One of my favorite blogs is the Content Strategist. It’s full of interesting, insightful and easy-to-read posts about everything in the content world.
And it’s full of stories that bang on the “all brands are media” drum.
That should come as no surprised to anyone. The blog, after all, is written by Contently, a content shop with clients like Coca-Cola and AMEX.
And Contently is hardly the only one banging that drum either. In fact, it’s been a steady drum-beat for the last 4-5 years.
All brands are media.
Say it with me: ALL BRANDS ARE MEDIA.
Except, they’re not.
Not even close.
So, why do we continue to perpetuate this blatant lie?
Why do we continue to pressure our colleagues into something that is just not going to happen for the majority of brands?
Why do we continue to pursue an approach that is 1) a HUGE under-taking and switch for most brands, 2) a huge cost, and 3) does not guarantee success.
Sure, there are companies like Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Microsoft that have created engaging and award-winning digital publications full of stories that involve their brands.
But, for every Red Bull, there’s a Verizon (you remember Verizon’s failed attempt at brand journalism, right?).
For every Microsoft Stories (which is actually pretty good), there’s a Van Winkle’s (Casper’s new entry into brand journalism).
And for every Coke, there’s a slew of companies out there that just don’t have enough to say to sustain an ongoing brand journalism effort.
Yet, here are the Contently’s of the world, pushing them into it (go figure–there’s money at stake, after all!).
Why am I such a skeptic? Let’s look at a few key reasons:
Is is ownable content?
Just take a peek at Coke’s popular “Journey” home page. What do we see? Content revolving around: the Grateful Dead and Coke (interesting), USA women’s soccer (they’re a sponsor), and cozy campers. Wait, what? Cozy campers? What the heck does that have to do with Coke? Now, if the article talked about tiny houses that are full of Coke-related memorobilia or something–yeah, you might have something. But, who’s going to Coke’s site to learn more about the tiny house movement? Am I the only one that thinks that’s odd? Coke is hardly the only one guilty here. Every time a new “brand journalism” site pops up, it’s full of content that’s not particularly “on brand.” So, let’s say you’re Best Buy and you want to start a digital magazine. You have a lot of leeway to write about pretty much anything in the world of electronics and technology. But, would you write about ice cream? No–because it doesn’t really tie back to your brand. That thinking must make too much sense though… 😉
All content–NO selling?
Let’s peek at Microsoft Stories–a site, by the way, that I LOVE. I’ve written about my affection before. But, a “brand journalism” site, nonetheless, that is completely editorially driven. Take a peek at the home page–what do you see? Fantastic editorial content. A well-organized home page. Great visuals.
Now, what DON’T you see? Not one ounce of selling. No call to action. No “buy here” (although, in this case, that would be weird). Not even a “subscribe by email” CTA. Nothing. Not a whisper of a sell. So, that tells me this is a 100 percent awareness play. Now, I know big companies like Microsoft sink millions of dollars each year into building awareness. I know that’s a key goal. But, how many companies are set up that way? How many have the luxury of sinking millions of dollars each year into a very expensive endeavor like Microsoft Stories with the goal of simply “building awareness.” Why can’t sites like this sell a little? Why can’t they include a CTA here and there? Why couldn’t they do that? I have yet to hear an answer I find reasonable.
Does prohibitive costs make this a Fortune 500-only play?
Let’s make a short list of the companies that have employed digital magazines to date. Let’s see: Red Bull. Coke, AMEX. Microsoft. Noticing a trend yet? Is this whole brand journalism trend just relegated to Fortune 500-level companies? It definitely takes a serious commitment. Financial and structural. So maybe the whole “Brand as Media” mantra is really just aimed at 1,000 companies or less? Maybe it’s just for the largest of the large. Maybe it’s just for those looking to boost brand awareness at the highest levels. That rules out a whole lotta companies. A whole lot.
In the end, the truth is this: All brands CAN be media. In theory. Sure. But, can all brands really do it? Do they have the stomach for it? Can they execute? Do they have the resources? I’m not so sure.
