Over the last few days, I’ve had the chance to talk to some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in brand journalism. Emotive response to the term aside, the trend of major brands filling the gap left by the media is real and significant. It represents a huge opportunity for brands and for journalists, with potentially broad ramifications.
For those who have missed the debate [here, here and an ebook primer here], brand journalism is the practice of organizations generating stories about themselves, but more often their industry, and publishing that content on their own channels. That content could be news or evergreen feature material, and it could be text or broadcast. The aim is to tell the stories which the media are missing, due to budget cuts or simple resource constraints.
Now these stories aren’t all being written by PR professionals – a lot of it is being researched and written by credentialed former reporters. Reporters from the BBC, Forbes, BusinessWeek, WSJ – folk with real bone fides, and reputations to defend. This isn’t content which the marketing team has got its sticky fingers all over – it’s often unedited copy, filed just as if that reporter were writing for a mass publication.
In other words, the story you get as a reader (or viewer) from a brand, is just the same as you might have read in Fortune or CNET. There are however, two important differences. First, the publisher of that content, and the one to commission the piece is a brand, not a publication. And second, the revenue model comes from selling the organization’s product or service, not from advertising.
Of course, ultimately those brands want to sell you something. They are commercial ventures and they are hoping that in some way their audiences will be more predisposed to buying their stuff as a result of reading this content, even if it doesn’t even mention them by name. Often they go to great lengths to ensure these aren’t shill-pieces, since they’d rapidly lose their audience. Their brand journalism efforts give them currency in the attention economy.
Given we have all seen that the revenue model for journalism is broken, is it a problem to replace it with one which isn’t? Cisco sells routers and switches successfully. They are replacing a model which no longer works, with one which does.
Foul! You might say. These companies clearly have an agenda – namely to sell their wares – which means they are not objective seekers of the truth. And you are right. They are transparent but they are not objective. Then again, neither are major newspapers and news channels. If you don’t like that agenda, you don’t watch, just as few of us buy a newspaper which doesn’t support our worldview.
Let’s be clear, we’re at the early stages of this trend – brand journalism, corporate media, content marketing, call it what you will. But it’s one which is coming from the very top of organizations. The CEO of Nissan challenged his company to tell its own stories better since their traditional mediasphere was in decline and there were stories about the company which were going untold. Their brand journalism program is the response to that challenge. It’s one of the most audacious – moving beyond feature material to news, beyond text to broadcast and beyond the company to cover competitor and industry news.
To that extent, these brands are competing with news outlets. Staying with Nissan, they are now deliberately covering events exclusively on their own channels where before the media might have been invited. A tour of a car factory with their CEO for example. Ambitious perhaps, but viewed in the context of how much a company like that spends on advertising, it’s immaterial. In fact, perhaps prudent since being over-reliant on 30-second TV slots to drive demand carries its own risks. It’s a wise play to develop a direct relationship with audiences in an age of DVRs and mobile consumption.
Is this the future of media? No. I don’t think anyone wants that. We need a vibrant Fourth Estate, and there are some types of investigative reporting which it’s unlikely brands will undertake. Tom Foremski, of Silicon Valley Watcher, describes media as a ‘loss-leader’ – it gets our attention but publications don’t have sufficient ‘product’ to sell us. So they just make the losses. Corporations can eat that loss since they make their revenue elsewhere.
Some companies, like Eloqua, a marketing automation software developer, are very clear about why they are engaging in content marketing. They want to sell more software, and they measure the performance of their efforts (using their own software – what else?), to track various conversions and KPIs, such as time on site, number of pages viewed and downloads. I like the direct correlation between the activity and the business outcome here.
For all three of these companies (Cisco, Nissan and Eloqua), the communications team sits within the marketing team. There is close coordination but they are careful to separate the branding from the journalism. Consequently, the measurement at present is admittedly vague. It focuses mainly on engagement (shares of the content, RTs, comments etc), so beyond mere traffic volume metrics, but there is the leap-of-faith assumption that these efforts benefit the brand and its relationship with stakeholders. For certain, it helps their reputation and there is anecdotal evidence of those relationships with stakeholders growing stronger. There’s no best practice yet. But evaluation is a problem for PR in general, not brand journalism specifically.
The efforts of these companies, and others like Red Bull (frequently cited as the role model), are to be applauded. It takes balls to hire journalists and largely give them free rein over their content in the hope it’ll strengthen the company’s reputation. And it takes chops for those reporters to take on the corporate mantle, and hope that marketing won’t interfere.
I mentioned this was a huge opportunity and it is. Brands have the potential to really tell the stories about themselves and their industry that they feel need to be uncovered. They can build goodwill, grow and educate their audiences, and perhaps even get their content syndicated. Journalists can find new paymasters but still practice their art, breaking important stories and maintaining their independent reputations. PR agencies can help the entire process – building the corporate narrative, shaping the editorial calendar, driving production, amplifying distribution. And we, the audience, can get our precious content – more and hopefully better in some cases.
I don’t think brand journalism will save the media – that’s not its goal. It probably won’t be called brand journalism as the trend develops, but the most advanced organizations are creating their own news and features about their industries, with no plans to rein back. You can bet this trend is only going to accelerate. The question remains for your organization – how will you take advantage of it?