We all know we need vibrant journalism for democracy to exist. We need reporters scrutinising those in power, a plural media system, investigative journalism as well as a steady diet of daily news.
But we also know that publishers — the main purveyors of journalism — are in trouble. We’ve all seen the business model for print nearly collapse, and digital revenues continue to struggle despite enormous audience scale. And as the value of digital display depreciates — mostly due to oversupply — future prospects across mobile remain grim, with clunky ad formats and the tech that sells them pushing down CPMs. And that’s before we even start talking about adblockers, banner blindness, skippable ads, aggregators, disintermediation, and all other manner of disruption that’s taking place.
It’s no surprise, then, that publishers of all shapes and sizes have been looking further afield to drive growth. Many have diversified, with new offerings ranging from events to retail products and beyond. Licensing and syndication also make the list. Original IP as well. But it is content marketing that’s the real new player here: a publisher’s saviour in a converged media landscape that’s putting the ‘publisher-agency’ model on the map.
There are all kinds of new and not-so-new kids on the block: The New York Times has T-Studio, The Guardian has Guardian Labs, Vice has Virtue, Huck and Little White Lies – the magazines which my company publishes — have TCOLondon for Brands. Basically, publishers are upskilling and adapting their offering to provide agency-style content at scale. Relationships with advertisers are being turned into campaigns which, while resource intensive and yielding lower margins, supplement revenues and can drive growth.
Brands are spending more than £5.2 billion a year on content strategy, Joseph Evans and Douglas McCabe wrote in an Ender’s Analysis report on content marketing published last year. Content is “massively outstripping growth in traditional advertising”, Evans and McCabe write, pointing to the £1.2 billion going to consumer media with an overall growing investment at a rate of 25% a year. In fact, branded content will soon be half the size of the £11.4 billion display advertising market in the UK. It’s the same story across the Atlantic, where US spending on branded content is set to increase by about 20 percent a year to $25 billion by 2019 — up from $10 billion in 2014.
Content marketing gives publishers back some control over pricing, a factor that’s lost in the display ad game. In display, millions of competitor sites are willing to take rock-bottom prices, and Facebook and Google offer hyper-targeted ads at mass scale that further depress CPMs. With campaigns, some of that power tilts back to media owners. The publisher’s voice and style matter – as does the hard-won trust with audience that content reaches — allowing them to sell not only editorial but also reach. At TCOLondon (makers of Huck and Little White Lies), content marketing is crucial to the company’s operating model. In simple terms, TCOLondon is run that way. Everyone sits together. There’s an open, constant dialogue between the agency team that works with brands and the editorial team producing the magazines, and whose access to talent and understanding of audiences are leveraged to help brands speak in an engaging and effective voice.
But the rise of the publisher-agency is of course not without its problems. Boundaries between journalism and advertising are constantly being tested and redefined. Labelling guidelines have yet to be standardised across the industry. Shrinking newsrooms and the adoption of agency practices are a cause for concern as more resources are redirected towards producing and delivering campaigns.
However this plays out, it seems clear that content marketing can be a vital revenue source with the potential to sustain a lively newsroom. How publishers leverage it to drive growth while fostering critical journalism is a chapter that’s yet to be completed.