announced earlier this year it was in the process of building a video streaming service focused on educating professionals, which will feature live programming and content created by clients.
When to buy
Whether companies choose to build publications from scratch, or to buy existing ones and fold them into their existing operations, depends on a few factors. Buying may be a more effective option if:
- There is an obvious and appropriate target. Buying means careful consideration of a media company’s existing operations and audience, how additive they will be to the business, and if they will do the job of making customer acquisition easier and cheaper. For most brands, it isn’t always easy or straightforward to find a media company that is aligned with the audience it hopes to attract.
- Purchasing a publication can solve an immediate problem. For organizations where customer acquisition costs are extremely high, acquiring media properties — can mean lowered costs to bring in those audiences via media. For specific industries, high competition can mean attracting consumers can be very expensive. Media can be a cost-efficient way to solve the problem.
- Finding talent will be a challenge. One place many brand publishers end up stalling is in recruiting the right editorial talent — at the right level and of the right background — to run and operate brand publishing initiatives. Hiring staffers for publishing is a new muscle for most companies, and publishing talent can be difficult to find, interview and train. Buying can help kickstart brand publishing efforts by aqui-hiring talent.
- Speed matters. Publishing is a slow slog. Building an audience and a brand from scratch takes time, growth is non-linear, and it can often be difficult to clearly measure success. For many companies, buying can be a way to supercharge progress versus building from scratch. For some brands, it is also an option to hire influencers — well-known writers, personalities or speakers — and to quickly gain access to their audiences.
When to build
Building a brand publishing initiative from scratch may be more appropriate for companies and brands if:
- There is buy-in across the organization on the mindset needed to build editorial organizations. Building a publishing group is a mindset battle. Publishing groups operate very differently to other functions within companies, and typically measuring success is often more of an art than a science. To function optimally, editorial teams often operate largely independently from the rest of the organization, and accepting and encouraging this requires understanding and buy-in across an organization.
- There is rich source material. What trips up many companies is simply not having enough to say. Companies with existing sources of story ideas — such as a large amount of proprietary research, a deep and/or varied bench of expertise, or even existing sources of event series (think Salesforce’s Dreamforce) will find it easier to build up publishing from scratch.
- The organization already has a clear view on its editorial mission — or knows what it needs to do to get there. Successful brand publishing operations have well thought-out missions — what their viewpoint on the world is — and have a clear and strategic understanding of how that mission supports its business. Organizations looking to build brand publishing groups are most successful if they have a clear pathway on where to go and will find that building something from the ground-up will be the best way to get there.
For detailed practical guidance on how to build and operate successful brand publishing initiatives, see the Brand Publishing Toolkit.