Brand publishers entered 2023 with a sense of trepidation. Most companies engaging in publishing knew that amid a global economic downturn, advertising and marketing budgets would be among the first to shrink – putting their work at risk.
But there was also hope that a downturn would act as a clarifier, potentially strengthening the position of publishing teams inside brands – particularly if they were able to show strong results.
With the year now well underway, the overall consensus among brand publishing and content executives is that budget contractions haven’t been as painful as expected, and they’ve introduced some much-needed lucidity within companies about the role content plays in the context of their broader strategies.
“Our budget contractions happened last year, and they were more anticipatory because we were anticipating a pullback in VC funding,” said one brand publishing executive. “Now that things havent been as doom and gloom as we felt like they would be, we’re back, at least in content. It’s not all milk and honey, but we’re hiring and growing.”
A second brand publishing executive said that they experienced a small reduction in workforce of about 5%, which included marketing teams. Their content team, which sits within the marketing group, however, which is about 13 people, remained intact. This exec said they weren’t sure why, but guessed that it was to do with the relative leanness of the team compared to its output.
Michael Duda, CEO at Bullish, which works with a number of brands on marketing strategies, said that although he hasn’t heard of a wholesale pullback on content specifically, marketing budgets have certainly been cut which has resulted in layoffs. Publishing and content operations have been caught up in those cuts, but haven’t been targeted specifically.
WordPress VIP’s annual “Content Matters” report, released last week, found that marketing teams continue to make up only a small percentage of total headcount across organizations. But those teams are mostly growing despite recessionary fears over the past few months. And a new survey from CMI, released last week, found that 70% of B2C marketers said content marketing has become more important to their organization over the past year.
“Overall, the feeling was that everyone entered the year with their breaths held, so to speak.But now that we’re well into the quarter, there’s less trepidation and things aren’t as bad as they seem, at least when it comes to what we do,” the second brand publishing executive said.
Still, among the four executives interviewed for this story – one from a B2B and three from B2C brands – none said they feel they’re out of the woods quite yet. U.S. ad spending continues to decline, and rising operational costs due to growing inflation are one major culprit.
They cited three meaningful ways the current environment is impacting their operations:
Doing more with less
Publishing teams, usually already lean to begin with, are doing even more with less. For the executives we spoke with for this story, a tighter market has meant figuring out where and how to cut costs – stock images instead of freelance illustrators was one example given – and also to supercharge productivity as operating costs continue to balloon.
Meanwhile, the recession has also meant more double duty. Publishing teams are hopping in to help out with other mainstream marketing duties, such as reading over decks and copy, or crafting some messaging. “Doing that kind of work also helps out those teams, since marketing teams are also feeling the pinch.”
Another effect is also that teams are engaged in creating less content but of higher quality. Karri Carlson, vp operations at Leadtail, which works with a few dozen B2B brands, all of which engage in some form of content and publishing, said that while she has seen a pullback in marketing, it’s coming with a “dawning awareness” that more content isn’t the answer. The tighter market has accelerated a shift towards quality content that isn’t simply about SEO-bait. “Expertise has come back to the fore,” she said.
For those who are able to still spend some money on staff, the overall market environment actually has been a boon. For an executive who’s hiring one editorial role now, they were able to up-level that role and offer a bigger salary in order to hire someone more experienced than was initially expected. They’ve also found the pool of viable candidates is deeper and attractive.
“When we were hiring last year for similar roles, people were interviewing at multiple places and had offers. We’d offer someone a job and they’d say they already took something else, and it had only been a day,” said this person. “Now, it’s not like that. There’s a lot more talent in the market thanks to the media layoffs and people don’t seem to be fielding multiple offers like they were last year.”
Trying to make money
One of the clearest effects of a tighter market is a fight for survival. As Toolkits reported last week, one of the most fundamental challenges for brand publishers is often directly connecting their work with contributions to the companies they work for. A strong foundation for tracking success becomes even more important amid a global recession, when companies are trying to figure out what costly endeavors to cut, and what to keep.
There is some data to back this up. A new report by WordPress VIP, released last week, found that organizations that prioritized tracking content ROI – tracking how content is valued and how it’s contributing to the bottom line – are in better positions than those who don’t when it comes to increasing or maintaining headcount. WordPress also found that for 58.4% of marketers, content budgets are increasing this year.
For publishing teams, the answer is undoubtedly better attribution setups and potentially the ability to generate revenue directly. For a marketer who is trying to turn their publishing team into a revenue source with a paid report launching this month, it’s a little bit of a Hail Mary, and a little bit of an experiment. “We’re scrambling just a touch at this point. If it works, it’ll be great, but it’s an uphill battle,” they said.