Brand publishers found themselves facing an important question in 2023: Were they 100% committed to creating and distributing high-quality original content?
Doing so became increasingly difficult as the year progressed. The rise of generative artificial intelligence raised new questions around content distribution even if it promised to add efficiency on the production side. Meanwhile, organic distribution via social platforms began winding down quickly. At the same time, brand publishing and content production generally became a more central part of company strategies, with internal and external communication becoming critical components of growth plans. But that also meant mounting pressure to prove returns, meet audience expectations, and to continue to grow their reach.
For brand publishers, the year was defined by a handful of key themes:
- Distribution became a critical concern
- Audiences expected more from brand-funded content
- Use of AI tools became table stakes
- Journalism became a powerful differentiator
Distribution became a critical concern
Brand publishers have for years relied, like traditional publishers, on organic (free) distribution as a way to grow audiences, operating at the mercy of platforms to showcase their links to users. In 2023, that all changed. Brand publishers realized that if they plan to grow audiences, they will need to pay for distribution. Audience development oriented towards figuring out paid distribution became a priority – with brands like Netflix, Robinhood and JP Morgan Chase all making hiring growth specialists a priority.
The specter of AI-powered Search also looms: As Google and other search engines begin to bake in AI to search results, many publishers rightly worried about the impact this will have on search traffic.
This move also put more pressure on content teams inside brands to prove their worth: In order to convince the C-suite to allocate distribution budgets, brand publishers had to ensure their work was showing returns. This made metrics and performance even more important inside content teams and brought content closer to the core of a business.
The bottom line: Brand publishers realized this year that they will need to truly commit to content if they want to see results from it, and will need to pay for distribution.
Audiences expected more from brand-funded content
One of the core themes of the past year was the growing number of companies who began to take publishing seriously: They spent time and money hiring journalists and editorial staffers, distanced publishing from product marketing, and focused on understanding audience needs and desires above all.
The result of that appears to have been positive. Audiences are becoming more and more receptive to content produced by non-traditional media sources. A survey we conducted of U.S. digital content consumers in October revealed that 36% trust content published by brands more than content from traditional media organizations – including TV news, newspapers, magazines or online news sites. Only 26% said they trust brand content less than they do content published by media companies. The rest – 38% – said they were unsure.
The data indicates that audiences are at least open to consuming brand content. But that openness also comes with potential pitfalls: 71% of digital content consumers also said that poor quality content from a brand makes them trust it less. Low-quality content, therefore, can become an existential threat, capable of hurting brand reputation and the wider business.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of growing competition for attention. Audiences have become so inundated with content that they’re also expecting more from it – and are less likely to forgive lapses than they were before. Brand publishers realized this year that they must decide if they are 100% committed to creating quality content – because if they were not, they were likely to see it hurt the business.
Use of AI tools became table stakes
The advent of generative AI means that there are plenty of efficiencies to be found: AI bots can help take rote, repetitive tasks off people’s plates. Over the past few months, editors and writers working inside brands have reported using AI for tasks like caption writing, idea generation, SEO help and headline options.
Almost every company is now experimenting with using AI for jobs human writers and researchers used to do. For certain tasks, such as base-level research, collating arguments together, or even synthesizing information, AI doesn’t just do that job, it does the job well – and for cheap.
This shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice. For all its shortcomings, generative AI is a game-changing technology that will threaten livelihoods. For years, the Internet has been flooded with commoditized, badly written, and forgettable content. The rise of AI will mean more of that kind of content – and fewer jobs for humans creating that type of work. In 2023, more brands began experimenting with using AI to take on content tasks humans used to do – and in the process, began to have a clearer vision of what role generative AI will play for them in the coming year.
Journalism became a powerful differentiator
Speaking at an AI event in New York in November, Wagner Denuzzo, former VP, Future of Work at Prudential ran down a list of all the tasks AI could do, based on his experiments. He then ended on an upbeat note: The one thing generative AI scored lowest on and was unable to do was to be open to new experiences.
“Newness” has become an important weapon in the era of generative AI. For brand publishers, this was the year many realized that to succeed, they will need to invest in journalism as a way to bring forth new information to audiences.
- The Trade Desk continued to build out its team with a stable of notable advertising trade journalists from Adweek, AdAge and Digiday.
- Robinhood hired veteran editor Josh Topolsky to lead Sherwood, its new media arm
- GQ editor Benjy Hansen-Bundy joined software company A.Team as editor
- JP Morgan Chase-owned The Infatuation staffed up with several notable food and culture journalists
- New trading firm Hunterbook launched with financial reporting talent from major news organizations
The data backs this up. 43% of consumers responding to an October survey said they trust brand content more when professional journalists create it. For many working in brand publishing, it became evident as the year rolled on that if they wanted to stand out in a sea of content abundance, they would need to blend journalistic practices of interviews, reporting and research to create truly original, differentiated content. And if they were committed to content, they will need to invest in the right personnel to make that happen.