Have you ever gone swimming at the beach when the water was just a little colder than you’d expected? Most of us ease ourselves in like the wimps we are: We wade out gingerly, cringing, second-guessing at every step whether we want to still do this. You can’t actually swim or surf without eventually getting submerged, of course, but sit on any beach in late September and you’ll observe this routine on repeat.
Right now, most brand publishers are at that uncomfortable point where the water is up to their thighs and the occasional cold wave is lapping at their crotch.
2015 is the year that they jump all the way in or get left behind.
Our industry talks a lot about creating content as if content itself is the goal. And while anyone who knows me knows how important I think stories are, most businesses are more interested in what telling great stories gets them: relationships with an audience that will eventually make them money.
Statisticians estimate that 1.7 scadzillion new pieces of content show up on the web every day. Every major brand—and millions of smaller ones—is crowding the content marketing beach right now, dumping buckets of content into the crotch-deep saltwater. The noise-to-meaning ratio is getting higher. It’s going to be harder and more expensive to reach quality readers through native advertising as the demand for content ad space goes up and the appetite for content advertising goes down.
The solution to this problem is to stop being a chicken and dive into the water—to become a real publisher and not just an advertiser hawking stories in place of banners. Those who focus on building audiences stand to gain outsize results over those who focus simply on reaching them.
Illustrations by Brian Meyer
This means that over the next 12 months we’ll be seeing an explosion of brand-owned and operated publications like American Express’ OPEN Forum and BarkBox’s BarkPost. We’ll see a shift in focus from amassing social followings (which algorithm changes can instantly make irrelevant, as we saw this year with Facebook) to building email lists to brands marketing content on their own terms. We’ll see more brand newsrooms and more ambitious stories in ambitious formats. We’ll see a shift from caring about brand impressions on someone else’s platform to caring about attention-time spent on a brand’s own platform. And we’ll see brands actually get savvy about ROI. When you own the experience, you can track your relationships with readers, as well as the conversions and brand lift your stories deliver over repeat engagements.
The world has been saying “brands are publishers” for ages now. This is the year they step up and actually do it right. Cold water is uncomfortable at first. But you acclimate quicker when you just jump in.