Absolutist statements are tempting. They make for good headlines and even better tweets. The same impulse has been applied to brand publications recently: That time is up for brands building their own media companies.
It’s been a rocky few months for some companies’ brand publishing forays. Last week, Netflix sent tongues wagging when it laid off at least 10 people from Tudum – the brand publication that it launched last year. – after reporting a decrease in streaming subscribers for the first time in over a decade. The news, along with the fact that many of Tudum’s staffers were poached from traditional media jobs just a few months ago, led to a cascade of observations about how the good times were over for brand publishing.
Elsewhere, Stripe shut down Increment, its magazine about software planning, back in November to focus its publishing ambitions on Stripe Press and knowledge-sharing forum Indie Hackers instead. And two weeks ago Robinhood spun out flagship podcast Snacks into an independent property, renamed The Best One Yet. Robinhood remains a sponsor of the podcast.
It’s tempting to draw a line between these events and arrive at the conclusion that the grand experiment of brands building media companies is over. But the truth, as it usually is, is much more complicated. Based on multiple conversations with publishing executives and editors inside brands in recent weeks, it seems likelier that instead of a market correction, a maturation is underway. In Gartner hype cycle terms, we are somewhere in between the trough of disillusionment and the slope of enlightenment. And as brand publishing grows up, it’ll lead to a much-needed shakeout that can only be good for the discipline at large.
Now more than ever, brands will need to establish clear value propositions, editorial strategies and expectations in place in order to build successful publications.
Here’s what we see happening:
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An impending recession will expose weak propositions.
Brand publishing’s fortunes depend on the company they sit inside – where they sit inside the company, how much buy-in there is across the executive team, and broadly, on the attitude to publishing that the company as a whole has. Many brand publishing teams, like in Netflix’s case, live within marketing groups. As a period of economic uncertainty approaches, those areas are likely to face cost-cutting.
Companies that went headfirst into content without clearly marking out their points of differentiation, where they had permission to be, and never created clear editorial strategies will find themselves in trouble. That’s because their content simply may not have driven the results they expected, or intended. Weak editorial propositions that don’t have a clear reason for existing will fail.
At Tudum, one major issue seems to have been that the intended goal of the publication was never quite clear. The site was at times positioned to former staffers as Netflix’s answer to an Entertainment Weekly, buoyed by the platform’s access to its stars and showrunners, only to find, as The Verge reported, that other outlets got interviews they didn’t get. Other times, readers were frustrated to see that what was reported on the site tended to be mostly “positive” and devoid of any true gossip.
The past couple of years have been a time of high growth, which has meant a flood of brands also have gone headfirst into content. But a period of belt-tightening will mean a closer look at numbers, and what doesn’t work will be cut.
But it will also bolster strong media moves.
For every Netflix, there is a Penn National Gaming. The gambling company has seen its investments in media pay off handsomely. It’s on its way to acquire Barstool sports outrightly after buying a stake of the media company a couple years ago, and last year purchase Canadian sports media company theScore.
The goal was to figure out a cheaper way to acquire customers in the very hot gambling market. Historically, the industry has focused on using traditional advertising (where legal) or partnering with broadcast networks in an effort to get customers.
“Once a little-known but profitable regional casino operator, Penn was transformed into a digital-first media and online betting powerhouse. They still have to execute and have a great deal to prove, but narratives matter in the stock market. And in terms of the market, the Barstool acquisition is certainly one of the all-time greats,” analysts at Roundhill Investments wrote.
As of March, Barstool’s revenue has grown 150% since Penn initially invested in it two years ago, while Penn’s marketing costs are 30% of net gaming revenue – compared with 100% among competitors, the company has said.
Maturation doesn’t always mean a cutting of the herd. It also means winners emerge out of the dust.
Brands will realize publishing requires real commitment
Publishing requires patience. It takes time for a team to find its stride. While audiences have become more open to consuming content from a variety of non-traditional sources, as more and more content floods the market, they’ve also become much choosier.
The bar for content is high, and in order to clear it comfortably, time is needed. Brands looking for get-big-quick schemes will be disappointed to find that publishing simply doesn’t work that way: it requires resources, time and consistency.
The problem, of course, is what happens when outlandish and unrealistic goals are set, and then not met. The human cost is often great: brands that hired too many writers, reporters and editors too quickly, right out of the gate, without a clear sense of production goals, will find that they have to make cuts. Being too hasty and impatient about growth can often curtail a publication by essentially cutting it off before it has a chance to grow.
It’s becoming clear that brand publishing isn’t for everyone
The biggest issue with the “every company is a media company” argument is that it simply isn’t true. Every company is not suited to be a publisher, and many companies will need – through trial-and-error in some cases – to figure out models that work for them. Certain content formats may not be appropriate for certain companies, while certain distribution mechanisms may be inappropriate or simply not feasible.
Brand publishers in the financial sector, like pharmaceuticals, for example, do have to contend with regulatory requirements, including appropriate labeling of all content – and Snacks could never cover Robinhood itself. As an independent podcast, it may get more leeway to be more “editorial,” while Robinhood becomes more of a traditional underwriter versus brand publisher. Robinhood still has a publishing destination in the form of Learn, which serves purely educational content for customers – a decidedly more “explainer” focused play than Snacks, which may be more appropriate for the company at this time.
In some cases, maturation means drawing a line between marketing and publishing. As brands rushed to launch publications over the past couple of years, more emphasis was based on the PR launch than the actual hard work of building a system that could create valuable and engaging content, consistently. A good example: Coinbase’s “Fact Check,” which was announced in 2021 with the intention of correcting what the company perceived as unfairly negative narratives about the company (and crypto). It threw the press into a tizzy. But Fact Check published approximately four posts, the last one in August last year. But Coinbase hasn’t stopped publishing – it has a thriving newsletter called Bytes that goes out weekly.
Brands will over time realize what publishing and content approaches are appropriate for them, and must spend time carefully thinking through intended audiences, goals and outcomes.
Clearer definitions will emerge
The definition of brand publishing is a moving target. Last year, Robinhood Snacks was taken to court by rapper and actor Ice Cube for using a picture of him and one of his rap lyrics in its newsletter. The courts agreed with Robinhood that because Snacks constituted an “editorial” property, it wasn’t considered advertising.
Brand publishing is a relatively new discipline in some ways. It goes beyond content marketing to adopt the habits and processes and practices of journalism. But at no point is it ever unclear that the content being produced is by a brand – instead, it’s welcomed. The idea is that customers who trust the brand will also, by extension, trust it to also provide factual, valuable and useful information as well.
With maturation, brands looking to build and grow publications will benefit from a clearer sense of what it means to be a brand publisher; and understand what role they play in the overall information ecosystem.