One of the fundamental challenges for brand publishing operations is demonstrating how their contributions benefit the companies they work for and – ultimately – justifying their own existence. Progress is often gauged using metrics oriented around traffic, net promoter scores and leads.
But a growing number of companies are beginning to wonder if their brand publishing efforts could be judged with another, more tangible measure of success: Money.
Companies across a variety of sectors and industries are now evaluating whether their brand publishing efforts could generate revenue directly, effectively turning them from cost-centers into revenue-generating divisions.
Some believe their publishing initiatives could effectively morph into standalone businesses in their own right, while others are looking for ways to offset their investments. Because so many publishing teams sit within marketing groups or report up to chief marketing officers, generating revenue – even if it’s a relatively small amount – can help insulate them from cost-cutting measures.
One chief marketing officer, who asked not to be named, said that was the impetus for a forthcoming paid content initiative at their company. “They can’t cut us if we’re paying for ourselves,” they said.
For those brand publishers experimenting with monetization, approaches vary. Some are charging for access to content and exclusive community features, while others are experimenting with advertising, affiliate sales and event sponsorships.
But as “traditional” media companies know well, consistently producing content good enough to charge for – or that enough of the right people will read to generate interest from sponsors – is anything but easy. As far as some brand publishers are concerned, the juice may not be worth the squeeze.
Hubspot-owned Trends is probably the most well-known paid content product in brand publishing. Trends was launched in June 2019, born as an attempt to diversify The Hustle newsletter’s revenue away from being 100% reliant on advertising. Two years later, Hubspot acquired the company, and Trends along with it.
Today, Trends has about 15,000 paid subscribers, and sticker price is $300/year (although there are usually discounts and rebates offered.) Most people subscribe for access to its business reports but stay for access to its gated community of business owners and founders, Hubspot Media’s senior director, Brad Wolverton, told Toolkits.
For Hubspot, which generated $1.3 billion in revenue last year, revenue from Trends is largely irrelevent according to Wolverton. “Our goal with our media is reach, not revenue,” he said. Hubspot has opted to keep Trends a paid product is because it ensures higher quality discussions in the community and a more select audience. “One of the downsides of making it free is that the value proposition goes away and the quality may suffer. [That’s why] we haven’t made Trends free – yet,” Wolverton added.
Other brands have attempted to generate revenue with print media products. Netflix’s Queue magazine – which is a coffee table-book style journal – retails for $15 apiece, for example. Stripe’s now defunct magazine, Increment, once cost $14 per issue. Stripe is also selling the entire collection of old print issues on its site in a bundle.
Advertising and sponsorship
Advertising is another approach. Robinhood threw its hat in that ring last week, when it announced the launch of a new editorial property, Sherwood, which will house the financial brand’s content initiatives. Sherwood, which will cover business and finance through a variety of editorial products, including newsletters and podcasts, says it intends to offer advertising opportunities to sponsors. The approach has some precedence, but few previous attempts to monetize brand publishing efforts with sponsorship have proved successful. Back in 2016, I covered luxury gym Equinox’s attempt to sell ads on its content website, Furthermore, for example, but the property no longer runs advertising.
Glossier-owned Into The Gloss is a beauty website that explores the beauty routines of celebrities, pop stars, reality stars and in general, “inspiring women.” The site, which was launched in 2010, is unique because it preceded the 2014 launch of Glossier, the beauty products brand. Once Glossier launched, Into the Gloss also stopped paid advertising on its site. Today, ITG is described as an editorial arm of Glossier, but through its coverage of beauty products, also monetizes through affiliate links. For example, a roundup of beauty deals for products on sale during Cyber Month linked out to a variety of products from non-Glossier brands, each with an affiliate link attached.
‘Doesn’t feel worth it’
There are reasons efforts to generate revenue from brand publishing are few and far between. For one, most brand publishers are building owned media properties with a clear view to monetizing resulting audiences and traffic via other, potentially more profitable means. Take the gambling industry, which have been prolific brand publishers, acquiring media companies and building their own publications to lower their high customer acquisition costs. For those companies, a customer is worth more than a few media dollars.
Media businesses are also notoriously difficult to run. As Wolverton of Hubspot pointed out, “sometimes it doesn’t feel worth chasing the [media] dollars,” particularly if the brand itself is selling a much more expensive product, like Hubspot is.
For publishers attempting to monetize with subscriptions or other paid products, content quality and ongoing value presents a challenge. As recent Toolkits research revealed, lack of quality is cited by consumers as a key reason for dissatisfaction with paid digital publications. The ability to provide value for money is critical for any publisher hoping to attract subscribers, and content quality and experience are critical for retaining them.
The current economic climate has also slowed down some brand publishers’ ambitions to monetize. Two marketing executives who said they had planned to test the revenue waters with event sponsorships this year said belt-tightening has made them wary of experimentation.
A growing number of brand publishers are now eschewing “content marketing” in favor of audience-focused approaches that ensure they’re delivering something of value to their readers. The goalposts have shifted to prioritize audience trust above all; a necessary step for any successful brand publishing operation, but especially critical for those hoping to make money off their publishing. As Natalie Mendes, who runs content at Atlassian, told Toolkits recently, the goal for her isn’t simply to reflect the Atlassian stance, but focus on what readers want. “We represent Atlassian, where we can, but it’s not going to be all about Atlassian and the company and what it’s doing.”