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How branded content is changing publishing

by Chris Martin

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Last month, Canadian indie rockers Arcade Fire released their fifth album, Everything Now. And the critics hated it. It was loud, bombastic, annoying – music without restraint, as if cramming as many notes as possible into 47 minutes of music was the only way to meet the consumers’ demands for all of the content, all at once.

But perhaps that was the point. A song like 'Infinite Content' is an accurate metaphor – if not a subtle one – for the key challenge facing traditional print and digital media publishers today: the ongoing race to go viral, and the sheer amount of headlines and stories they churn out in the hope that one in every 1,000 will strike gold.

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Publishers’ addiction to virality is a self-imposed crutch, but I can’t blame them for leaning on it. For content houses who measure their success through circulation, click-through rates and page views, the competition for the advertiser’s dollar is fierce – and selling traditional assets like leaderboards and M-recs is only getting harder. People just don’t click them – and on the rare occasion they do, it’s likely to be an accident.

The fact is, publishers are under threat from a vast oversupply of content, and an undersupply of both consumers who will pay for it directly, and advertisers who will pay for their display ads to appear alongside it.

And yet the content itself is in higher demand than ever.

From branded content to nativity: the changing face of publishing

Branded content – stories produced for brands to host on their own channels or in their house publications – has been around for decades. But only in recent years has it inspired a revolution: that of native content, or sponsored stories that appear natively alongside other stories within a publisher’s own properties.

In the last ten years, I’ve worked with print and digital publications in Australia and abroad, from national newspapers to the street press, and the emerging pattern has been familiar across the board: publishers have gradually come to understand the business potential of native content, and the mutual benefits it brings to their publication, the advertiser and the consumer.

  • For the publisher, native content has two key advantages: it adds a new revenue stream to replace lost revenue from display ads, and it enables journalists and content creators to spend more time crafting great stories rather than chasing a viral story of little substance.
  • For the advertiser, native content means the ability to fold a sponsored message into the story itself, rather than hope for results through adjacent messaging.
  • And for the consumer – who today is more cynical than ever about clickbait and misleading headlines – the increased investment in content creation from sponsors simply means better storytelling.

The value exchange, and why branded content is the future

The one variable in this native content equation is that consumers dislike being sold to when they’re not expecting it. Publishers have taken inspiration from branded content to inform their lucrative model of native content, and it’s proven largely successful. But when a reader is browsing, say, the Huffington Post homepage, and they can’t differentiate between what’s sponsored and what’s not, the publisher is caught in a delicate balancing act.

Branded content doesn’t have to hide. Modern media consumption habits mean consumers don’t rely on one or two trusted publishers to deliver them information. We’ve moved from a curator-led content consumption model to encounter-based consumption: that is, headlines and videos from thousands of sources jostle for attention on your Facebook and Twitter feed every day, and the only point of differentiation is in the substance, not the masthead.

In other words, content competes with content on the basis of merit to the individual. It doesn’t matter to the consumer whether they’re reading a story that’s paid for and hosted by a brand – especially if that brand is upfront about it – as long as the story gives them enough value to compensate for their time and attention. If the value exchange results in a net positive for the audience, the audience is satisfied.

And if the resources invested in branded and native content allow its creators to produce higher-quality stories for targeted audiences – rather than churn out viral-friendly headlines around timely topics for a mass readership – then the results will only get better.

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