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The “Brands can be publishers” minefield

June 14, 2012

The idea that brands can be their own publishers and own their own media is a captivating one, made all the more captivating in the era of digital distribution and Youtube channels.  Rather than spending millions upon millions on media with a third party where you have limited control over the content, brands can have ultimate control over the environment in which they message, can create content that exactly resonates with their consumers, and can potentially save money in the process.

Of course, this path is riddled with mines. Just ask Budweiser about BudTV. The media business is tough. Even the media companies don’t do it well. And the content business is even tougher.  Attracting audiences nowadays feels like an exercise in futility.  So how are brands supposed to play in this arena that, frankly, those of us in the business wish we didn’t have to play in on most days?

BudTV is one answer.  Deanna Brown of Federated Media articulated an alternative vision really well in her interview with Brian Solis (see the video here):

“Brands, if they are transparent, if they are authentic, in the right context, can be conversational…that’s the notion of brands becoming publishers.  “

For an advertiser, the ultimate goal of funded content (versus the stuff you simply advertise against) is to create conversation (engagement) that drives specific consumer behavior in ways that scale.  Content is the spark or fuel for that conversation and the role the brand plays in creating that content will vary by its particular needs.  Sometimes it can involve taking a heavy hand in development.  Sometimes it can involve funding in exchange for integration of sponsorship.  Whatever the model, ultimately the brand’s first job is to be in a position to siphon off the value of the engagement the content creates.

Case study: recently, CPG brands modernized the old soap opera strategy and helped create an entire category of digital content focused around moms.  Rather than “get into the content business” by creating their own media platforms or by creating their own content, brands aggressively bought media around emerging properties that targeted moms.  Often before the audience had developed.  They spread their bets around multiple players in the category, and were simply happy with display advertising.  This allowed the media properties to create content, to attract audience and to build a community with authenticity.  As this community has grown, and the audience has developed, brands are starting to shift their strategy away from simple display ads, towards funding specific content that will spark the type of engagement they are seeking.

For me, there are a few simple points around the whole “brands can be publishers” idea:

  1. Building that authenticity that Deanna speaks of takes time, and goes beyond simply associating with the right content.  For classic case studies around authenticity look to Converse, Red Bull and Quicksilver.
  2. Becoming a publisher doesn’t have to mean getting into the publishing business.  Influencing the content experience doesn’t necessarily have to imply owning the media platform.  And owning the content isn’t even that important.  Owning the platforms where the consumer behavior that drives your business happens, however, is critical.
  3. The content is important, but the engagement is more important from the advertiser’s perspective.  The content should resonate with the brand, it should attract the right audience, and it should fuel the right type of engagement.  Beyond that, it is somewhat disposable.  What is paramount is the engagement that the content creates.  How will this engagement fuel earned media?  How will it help owned media efforts?  And most importantly, how does it affect consumer behavior in ways that helps my business?
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