- It was the year that companies that were previously dabbling in content began to demonstrate serious commitments.
- “Going direct” became a rallying cry for a number of companies as they attempted to circumvent traditional media in favor of speaking to audiences directly.
- Another top theme was a slew of big-name editorial talent that landed inside brands, ready to build newsrooms and publications.
This was the year that brand publishing evolved and came into its own. Companies have dabbled in content for years, but in the past year a growing number have demonstrated more serious commitments to building significant content initiatives and audiences of their own.
The year in brand publishing was underscored by bold proclamations from major companies about their publishing intentions, and a handful of key themes:
“Going direct” became a focus
For many brands, publishing initiatives are intended to grow prospective customer bases, maintain and improve relationships with current customers and partners through education, and to shape narratives about their companies by demonstrating authority and expertise.
But for some, it’s also seen as a way to circumvent traditional media. This came to a fore this year, when Coinbase founder and CEO Brian Armstrong wrote a memo that said: “Every tech company should go direct to their audience and become a media company.” The impetus: Armstrong (and Coinbase) believe that the media simply does not understand what Coinbase does, and is unable to explain it in an authoritative and unbiased way.
Using Tesla and Apple as examples to emulate, Armstrong said that Coinbase would create a new publication, dubbed FactCheck, that would “publish the truth” to build a direct relationship with its audiences and avoid “biased intermediaries.”
Most brands are less combative with their brand publishing goals — and many successfully use brand publishing in tandem with relationships with professional media. However, this was a year when the idea of “going direct” became more prevalent. Companies have seen an opportunity to carve out space for themselves in areas traditional media cannot: Where topics are nuanced and difficult to cover, or where the press is simply not trusted. Complicating matters are incentives within some news organizations to prioritize driving traffic or subscriptions above all else. All of this has meant an opening for brands to leverage their built-in expertise and show it off.
This doesn’t mean the end of journalism. Instead, as we argued earlier this year, it’s in fact an opportunity for journalists to go back to doing what they do best: Original, unbiased reporting that brands simply cannot compete with.
Big-name editorial talent landed at brands.
In June, Allure’s editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee, announced that she would be leaving the publisher to go to Netflix. The role was a new one for the company, head of global editorial and publishing. Other big editorial names that went to Netflix included Vanity Fair veteran Krista Smith and Bitch Media EIC Evette Dionne. The company has made a bunch of moves to help it create more publishing content, but the biggest one was probably the December launch of Tudum, an editorial publication that will be tailored to viewer preferences.
It was indicative of a sea change in the world of media that will probably continue into next year. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, more and more journalists seem to be ready to jump to the brand-side. Some are fed up with the hamster wheel-grind of media and are ready for fatter paychecks and more stability, while others feel brands are turning into truly challenging and interesting places to work. At Future, the publication from Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, news about the site’s launch had an important exclamation point: The hire of veteran daily news journalist Maggie Leung. (a16z, by the way, has always been one of the more prolific content operations in the industry, thanks in no small part to former Wired editor Sonal Chokshi, who has shepherded the firm’s content for years.)
Brands experimented with buying publications
In January, Penn National Gambling entered an agreement to buy a stake in Barstool Sports. In February, content marketing machine Hubspot bought daily email newsletter The Hustle (which at the time said it had 1.5 million subscribers). In September, JP Morgan Chase bought The Infatuation, a website that does restaurant reviews.
Three completely different acquisitions, but they each pointed to an interesting trend: Companies were buying publishing chops — and by extension, acquiring built-in audiences and distribution capabilities. For many, 2021 was the year that they decided to buy a full media arm, and turn customers into readers and readers into, hopefully, customers — thus moving money from traditional marketing into publishing and hopefully lowering the cost to acquire customers.
… While others focused on building
In August, Salesforce announced the launch of Salesforce+, a video streaming platform that it will fill with live and on-demand video and audio content. The idea is, according to a press release, to create “engaging stories, thought leadership and expert advice.”
“Just as brands like Disney, Netflix and Peloton have done with streaming services for consumers, Salesforce+ is providing an always-on, business media platform that builds trusted relationships with customers and a sense of belonging for the business community,” the company said in a statement.
Content will be produced by an in-house team of writers, reporters and producers. The company is also inking deals with other companies, including media companies, to have their content appear on Salesforce+ — the latest was a partnership with Vox to have the Kara Swisher-Scott Galloway podcast, Pivot, also appear on Salesforce+.
While Salesforce+ is arguably the more ambitious effort to date, most companies getting into publishing have chosen to build, versus buy publications. Building is best for organizations who already have a clear view on their editorial missions, and when there is buy-in from across the organization on what is needed to build editorial organizations.
For help and direction implementing the steps and requirements needed to build successful brand publishing operations, see the Brand Publishing Toolkit for comprehensive and actionable guides, strategic insights and practical resources.