It was a critical year for brands’ content initiatives. We took a look at the stories that resonated most with Toolkits readers in 2023.
Here are the highlights, organized by the themes that defined the year.
Brand publishing grows up
Declining trust in media may have opened up opportunities for brands’ content offerings, according to new research conducted by Toolkits and National Research Group.
A study of 1,007 U.S. digital content consumers found 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 implies that brands can produce high-quality content that audiences actually are willing to consume. It also suggests that brands can produce content audiences trust.
Ad technology giant The Trade Desk has grown its brand publication The Current over the past year, hiring high-profile business journalists to position itself as an editorial resource for the advertising industry. Now, some readers are questioning the objectivity and editorial independence of the publication’s output as it begins to explore more hot-button industry issues.
The Trade Desk has hired prominent advertising industry journalists including former Adweek editor-in-chief Stephanie Paterik and former BBC reporter Damian Fowler. It also expanded its editorial team to Europe and spun The Current off onto its own domain toin an effort to position it asmake it clear it was attempting to be a standalone resource.
In short, it’s positioned The Current as an advertising trade publication – albeit one backed by a major player in the industry. But some readers say they can’t take The Current seriously as an editorially independent entity, bringing up an important debate on the role of brand publishing and whether brands can ever really produce legitimate, objective journalism.
A growing number of companies are attempting to distance their brand publishing efforts from “content marketing,” to help gain audience trust, attract higher quality talent, and hold on to dwindling budgets.
It’s a trend that’s accelerated in recent months as brand publishing continues to evolve quickly. Companies are increasingly making public proclamations about their editorial independence and their intent to produce legitimate journalism, as opposed to more product-focused content marketing.
A growing number of brands are broadening their publishing ambitions beyond product-first content marketing, applying more rigorous journalistic principles to their publishing initiatives in an attempt to build genuinely engaged audiences with owned publications.
But there’s one particularly sticky part of that ambition that’s proving to be difficult to pin down: Defining and maintaining editorial independence.
Many brand publishing executives say they’re still figuring out what editorial independence looks like within their respective organizations, and that they’re increasingly running into situations where its limits are being tested. Although leadership teams remain supportive of the concept in theory, when it’s put into practice their views on it can often become more nuanced. “It’s a work in progress,” one editorial executive said.
Consumers trust brand content more when it’s produced by professional journalists and when it clearly discloses who it’s funded and created by, according to new research by Toolkits and National Research Group.
In a survey of 1,007 digital content consumers, 43% said they’re more likely to trust branded content if it is created by professional journalists. Forty-eight percent said it had no impact, while 9% said it would make them trust it less.
Clear labeling indicating that the content is created by a brand also helps engender trust: 42% said clear disclosure makes them trust brand content more, while 13% said it makes them trust it less. Forty-five percent said it had no impact.
Monetization as the next frontier
Can a fintech company build a truly independent, profitable media operation within its walls? Robinhood is trying.
The company launched its own standalone media entity called Sherwood Media — which includes its existing “Snacks” newsletter – and has hired Vox Media veteran, James Denis, to build out its monetization strategy. We caught up with Denis to understand how he’s pitching the new brand to the market, what kinds of advertisers the company is looking to work with, and what differentiates Sherwood in the advertising marketplace.
Brands are increasingly attempting to monetize the content they produce and publish directly, turning what was previously a marketing activity into a source of revenue in its own right.
For companies that have invested meaningful resources in publishing operations – and in many cases hired journalists and borrowed strategies from “traditional” media companies – monetizing their content more directly may seem a logical next step. For some, the desire to explore monetization is underpinned by a need to diversify revenue streams, while others are attracted by the opportunity to offset their costs.
Distribution and growth were concerns
Audience development is fast becoming a priority for brand publishers as a host of changes throttle their audience growth and disrupt established audience-building approaches.
“It’s not surprising to me given that [brand publishers] have probably realized that just hiring someone to create the editorial isn’t enough. You also need someone with a deep strategy background,” said Chandra Turner, career coach and founder of recruiting firm The Talent Fairy.
Google’s latest Helpful Content Update is hurting some brand publishers’ performance in search results pages.
For some brand publishers, the update is negatively impacting search traffic, particularly for those in health and travel. One brand publishing editor said their company’s content began dropping in search results in August. That’s despite the content being – in the company’s view – highly original and usually based on reporting and expertise.
AI rears its head
The rise of artificial intelligence chatbots and search tools threatens to undermine the content strategies and publishing approaches being employed by brand publishers.
While most public chatter has focused on generative AI’s ability to ease content production and creation, behind closed doors, marketers who have invested significant resources in content operations and branded publications worry that generative AI could significantly impact their ability to attract and engage with audiences, as tech giants such as Google and Microsoft strive to answer users’ queries directly rather than directing them to brands’ sites.
In recent weeks it’s become clear that AI chatbots draw on publicly available web content to train their models and to inform their responses, but it remains to be seen what appetite they have for directing traffic to third-party websites or other source material. For brand publishers – many of which rely on their ability to attract an audience via search engines – generative AI therefore presents an “immediate and concerning threat,” as one executive put it.
A wave of new generative AI tools is vying to win a spot in brand publishers’ toolkits, as the race to help brands with content production heats up.
Over the past few weeks, brand publishing teams have been hearing from a variety of companies, each promising to solve critical pain points and each with a slightly different pitch. As one editor at a startup said, “we’re getting inundated.”
“I think embedding [AI tools] in marketing SaaS is about to become table stakes, but you can probably only win if you own a specific use case or are a behemoth already,” said Joe Lazer, who runs content and marketing at A.Team. Lazer said it remains to be seen who “wins” when it comes to AI tools to aid content production, but he thinks the most compelling value proposition would be a platform that combines ideation with SEO, analytics, AI and human creators in one platform.
Hunting for success in brand publishing
While the “every company needs to be a media company” refrain has reached near-parody levels, Raju Narisetti thinks brand publishers need to think less about how they can mimic “media” and more about how they can bring engaging content to audiences.
“Every company needs to engage its customers or audiences or how you define who you’re trying to reach. If I can get 10 more minutes of them thinking about me as a brand, or as a company, or as a service, or as a product, then what I do with that time they’re spending with me is up to me. And if content can help do that on a recurring basis, then it’s a pretty good weapon in your various toolkits. At McKinsey, I don’t think we do any journalism. We shouldn’t be because we are not in the news-gathering business. If anything, we are far away from that.
Natalie Sportelli, content and community expert, writes: “Over the past six years, I’ve watched a number of venture capital firms experiment with content to varying degrees of success. And for me, success in brand publishing can primarily be determined by answering one simple question: “Did the content keep coming?”
One viral hit can feel good, but genuine success comes from building meaningful, lasting content franchises that build and engage audiences over time. Producing content is only worthwhile if it can be done repeatedly and sustainably. I believe VC firms looking to launch or refocus their publishing strategies should focus their attention on three key areas: Data-driven content, live events, and emerging mediums.”