- Lines between journalism and marketing have blurred, but growing interest in brand publishing suggests the distinction between the two will become clearer.
- Brand publishers are well positioned to carve out space for themselves in areas that journalists and media companies can’t or won’t address.
- Journalists and media companies have an opportunity to differentiate their offerings and distance themselves from brand publishing, rather than attempting to compete with it.
Lines between journalism and marketing have blurred to the point that they’re near-impossible for average audiences to identify, but growing interest in brand publishing hints at a future in which the distinction between the two may become clearer, once again.
Over the past two decades, marketers have flocked to content marketing, branded content and other new tactics in an attempt to reach and influence consumers beyond more overt ad formats, such as banned and video ads. Publishers – desperately hunting for revenue and viable business models – were happy to oblige, offering to create and distribute marketing content across their properties and even offering up the services of their editorial teams if it helped close a sale.
For readers and consumers, however, the net result has been something of a mess. On many publisher sites it’s become near impossible to determine where journalism ends and sponsored content begins, let alone who’s creating the content, who’s paying for it and why.
Publishers’ thirst for revenue has slowly and consistently undermined trust in their own brands and journalism to the point that many consumers now see little distinction between content published by media companies and content created and distributed by any other entity online.
Brand publishing’s moment
Spotting this dynamic – and an opportunity – a growing number of companies are now investing in branded publications and content initiatives of their own in order to:
- Fund content that explores specific themes, topics and trends most relevant to their businesses
- Go deep into nuanced concepts and ideas in a way that media companies can’t or won’t
- Add knowledge and domain expertise to the discourse where those traits are otherwise lacking
- Build their own audiences and foster direct lines of communication with readers
Recent, high-profile examples of companies “going direct” with brand publishing initiatives include venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, and cryptocurrency platform, Coinbase, among others.
Media companies get defensive
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trend has been met with frustration and derision from many journalists and media companies who view such efforts as an attempt to skirt objective coverage and tough questions, undermine their coverage and otherwise encroach on their territory by competing with them for reader attention.
In reality, such concerns are likely unfounded. The majority of brand publishers hope to add voices, viewpoints and context to conversations in ways traditional publishers typically don’t. But the chances that brand publishers will ever look to compete with media companies on their core competencies – such as breaking news, investigative work and deeply-sourced original reporting – remains slim. Brand publishers have little interest in sparring directly with media companies, but they do aim to fill voids that media companies’ models simply don’t allow them to address.
As a result, the continued rise of branded publications could present a significant opportunity – or incentive – for media companies to firmly reorient themselves around what they do best, and to redraw a firm line between journalism and various forms of branded content, to their own benefit.
Rather than attempting to compete with brand publishers’ deep expertise (and deep pockets) in offering commentary, analysis and service journalism, media companies might instead opt to focus their efforts on work that brand publishers will inevitably avoid, reestablishing the role of journalists and media companies and better meeting the needs of audiences in the process.
Meanwhile, if media outlets believe brand publishing initiatives are an attempt by companies to avoid and diminish scrutiny of their actions, then media companies must also assume the need and demand for objective, high-quality reporting will only intensify. However, refocusing efforts on reporting would require media companies to abandon many of the traffic generation and cheap content tricks they’ve overly relied on for the past decade, and to cede ownership of certain types of content to entities better equipped and positioned to produce it.
The good news is that sustainable economic models, in the form of subscriptions and memberships, have emerged to support media companies’ move back towards hard news and investigative journalism. Consumers have demonstrated, in recent years, a willingness to pay for high-quality journalism like never before, and subscription models’ now-proven ability to support unique, original reporting means that publishers can align their revenue streams more closely with the interests of their audiences, rather than obfuscating their incentives and revenue priorities.
Refocusing media company attention back to original journalism and reporting could ultimately result in clearer lines emerging between the work of media outlets and that of brand publishers.
In this model, media companies and journalists are responsible for:
- Breaking news. Brand publishers have little incentive to cover breaking news the way media companies can, nor the capabilities, sourcing or experience to do so well.
- Investigations. The role of “speaking truth to power” with originally sourced and deeply reported journalism remains the domain of journalists. The majority of brand publishers simply don’t want or need to invest in such work.
- Areas that require objective analysis. For topics such as political news, legal disputes or even “hot-button” cultural issues, some level of credible objectivity remains a prerequisite.
- News or analysis around specific companies or trends that companies shouldn’t or can’t credibly explore. Some areas of coverage are intrinsically off-limits for brands if they relate to issues or trends that directly or indirectly impact them. Journalism will continue to play a key role in maintaining coverage of these areas.
Brand publishing, meanwhile, has an opportunity to carve out space with content that:
- Requires deep expertise. For brand publishers, the best way to showcase authority is to dip into their own expertise. Brands should base their publications on the topics and areas they – and only they – can confidently say they know best.
- Requires a deep bench of sources. Companies often have unique access to a wide range of sources within their own walls and access to the expertise of partners and affiliated organizations – such as clients and customers.
- Features no direct adversarial relationship. For less-fiercely debated topics and issues, brand publishers are in a position to offer strong and informed points of view.
- Requires deep analysis. Media business models often do not allow for deep analysis and rigorous exploration of some topics and issues because they lack interest from audiences and/or advertisers. These areas are ripe for exploration for brand publishers, however, who aren’t subject to the same economic models or interests.
- Doesn’t relate directly to the zeitgeist. These topics may see less interest from journalists and media companies, but might be hugely important to brand publishers’ businesses.
As investment in brand publishing and content initiatives continues to grow, competition for audience attention is intensifying rapidly. For brand publishers, standing out from the crowd will require a focus on constantly improving the quality of their content and instituting systems and processes to efficiently and effectively support its creation.
But, for those journalists and media companies capable of producing original, high-quality journalism, a growing opportunity is presenting itself to strategically differentiate their offerings and distance themselves from brand publishing altogether, rather than attempting to compete with it while underpinned by far more challenging business models.
Companies are increasingly creating and publishing content in an effort to forge direct relationships with audiences.
Formulating and documenting an effective brand publishing strategy.