One of the most well-publicized media launches in history is nearly upon us with the imminent launch of Semafor, the news outlet founded by former Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith.
The founders say the reasons for the publication’s existence include the “precipitous decline in trust levels across the global news industry”; The lack of innovation by existing news organizations to solve this “crisis”; news organizations not treating a group of 200 million college-educated people as an “audience” and an overwhelming “epidemic” of news clashing with a deep need for this audience to feel well-informed.
It’s a list that looks remarkably similar to the rationale a lot of our readers give for investing in their own brand publications: Brand publishing is having a moment because of a timely confluence of factors, including a seismic shift in the overall media landscape that has both made audiences more receptive to new sources of information, but also much more discerning in where they give their attention.
A move away from paid acquisition and PR
This means that brand publishing isn’t just one additional marketing lever, but could also be an actual foundational change in marketing. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this in SaaS companies. Salesforce’s launch of Salesforce+, its “Netflix for business content,” is part of the company’s move away from paid acquisition as a marketing strategy to one focused on owned audiences.
It also means, as we wrote about last week, that there is a change in thinking about consumers as audiences instead of consumers, and building publications because there is a significant gap in the information available to audiences, versus what they crave.
The role of the traditional media is also worth noting here. For the majority of brand marketers and CEOs I speak to, the main reason for investing in publishing is to de-emphasize PR as the main engine that drives interest in their company, and be less reliant on external media entities as a way to build interest in their brands.
PR is an important and relevant driver for company marketing, particularly for brands that have specific and niche audiences and customers. But one of the levers that has been pulled far too often is to use PR as a way to disseminate what essentially amount to press releases and “place” stories inside media publications. It’s not a great system: It doesn’t do much to advance journalism, isn’t likely to advance reader interest and trust, and for brands, it’s sort of a circuitous method to achieve endgame. In fact, it’s likely to lead exactly to some of those outcomes the Smiths mention as the reason why a new media brand is so necessary.
This is where brand publishing comes in for many companies: It’s often a more cost-efficient way to “cover” information that is relevant to their business interests, it often has much more long-term value, and also takes out the headache of finding and convincing the right reporters to “tell your story” (and hope they tell it in the way you like.) Brand publishers (and media observers) go wrong in framing this conversation as a way to circumvent journalists. That simply isn’t true for the majority of brand publishers – even when a16z launched Future, its publication featuring collections of essays about technology, it went to traditional media outlets to announce it was doing so.
The other mistake is framing the conversation as an issue of correcting the record, a la Coinbase’s launch of FactCheck as a way to combat what the company perceives as erroneous information presented by journalists.
Misinformation absolutely is a factor in the explosion of interest in brand publishing – consumers are less trusting of all sources (including traditional media sources) – creating an opportunity for brands to fill the vacuum, but also increasing the pressure on them to focus on creating quality information designed for discerning audiences.
As we’ve noted previously, the best-case scenario moving forward will be an unblurring of the lines, where traditional media organizations can refocus on their core competencies of breaking news and journalism, and brands can fund content that is relevant to their businesses.