Reading this piece about what it’s like to work in one of the many branded content studios that now operate within and alongside the editorial teams at various publishers and media companies, I spent a lot of time scratching my head.
What’s described in that “day in the life” profile sounds a lot – a LOT – like what I and countless others have been doing for clients for over a decade, since the emergence of corporate blogs as a brand marketing tool.
The process described is roughly the same: Receive direction from the client and work with them to produce material that tells their story in their own way, without having to go through the media filter. There are drafts and revisions and feedback and the process occasionally entails traveling to an event, photo shoot or other location to get photos or additional details and background. You have to source media and so on and finally produce the finished piece.
Even that wasn’t all the new or innovative, just the latest iteration of the kind of ghostwriting that’s been part of the PR, advertising and marketing industry for, roughly, ever. All those CEO contributions to industry trade publications…they weren’t all written by the CEO themselves but by a talented marketer somewhere in the organization or at their agency.
I get that “branded content” is hot right now. A recent study indicated marketers were intending to increase their budgets for that in the coming year, seeing it as an effective way to get around consumer distaste for traditional advertising. The same rationale was offered in 2004 with corporate blogging on the rise, something I can attest to because I was among those making that case both publicly and to clients. Podcasts are a hot outlet for branded content, with a number of companies like GE and others working with Gimlet Media and various other producers on branded programming. A 2016 study showed branded content had a much higher level of recall than other ad units.
There is one key difference that says more about the current state of the media industry than anything else: Who’s producing that content.
As I said, for decades this sort of material has been produced by internal marketing/publicity teams or those at the agencies they’ve hired. The results are either pitched or distributed to media organizations or published by the brands themselves on owned platforms.
Now, it’s the media companies themselves who are running these branded content studios and distributing the results on their own sites or networks. The studios have been launched by companies who have seen ad revenue fall drastically because of “disruption” by one upstart or another, first craigslist and now Facebook. Brands are pitched the promise of tapping into a talented group of writers/producers who will then leverage the distribution of that media company to reach the audience.
Various rules are in place – some more stringent than others – around dividing these advertising groups from the pure editorial operation of the media brand to preserve the integrity of the latter. Disclosures are needed on the resulting stories because branded content is often displayed right alongside actual editorial and audiences need to know the difference.
So the producer has changed even if the content itself is roughly similar to a long-standing marketing and publicity tactic. Those branded content studios seem to keep growing even as journalists, writers and editors are laid off by the dozen at an endless stream of media organizations. That’s creating a situation that will likely come to a head in the next year or two and result in a media industry crisis of some form.
The demand for branded content will keep growing and media companies – specifically the conglomerates that own them – will be only too happy to oblige, continuing to grow those operations. But the effectiveness will wain because in order to have value that content needs to enjoy the halo effect of the media brand’s reputation with the audience. As that reputation diminishes because layoffs and ownership consolidation means smaller staffs that are pressured to tow the corporate party line. That, or they’re even more drastically cut because a Chicago (or wherever) staff isn’t necessary with everything produced elsewhere and distributed across the country. So the rates charged for branded content production fall, resulting in layoffs in those studios.
In short, if no one trusts the media brand because it’s putting out diluted, generic garbage, the value of the branded content will likewise diminish. The latter counts on the former and can’t survive without it.
While branded content has been seen been seen a a lifeline to publishers, much of its success is still dependent on networks like Facebook. That’s *how* the content is distributed, with teams working to help those pieces reach an audience and deliver the kind of exposure the brand is paying for.
Unfortunately that makes the media companies subject to the whims of those platforms. In October 2016 Facebook changed the rules to allow any Verified Page to post branded content as long as it followed disclosure guidelines. Now it wants to strictly define “branded content” as material produced by that person or organization, not content it was given by another company and paid to publish and distribute. So if the media company can’t apply the appropriate label to the content, they can’t distribute it on Facebook, which is going to cut into reach and therefore revenue. Once again, Facebook doesn’t want anyone but itself to get paid.
Branded content, like owned media (e.g. blogs) is a decent idea and can be a useful marketing tactic. The fact that it comes from the media brand itself is both a result of the financial pressures facing the industry currently and, I think, the cause of the problems it will face in the future.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.