Digital publishers are having a tough time.

Buzzfeed has announced it’s firing 15% of its workforce. Verizon Media, after a $4.6 Billion write-down, is also laying off staff from its AOL, Yahoo and HuffPost brands. Mic.com was sold for less than 10c on the dollar to Bustle in late 2018, and Mashable went to Ziff Davis for a paltry $50 million. Vox, Refinery29 and Vice have also been written down.

Traditional publishers aren’t safe either – Gannett, the largest single newspaper publisher in the United States, is also laying off senior staff, mirroring similar cuts at Fairfax here in Australia.

And now that brands are playing the role of publishers, creating their own content and sharing it directly across their owned and paid channels, they’re facing the very same problems.

What does this mean for these brands – the ones that have, for the last few years, been told to embrace the content mindset? If publishing is itself unsustainable, how is a brand supposed to make money out of a content or audience-led model?

The problem facing us all

The realities of online media haven’t been kind to the publishers or their parent companies… or indeed to brands.

In a word, the problem is scale. And if the problem is scale, the solution can’t also be scale. Yet this is exactly how so many have tried to combat the problem.

Publishers like Buzzfeed and HuffPost, along with Facebook and Google, created (and fed off) an industry and atmosphere where bite-sized content was king, but the market has since become oversaturated.

As Max Willens of Digiday explains, creating all this content is a costly venture. “Pursuing scale is not a sensible strategy, particularly if you’re hunting it by hiring people to write content. If that’s your sole source of income, it’s very difficult to build a thriving business.”

Short-term solutions have failed

The content machine is insatiable, and making money from it isn’t easy.

Pushed to find new streams of revenue, publishers have tried everything. They’ve installed paywalls, sold sponsored content, and scaled up production of shortform video, throwaway clickbait and now podcasts. Vice hooked up with HBO to create longform content and BuzzFeed explored a now-cancelled project with Netflix… and sold Tasty-branded homewares through Walmart.

Brands are feeling the same bite.  Sure, shortform content is great for social feeds and sharing, but does it build an audience and fortify a legacy brand? Does it create revenue, or does it drain resources while actively denigrating the very quality that these brands strive for?

It also probably doesn’t help either that Facebook and Google have such a stranglehold on audiences. When Facebook tells people that Instant Articles, shortform video and listicles are the best way to engage users, they follow instructions. The wheels on the bus go round and round.

But this isn’t actually what the “content” or “brand newsroom” model is all about. It’s about creating an owned audience from which positive outcomes can be derived.

If your brand’s model is to monetise its audience by using its content to minimise other media and advertising expenses, then you’re in a stronger position than many media companies.

What can brands learn from all of this?

In the end this is all about revenue via audience monetisation.

The good news for brands is that unlike publishers, they already have their own monetisation opportunities via their existing products and services – they only need to use media to rent audiences’ attention. If a media property stops performing, they can put their spend elsewhere.

That said, there’s still much to be learned from the way publishers have suffered at the hands of the content beast.

  • Avoid the race to the lowest common denominator.

The content-driven approach doesn’t mean brands should mirror the bite-sized mass-publishing that publishers seem to be so keen on.

What do audiences really value? They value stuff that surprises, delights, informs, educates and entertains. But brands don’t need to be all things to all people – they can create the exact content experiences their audiences want or need, to meet a specific requirement at a specific time.

Be relevant – don’t get too granular or lose sight of your vision, purpose, or inherent values.

  • Don’t commodify the audience or content. Rather, mutually deliver and derive value from it.

If your core business isn’t to trade eyeballs for ad revenue, then don’t follow the same tactics as those for whom it is.

If you do, then scale, fragmentation and consolidation are only going make your situation worse – and Europe’s proposed “link tax” probably isn’t going to help either.

Only fight the fights that are worth fighting. Don’t spread your budget too thin; if you don’t have the money to produce hundreds of snackable videos a month, then don’t.

  • See your content for what it is: an owned channel with long-term potential.

No brand was built in a day. So why should your content or advertising be?

This is a key difference between the situation facing publishers and that facing brands. Both may feel the need to feed the content beast and drive immediate outcomes from content activities, but brands have the luxury of choice.

Publishing content is a brand-building exercise. Take it slowly, and don’t treat it like a throwaway piece of ad creative.

To sum up, it’s important that brands recognise that being a content-led brand doesn’t make you a content brand or publisher. Create revenue by building and leveraging your audience, not by copying those who sell audiences or impressions.

It’s getting harder to cut through the clutter, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you stay on message and nail your product-audience fit, then you’re all set. If you play your cards right, you won’t even need to install a paywall.

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Craig Gibson

Craig Gibson is Client Strategy Director at iProspect Brisbane. He leads strategy for a number of our key enterprise clients, specialising in solving both client and consumer problems across all touchpoints, from data and insights to strategy and creative.