A growing number of companies are now building publishing and content operations in-house, and many are hiring journalists to spearhead them. But as editorial roles within brands become more common, fundamental differences between editorial functions at “traditional” media outlets and those at brand publishing operations are becoming increasingly clear.
Brand publishing initiatives have become an attractive career option for journalists and editors in recent years, with many leaving media companies in search of better compensation and greater stability at brands. But while editorial roles within brands are often functionally similar to those at media companies, they come with their own set of demands and challenges. Editorial staffers making the transition say they’re facing different objectives, metrics and operational approaches working within brands than they’ve encountered in prior roles.
Shifting goals and requirements
Some editorial staffers say the ability to adapt quickly to shifting organizational goals is proving essential. For many companies, priorities and strategies shift frequently, creating scenarios inside brands where content strategies must pivot quickly and frequently to keep up.
Meira Gebel is the brains behind publishing endeavors at OutVoice, a freelancer management and payment system. At launch, the company’s publication – developed by Gebel – offered tips, advice, news and guides specifically aimed at publishers hiring freelancers, which was the company’s target market.
But as the company and its product evolved, its target market broadened significantly beyond publishers to encompass all companies hiring freelancers. As a result, Gebel’s publication is now on pause because the company’s priorities have shifted, and will be back with a new direction that better reflects its broader target market soon.
“You do have to step back and ask who is our audience? Who are we serving?” said Gebel, who reports to the company’s CEO. If the company’s customers change, so too must its audience – and therefore the nature of its content.
Pivots are common, particularly for younger companies. Editors like Gebel are coming to terms with the fact that changes outside of their purview will inevitably impact their work at an editorial level in a different ways than they might at media companies.
Factors outside their control
Often, problems arise when companies have struggled to find audience-content fit, which can mean restructuring or downsizing as they try to figure it out.
In February, Netflix laid off the lion’s share of staff from its brand publication Tudum, for example, just months after hiring a slew of talent from companies including Condé Nast and Time Inc. Many were actively recruited away from their former jobs by Netflix.
A round of cost-cutting at the streaming platform was to blame for the cutbacks after its subscriber base contracted for the first time in a decade. Tudum had launched just five months prior, and the company said in a statement to the Verge that the changes were driven by business needs, not the performance of the editorial team
And as the economic outlook worsens, it’s possible that more content operations will be affected as companies look to cut costs, or find their revenues have slowed. Recruiters say that companies often hire content teams during growth cycles, only to let them go quickly during difficult periods either because they aren’t being utilized appropriately, or because it’s hard to tie their contributions to hard business metrics – or both. As Toolkits reported earlier, recruiters are now expecting more large-scale layoffs among brand publishing teams as conditions continue to get worse. A “stable” job inside brands suddenly looks a lot less stable than it did before.
Always second to the product
For the vast majority of companies content isn’t a core focus – their products and services are. As a result, publishing often takes a backseat to other business needs and priorities.
The editorial team at men’s marketplace Grailed, which runs a publication called Dry Clean Only, found this to be the case a little over a year ago when it came to its website design.
“As [the company] started to integrate new product features – with the understanding that the goal is to sell clothes at the end of the day – the content became a lower priority on the site design,” said Greg Babcock, the former editor-in-chief of Dry Clean Only, who formerly worked in editorial roles at Complex and Gear Patrol. Releasing a new way to buy or sell products on the platform was exciting for the team, but that can impact the pageviews or other measures of success for the content, said Babcock. In June 2021, Grailed stopped publishing longform in depth fashion analysis and has since pivoted to more product marketing content like seller spotlights, seller guides and product roundups.
Some companies are trying to manage this by creating clear separation between editorial and the rest of the company. The Trade Desk’s content outlet, The Current, recently migrated from living on The Trade Desk’s site to a unique URL, for example. That provides the editorial team more freedom in what it can cover and potentially bring in more opinion pieces from outside the company, according to Ilyse Liffreing, an editor at the site.
Different definitions of success
Measurement remains a challenge for companies dipping a toe into brand publishing. While definitions of success may vary, ultimately the goal of most brand publishing initiatives is to help further the interests of the broader businesses in which they function. For staffers coming from traditional media, this itself can present a learning curve. Many say they went through a period of adjustment in working towards and being judged on metrics that are aligned with marketing and sales success, rather than more media-centric measures such as engagement.
“The primary business may be tracking a set of metrics differently than an editorial operation would, and you’re trying to fit that editorial operations information into a data funnel that maybe doesn’t necessarily fit it organically,” Babcock said.
Metrics also vary widely from company to company, meaning there’s no common “North Star” toward which editorial staffers can train their eye. At The Trade Desk’s The Current, measures of success include the typical pageviews and shares, as well as tracking how the content is affecting business relationships with clients and opening doors for future relationships, said Liffreing. The Current’s four-person editorial team’s work functions as an early stage of its sales pipeline. “We keep track of relationships, meetings that develop or even ad spend that we know came from reading one of our articles,” she said.
At The Org, a professional community that produces organization charts for public and private companies, editorial staffers were measured on newsletter subscriptions and signups to the community, said the Org’s former editor, Eliza Haverstock, who is now a lead writer at NerdWallet. There were other metrics as well, including having at least 15 interviews a month with sources who would then share the stories within their communities.
“Most people at the company you’re working with directly aren’t journalists,” Haverstock said. “How they understand success is very numerical or in terms of money or revenue or things like that.”
Metrics can also vary within companies. At Hubspot, the company blog is run by multiple smaller teams, said Meg Prater, senior manager. And each micro-team has its own metrics of success, while the “North Star” is pageviews and leads.
As brand publishing operations mature, however, there are signs that with the right expectations in place, editorial teams can find success. At The Current, Liffreing says the difference from how the teams in brand publishing engage as opposed to those in media make it not only fun and exciting but helpful. “We work with the business development and business leads teams all the time. They’re always pitching The Current to their clients and sometimes they’ll get a client on board that’s interested in being in a story or something along those lines,” she said. “There’s definitely more teamwork, and everybody seems to want to be a part of [the content] somehow.”