Why Newsrooms Are Jealous of Brands, and What That Means for Content Marketing

By Michael Grimes March 25th, 2016

This article originally appeared on Hill Holliday’s blog and is reposted here with permission.

The vibe within today’s newsroom feels more like a sleepy library than a clattering nerve center of days past, as editorial staffs continue to trim their in-house talent. Meanwhile, across the hall, the branded-content arms of major publications are surfacing innovative ways to tell longform, immersive stories (thanks to marketers’ budgets).

During a recent trip to one of these content studios, a contact there remarked how, once maligned, the branded side of the house is now viewed with jealousy by the editorial staff, boasting coveted resources to create beautiful content and continue to push the envelope of what’s possible with longform text storytelling.

As such, the conversation has shifted away from whether brands have the permission to create longform content; now, it’s more about occupying a role like the Medici family of the 15th century, allocating resources to commission and underwrite a true assessment of the world around us in a way that provides a deeper understanding of our lives. In place of opulent sculptures, murals, and paintings, however, brands can embrace a patronage model in which the aesthetic weapon of choice is the editorial lens they (and their creators) wield.

The “E” word

Of course, “editorial” is still a loaded word as it pertains to marketing, particularly as its very nature implies the church/state divide between artistic/literary endeavors and business-building pursuits. That said, every brand would benefit to focus more on applying an overarching editorial approach to the content they create—regardless of length or format.

By this, I simply mean claiming a strong point of view and utilizing content to present this POV through the lens of documenting and creating narratives of the world around us. For those brands that decide to dedicate the time and resources to crafting longform text content, landing on this POV is the first and most critical step. From there, it’s pretty simple—there are a lot of talented journalists who have been squeezed out from traditional newsrooms and publications that are now looking for opportunities to ply their trade.

Short attention = short content?

But people have short attention spans—do they really want longform content? Well, first, I’d offer that fleeting attention spans shouldn’t reflexively be fought with fleeting content executions. And yet the battle for capturing audience attention has yielded two fairly consistent and unsurprising strategies: 1) being present where people are actually spending their time, and 2) accomplishing this via a wholesale shift to shortform content, like the front-loaded videos in your newsfeeds with enough sensory goodies in the first three seconds to stop you in your tracks.

You’re not wrong to suggest that such trends feel at odds with a brand’s decision to embrace longform content. But recent developments in “being where the eyeballs are” and some surprising findings about audience engagement behavior suggest that the days of brands walking this precarious tightrope of trying to be both frictionless (via native uploading) and interruptive may give way to something else—namely, content that doesn’t just jolt or interrupt but occasionally provides a substantive, more contemplative experience.

The landscape is ready

Last week, Facebook announced it would be opening up its Instant Articles feature to publishers everywhere, starting in April. This is a big deal. It will offer a seamless way for publishers—and one has to assume brands inevitably as well—to provide immersive longform content experiences seamlessly within people’s News Feeds.

And just as Facebook previously altered their capricious algorithm to favor natively uploaded video content, triggering a rush across brands to create more and more videos, it’s likely they will tinker with it yet again to encourage publishers (and advertisers) to fully embrace this functionality. For Facebook, it’s a calculated move to keep people within their environment; for brands, it keeps their content in front of their audiences and gives the opportunity for a deeper dive that the ephemeral social posts of years past could rarely offer.

Audiences are ready

Last year, an analysis of content on BuzzFeed showed that longform content on the site gained significantly more sharing traction than shortform, generating an average of 38,000 shares. Similarly, a six-month analysis of the most shared content on The New York Times, a property nestled quite comfortably on the opposite end of the editorial spectrum from BuzzFeed, revealed that NYT readers shared long articles on intellectually challenging topics the most. It may not be the case, then, that no one consumes longform content, but rather that much of the content we create just isn’t challenging our audiences enough for them to spend their time with, and share, it.

In other words, supply is not matching demand. With shortform executions outnumbering longform content 16 to 1, the simple math suggests there’s some promising white space for brands to claim ownership of by developing longform executions. Currently, the list of brands excelling in this medium is rather limited, confined largely to partnerships with the aforementioned content studios within trusted publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—check out WSJ‘s “Cocainenomics,” underwritten by Netflix to promote Narcos, to get a sense of what’s possible by allowing a high-interest topic to unspool over a broad canvas. The next step is for brands to borrow a page from Red Bull and become their own longform publishers.

So what do brands get in return for investing in longform content? Well, with the right media support, and by focusing on topics that resonate with their desired audience while also staying true to their brand story, they might just get our undivided attention. These days, that’s a big win.

Image by Getty Images
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