Brands as Publishers – A Primer

Published on June 6, 2013

Here’s a quick run down of a presentation on brand publishing trends that I gave at theBrighton Content Strategy meetup last week.

The notion of ‘brand as publisher’ is hot right now. From Red Bull to Amex and Coca Cola, many brands are making serious moves to position themselves as storytellers and content creators – often in ways that are disconnected to direct sales and calls to action.

But this is nothing new.

It’s something that major supermarkets have been doing for a while – first with in-house free magazines and then via their web sites. These ‘publications’ have given them a platform to put themselves at the centre of their shoppers’ lives, inspiring them with new cooking ideas and story-based features to help people live healthy, fulfilling lives.

For example, Tesco now publishes a magazine for consumer tech support. It’s created by Future Publishing and the content comes from Future titles – in particular, T3 and TechRadar. It’s got interviews, features and product reviews and it’s positioned as a lifestyle gadget and tech magazine. It’s more than just brand content – it has expert gravitas and is created by real journalists.

So, why do brands want to become publishers?

Well, there are many motives. Some publications are paid for and drive revenue. Some are more overtly linked to product sales and promotions. Some are straight SEO plays. All of them – when executed well – generate brand awareness, and all of them enable a brand to own the platform

It’s about control.

Owning the platform beats ad placement – whether online or offline, native ad or traditional ad. Ads can get lost among editorial. They can be placed in the wrong positions. They have a very short shelf life and are easy to skip.

Owning the platform puts the brand in total control. Their content won’t get lost, shunted aside, placed next to inappropriate content, or ear marked as advertising. Ownership enables the brand to speak directly to its audience.

It enables stories to be told.

We live in a noisy world. It’s not enough for a brand to have a Facebook page, buy social ads and pump out info on a Twitter account. They need to provide audiences with content that has real value. And if you want to aim for value (and sharing), then you need a better class of assets.

Good stories are the key. Stories work better than advertising because they’re less intrusive in the social domain and more inherently personal and sharable.

But because brands are brands (sell, sell, sell), story making and telling is not intuitive.


Beyond Brands as Publishers: A Primer from Beyond

Beyond Brands as Publishers: A Primer from Beyond

Support for Storytelling

Check out the slides for some great service providers. In short:

Vice – Vice partners with brands to publish content via its in-house agency Virtue (formed in 2006). Its partnership with Intel for The Creators Project is a good example of this. They also have partnerships with French boot-maker Palladium and Garnier.

The Onion – an off-shoot of The Onion, Onion Labs, is a brand content unit that has worked with Microsoft, Dove, EA Sports, Hilton Hotels and many more.

Buzzfeed – Buzzfeed is now offering a training program for agencies to help them write better stories for brands – under the guise of helping them to understand the secret sauce of a good BuzzFeed story. (For example, see my slides on dog stories. Yes, dog stories. For some brands, like Milk-Bone – a dog food producer – this makes sense. For others, like Miller, it doesn’t.)

And, naturally, great agencies like Beyond.

Also included in the slides are a few examples of storytelling tools:

Skyword – provides services for writer recruitment and management; content planning, creation and optimization; editorial review, social promotion, analytics.

Contently – a site that helps brands find freelance writers. It has more than 10,000 freelancers in its network and clients like Viacom and Procter & Gamble (who own the contents of most people’s bathrooms – Braun, Crest, Gillette, Head and Shoulders, Wella, Oral-B, Pantene, Duracell). It can hook brands up with writers, photographers, infographic artists and editors, allowing them to build up custom groups of contributors, communicate with them and get story ideas from them as a collective.

NewsCred – the most interesting of the bunch. NewsCred has licensing deals with publishers to provide brands with content so that they, in turn, can become publishers themselves. The service started as a way for publishers to distribute their content, but now over 60% of its revenue comes from brands, which pay anywhere from $3,000 upwards to re-use the content on NewsCred’s platform. One example of this is Pepsi, which has turned its homepage into a publishing platform made up of a mix of brand content and curated content from NewsCred. (In other words, they’ve turned into a magazine.)

What we have now is traditional publishing being turned on its head. Before brands would pay the publishers to have their ads in among the content. This meant the message sometimes got lost on the page, or wasn’t in a favorable position. Now, the brands own the platform and are paying publishers to include their content in among brand messaging.

Notes on Effective Storytelling

It’s about the content, not the platform

Good brand publishing should transcend social media, blog sites and .coms. It should be about providing audiences with something that’s needed, something that appeals, something that people want to engage with and share, something that has value. Social and publishing platforms are the means for sharing, not the end game.

It’s about putting people before products

Being a publisher allows brands to tell visually compelling stories, where products play an important part. But the key to good storytelling is putting people first. When was the last time anyone read a story where a brand product was the protagonist?

This point in nuanced, but when all else is said, people like reading about themselves. If they can put themselves in the story, or picture themselves taking a role, then the job is half done. People can’t project their own self-image onto a product, but this is easy when the story is about another person. (NB: it wasn’t a can of Red  Bull that jumped off that space platform. Dove’s recent campaign was another good example of putting people first – it was about real women.)

Brands that are Getting it Right

A quick list:

Red Bull’s site is in a magazine format. It’s extremely visual and most of the content revolves around Red Bull events and the people-led escapades of Red Bull’s place in sport, music and adventure sponsorship.

American Express’ Open Forum is an online community for business owners that offers insights and advice, as well as user generated content. It exists to help businesses make good decisions. Its mission statement is ‘reciprocal altruism’ – a place where you give something away for free without expecting anything back, against a backdrop of concurrent sharing and storytelling (and value) from the rest of the community. They publish 50+ pieces of content per week (articles, infographics and videos) and have over 200 contributors. They receive well over one million monthly page views.

GoPro is blazing a trail with its eclectic mix of fascinating, extreme sports-driven user created content. And even Google is publishing its own content with its new Think site.

Beyond the Brand as Publisher…

Once that part is nailed, broadcasting becomes the next frontier. See Xbox Live(commissioning a reboot of Heroes); Amazon Prime Instant Video (five original TV series this year – Alpha House, Betas, Annebots, Creative Galaxy, and Tumbleaf); and Red Bull (space exploits).

Wrapping Up

If you want your brand to be an effective publisher you need to learn from real publishers. You need plenty of content, driven by plenty of storytelling brains, editorial calendars, mandates and policies – plus a little bit of new technology to facilitate the process.

Content can be created (original), curated (user generated) and aggregated (co-created).  Whatever the buzzword, this is what magazines and newspapers have been doing for decades. The deeper skill lies in the ability of the editorial team to pull it altogether into something cohesive and engaging.

Data is also important to this process. A strong analytics cycle gives editors and content producers the power to mine the social web for conversational signals that will help optimize their output. Good data should support the creative hunch.

Whatever you do, don’t just do content for content’s sake. There’s a lot of it around. It’s got to be part of an overall strategy that takes into account business aims and, above all else, your audience’s needs.