2021 was the year brand publishing grew up, but for some 2022 was the year that some companies realized that growing up may mean letting go.
The year in brand publishing began with exuberance and big-name launches, but is ending on a different note as ambitions are reined in and publishing operations are scaled back or shelved entirely. In some cases, companies are realizing just how much of a commitment “creating a media company” really is. In other cases, the threat of an impending recession has put publishing initiatives on the chopping block, while in other instances, initiatives simply failed to execute or were unable to find their audience.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Publishing initiatives with strong, thoughtful and differentiated editorial propositions continue to thrive, and will continue to do so provided they continue to serve their audiences and execute effectively.
The year in brand publishing was underscored by a few key themes:
- Limitations of brand publishing began to show up, particularly for companies in specific sectors.
- The lines between journalism and brand publishing became clearer, and the idea of brand content as a way to improve on, not replace media, continued to gain traction.
- It became clear that brand publishing wasn’t for everyone.
- Thanks to the impending recession, a period of belt-tightening underscored the need for efficiency.
- Employees became an important audience segment for many companies
Limitations began to show
Robinhood was one of the originators of the brand publishing movement, acquiring financial newsletter MarketSnacks back in 2019. But in early May, something curious happened: The flagship podcast, hosted by MarketSnacks founders Nick Martell and Jack Kramer, was spun out, and renamed. Robinhood remained the show’s sponsor, but was no longer its creator, which enabled the podcast to do something it never had before: Cover Robinhood itself (which happened to be the subject of one of the biggest financial news stories of the year.)
In certain industries – such as pharma or finance – the concept of a truly independent editorial publication isn’t just difficult, it may be impossible. In these cases, the limits of brand publishing become clear. For companies that approached brand publishing with wide-eyed aspirations of building truly independent media arms versus corporate mouthpieces, it was a year where reality checked in.
Those limitations became more obvious as the year went on. Andreessen Horowitz’s buzzy tech publication, Future, was going to be an evolution of the firm’s already robust content operation, which includes an excellent, successful set of podcasts. Earlier in December, a16z said it would be shutting down Future. Editorial aspirations remain a priority at the company – the firm is hiring an editorial manager even now – but building a media brand from scratch isn’t easy.
Lines between journalism and brand publishing became clearer
It’s been frustrating to watch companies try to build media companies as a way to “replace” journalism, when in fact they should be attempting to improve on the discourse by adding their own expert points of view. We covered this a couple of years ago, when we argued in an opinion piece that the rise of brand publishing may in fact “unblur” the lines between journalism and content in a way that would be beneficial for the end consumer.
And yet we began the year with giant proclamations from Silicon Valley types that they were out to build a new form of media that can replace journalism. That’s difficult to do, simply because brand publishing – in whatever form it takes – will always be answerable to a corporate overlord. That doesn’t have to be bad: it often means funding for content that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise and opens up the ability to tell stories rooted in expertise and practice in a way journalism can’t. A good example of this: Salesforce+, the tech giant’s endeavor to replace snooze worthy white papers with a streaming service for people in specific roles. Salesforce+ relies on the company’s deep expertise and an existing asset, Dreamforce, as a way to ameliorate the conversation.
What 2023 will bring will be an even more clear eyed understanding of the role brand publishing plays in the overall content landscape, and how it can co-exist with journalism and other forms of media, including individual creators.
It became evident brand publishing isn’t for everyone
One common refrain we heard from failed endeavors was that company leadership often didn’t understand what a long game publishing can be. Those that looked at brand publishing as a quick fix marketing campaign or a panacea for reputational issues soon realized it can take years for publishing initiatives to bear fruit.
“Things take a long time. If we want to test something from a marketing perspective, we can throw up a landing page in three days. But content is such a long game, you have to build trust with your audience, and SEO takes a long time,” said Tracy Middleton, editorial director at Hone Health. “Brands who are getting into it really need to have that understanding that this isn’t going to be something that necessarily pays off in two months, or six months, or two years.”
Publishing can be an excellent way to build a direct relationship with future customers. but the year was marked by defunct projects that didn’t seem to have a reason to exist. Examples include Coinbase’s fawning documentary about its founder, Shopify’s magazine which never made a second issue after launching its first in November 2021 and a16z’s attempt to build a media brand from scratch with Future.
Even the algorithms agreed: In August Google began rolling out the Helpful Content Update, which was intended to preference content designed to help humans, rather than that designed purely to rank well in search results pages. The need to create original, valuable content becomes even more important amid the advent of AI writing tools, which in their infancy at least, are going to automate basic creation and curation tasks – which means high quality and nuance will be the way to differentiate.
Belt tightening began
Big name journalists continue to leave traditional media for brand publishing, attracted by (usually) bigger salaries and the chance to build something new.
The “war” for talent between brands and media companies continued in 2022. But it also came with a healthy helping of realism. A growing number of journalists realized that working inside brands was not only different, but potentially even more challenging. For many, they were now grappling with new measures of success and the realization that they were no longer the main product being sold.
That latter realization came as a rude awakening for many. When faced with economic headwinds, content teams were laid off in large swathes across the tech sectors in the past couple of months. Content is often a nice to have, thought up during boom times, but can easily end up on the cutting floor when CFOs come start hunting for costs to eliminate..
In cases where editorial propositions were clear and able to contribute to the bottom line, however, brand publishing teams found themselves spared, particularly if they were able to be efficient.
Employees became an important audience segment
One of the long lasting effects of the pandemic was that reaching internal stakeholders became just as important speaking to external onesThe tightening of the labor force swung the pendulum of “power” towards employees. And despite an economic downturn, much of those old ways of working are here to stay, including workforces that are at least part remote.
All of this meant a realization that companies would need to treat their employees the way they would any other audience, in order to both recruit them and retain them. This meant thinking of employee communications as part of brand publishing, complete with reporting, fact-checking and storylines. At Atlassian, for example, company changes are now published online for employees to read, versus simply being announced via live town halls. And an increasing number of companies hired editorial staffers that would be charged with creating content to help employees understand what’s happening within the wider company.
Looking forward to 2023
Anyone who’s worked in media long enough knows what it’s like to run a newsroom under tight economic conditions and strapped resources. Brand publishing felt like it got really popular a couple of years ago, thanks to an industry wide content fragmentation that’s opened up the need for new and added sources of information. Those were the boom times. Now, brand publishers will have to learn how to operate once the tide has gone out.
The recession is going to force discipline on nearly every sector, including brand publishing. It’ll also be an opportunity for a select few to forge ahead, while other efforts fizzle out. In this context, shakeouts can be a positive thing.