I've noticed that more and more of my daily content is coming from brands. While brands still compete with web media publishers, bloggers, newspapers, TV, and millions of other content creators (like me) for attention, I'm thinking that the future for brand-created content is pretty rosy. Here's why.
Brands are getting better at making content.
A few years ago, a lot of brand-created content sucked because it was outsourced to agencies. While agencies were pretty good at creating commercials and print ads, the transition to making quality web content isn't something that agencies have in their DNA.
So brands have realized that they don't have to overpay for poor content and are doing it on their own. I've noticed that the best brands have dedicated content creators in-house, including writers, photographers, video editors, etc. Familiar with OK Trends? That's one dude (maybe more now), who's only job is to mine data and make fancy charts for OK Cupid. An agency doing the same thing would be morbidly expensive compared to the salary of one passionate employee.
The brand means something.
A couple weeks ago, I saw this exchange between James Gross, Thierry Blancpain, and Noah Brier, quickly bookmarking it for blogging (bolding is mine):
@James_Gross: Instapaper is an app that strips the ads out of a creators work. With that in mind, interesting perspective on curation... - @blancpain: That's a fallacy. In 99% of all cases you've loaded the article's page once before sending it to Instapaper. - @heyitsnoah: sure, and then the creator is completely lost. Was just hearing this complaint from a longform journalist yesterday. - @blancpain: Why should he be lost? I visited his page and he got his ad hits. I wouldn't have clicked any of them either way. - @heyitsnoah: not the ads, the actual recognition for the journalist/publication. You remember the story, but not the creator - @blancpain: Instapaper versions contain author and publication in all articles that I checked. More prominent than on websites... - @heyitsnoah: more prominent than the giant masthead? Do you remember where the last 5 stories you read on instapaper came from? I don't.
James, Thierry, and Noah are getting at the subordination of brand relative to content. The outcome is, as Noah tweets, "you remember the story, but not the creator." While I think this poses a problem for any feed, aggregator, or stream, the same can be said about much of today's media content. As more content is discovered via sharing rather than browsing a site's homepage, I'm caring less whether I read that benign "Top 10 List" or Apple announcement on AllthingsD, Mashable, Techcrunch, or the Verge. It's all blending together as general tech media. There's still great content with interesting perspective, but I don't notice or care about the publisher, even though I'm retweeting and linking to the article. Looking back at my tweets over the past few months, I've noticed that I've linked to Forbes 15 times–I had no idea Forbes even published good content outside of their magazine.
Some publishers' brands are the things you remember when consuming content. I think of GOOD and Vice as great examples of these cases, where the content is significant because it's under the brand's masthead. Both of these publishing brands have extremely strong POVs on the world, rarely rewriting content for the sake of page views.
Similarly, brand-created content (yes–I'm sure my terms might start to be confusing) has a POV. When I'm browsing Art of the Trench, the content matters because it's from Burberry. In rare cases is the brand ever subordinated–it's typically related to the content that I'm consuming since that's the source of ROI. It's this relationship to the content creator, that is, remembering from where the story that you read came, that publishers/brands/individuals justify investments into quality content. Which is a good segway into...
Quality comes easier
Brand-created content has insane editorial standards. Every sentence of banner copy requires three rounds of review with the legal and brand team.
When I think of brand-created content, the tone is closer to Fred Wilson than Gawker. There's still a desire to "go viral," but it's subordinated to building a perspective, one that has readers clicking-through to the product for sale or subscribing to future content.
Since content is published less frequently, brands can devote resources to making something amazing. It has more purpose–there's no need to create 10 articles per day to meet advertisers' page view needs.
So by quality, I really mean stock content. I've talked a lot about Robin Sloan notion of "stock" in the past, but here's a quick review:
Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
An example: Dollar Shave Club's video. Now bear with me; yes–I understand that this is not "content," at least in the traditional sense. But it represents a dedication to creating a piece of stock that's surely to sick around the Internet, long after Dollar Shave Club dies. Quality stands out–this video returns way more for the startup than 6 months of 3 posts/week blogging about male grooming. And for a typical media brand trying to monetize content, it's rare to get resources to make something like that.
Lastly, the big brands (GE, Ford, AmEx, etc.) have enormous budgets and an appetite for survivable risk. GE's video of a drone helicopter filming a fly-through of a factory might not have been the most successful (in terms of production costs), but they were willing to take a chance that it would work. Again, I don't see most media companies sinking resources into similar stock ideas.
Form is open
Brands can choose any form of content: articles, photo blogs, Tumblr, video, games, contents, etc., allowing brands to be experimental with content. And within each form, brands can create original content or go for something more shallow, aggregating, sharing, curating, and re-writing content as they desire. There's no journalistic standards that one approach is better than another, creating a lot of flexibility to free up resources for big projects. Contrast this with media publishers, where extensions into new forms is a pretty big departure in style.
They're sneakily monetizing content
"If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." – Metafilter.
Since few sites manage to sell content, most publishers monetize readers. I believe that this drive for ad sales, and ultimately page views, distorts publishers' ability to deliver content that people actually want to read. A more compelling business model, it seems, is to just sell something else.
This is the case with Red Bull, a manufacturer of energy drinks, as one of the largest and strongest publishers. Building an audience with compelling media is a hell of a lot easier than buying TV ads. Same with startups, all executing the classic Joel Spolksy blogging model of "make your customers awesome" to acquire customers. 37Signals' blog, Signal vs. Noise, is easily one of the most popular sources of design content, monetized via raised awareness and conversion to its SaaS products.
In some cases, content and product have kinda merged into a weird hybrid. Fab.com describes itself as a content company. Just like a magazine, the products that they promote represent an aesthetic perspective, a lot like Pinterest/Svpply. And unlike media publishers, companies like Net-a-porter, Fab.com, and Gilt offer instant gratification via e-commerce integration with their content. It's no surprise that Gilt is planning on publishing a magazine later this year.