Relatively recently, Verizon joined a number of big companies in the business of brand journalism. The new site, SugarString (interesting name, right?), is full of original content produced solely by Verizon. According to a recent WaPo article, the site will publish “thoughtful tech-focused stories that track humanity’s climb towards the new next.”
It’s hardly the first brand to try brand journalism.
Coca-Cola has been a pioneer of sorts in this space–most recently, it revamped its site, now titled “Unbottled.”
GE has been producing GE Reports for quite a while now.
But, will this brand journalism trend continue? Will it eventually metriculate down to midsized and smaller brands? And, does it even make sense as a viable marketing approach?
Let’s examine some of the popular theories–and discuss why I believe brand journalism is a non-starter for 99% of the companies in the U.S.
First, there’s the resource issue.
This is the biggest and probably most important hurdle for many companies. Note how big the companies mentioned above are–Coca-Cola, Intel, Cisco, GE, Verizon. I mean, those are all Fortune 500 companies with massive marketing budgets. Now, they did make the decision to invest in brand journalism–but make no mistake about it, that is a significant investment. The ongoing costs associated with maintaining a site like SugarString almost eliminate 80% of brands right off the top. To keep a site like that going requires a full time editor (or two) and a team of freelances or full-time writers to source content. Those are resources very few brands have access to.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
What’s the common refrain we’ve heard the last number of years: Publishing tools have leveled the playing field. Brands no longer need mainstream media to tell their story–they can tell it themselves through a blog (or brand journalism site)! While that reasoning may be true on the surface, the much bigger issue is this: Sure, you can create your own brand journalism site. You can tell your story directly to customers and circumvent the mainstream media. But you what? It’s damn hard work building a site like that from the ground up. Sites like Unbottled started just like every other blog or news site–with 0 visitors. Building an audience from scratch is hard work–ask anyone who’s done it. And maintaining that audience is even harder, in many ways. So, when Verizon goes and takes on something like SugarString, my first reaction is: “I wonder how long that site will stay around.” Because they’re going to have to build that audience–and then they’re going to have to work like hell to keep it. Remember, this is all about eyeballs and impressions–if they’re not getting those, all the brand journalism in the world ain’t worth squat.
People don’t care who wrote an article–all they care about is the headline
I’ll grant you headlines are important. No question. A good headline brings in readers. But, to say most people don’t care who wrote an article? You’ve got to be kidding me. You actually think an article written by SugarString would carry the same weight as an article that’s been published in the New York Times? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? One is written by a team of freelancers who may or may not be trained journalists. The other is written by some of the finest and most experienced journalists in the world. I realize, to an extent, that since so many stories are shared and consumed on social these days that the source is often minimized, but to say the source doesn’t matter. That’s just pure insanity. I don’t care what any survey. I refuse to believe that. I think most people are smarter than that. They still want good, quality content. They want credibility. They may not trust the mainstream media like they once did, but they still pay attention. And they still look at the content they produce a lot differently than they do a brand site.
Who wants to get their news from a wireless service provider?
I know they’re only writing (largely) about the tech space, and most likely, topics that are closer to their sphere of influence, but who’s looking for news from Verizon? Who wants to hear the latest on tech from Intel? And who is looking for news of any kind from a soft drink company? For the life of me, I just don’t understand why anyone would seek out this kind of information from any of these brands. I mean, I get it, articles and posts get shared via social. They come in “sideways.” There is some pass-along value here. But, is that sustainable? Will those traffic numbers add up in any meaningful way? Is that kind of traffic the RIGHT traffic? And, will people really start trusting brands as news sources? I certainly hope not for the sake of mankind…
To be clear, I’m not saying companies shouldn’t continue to create content (in the form of a company blog, for example). Brand journalism, and what Verizon and some of these other companies are doing, is a bit different. And, I just don’t see it being sustainable–or a good fit for many companies at all.
In fact, I’d say for roughly 99% of all companies, it’s not a great idea at all.
Disagree with me? Let’s discuss in the comments (or via social).