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Brands as publishers is a popular mantra, but what does it really mean? Does it also mean that publishers can become brands that sell stuff?

Digital disruption has not been kind to established publishers.

Firstly, circulation of print media has declined due to the rise of social media, the explosion of freely available commoditised content (particularly in the lucrative celebrity market, in which the Mail Online is causing major disruption) and the slowness of the economic recovery.

Added to this digital ad sales have not made up for print’s decline. A startling stat is that Google now makes more ad revenue than the entire US print media… combined!

What’s more, since brands are finding the ease of creating and distribution their own content, the requirement to buy ad impressions on a publisher site has been further depleted.

All round, this tailspin has stifled innovation in the media industry as companies rush to protect their cash cow: print.

Given the problems publishing is facing, it’s a wonder that a brand would want to be a publisher at all.

Of course, ‘brands as publishers’ is not necessarily an aspiration, it is rather a nod towards the trend of content marketing and changing from a media based marketing model towards one more focused on content creation and distribution.

Everyone’s a publisher

Everyone can publish their own stuff, and they don’t have to pay for media for promotion, but there’s a catch. Just because it’s easier to publish doesn’t mean that people necessarily should, after all they might be Crap as Doug Kessler put it.

This is what the dictum ‘Brands as Publishers’ is really trying to put forward: that we should learn to take on editorial models in order to be successful ‘content marketers’.

But this can lead to a vague emphasis on publishing things like blogs and ‘news’ channels that are ill defined, low quality and unoriginal.

Instead of trying to emulate publishers at what they’re truly good at online, particularly commoditised news, content marketers should aim to draw inspiration from the best pieces of innovation from digital publishers of which BBC (which doesn’t need to make revenue from its main audience), The Guardian and New York Times are good sources.

Both of these publishers regularly release extraordinary interactive content that was simply made for the web – they are shifting away from words and pictures within standardised templates.

The following are all extraordinary pieces:

Further pieces I’ve noticed that highlight the trend towards larger formats haven’t come from publishers at all. Indeed, the content marketers themselves are actually setting the agenda.

Red Bull

It would seem that you can’t write a content marketing article without mentioning Red Bull, and it’ll be mentioned here, but largely to say it’s unrealistic to model your content marketing strategy on this.

They’re one of best-selling canned drinks in the world, with a commitment to action sports related content since their European launch in 1987.

In this sponsorship, they have spent literally billions of pounds on sponsoring athletes, a Formula One team and the world record freefall. Redbull content is amazing, but its big hits are all video focused stunts which have enormous budgets. Added to this: buying cans of energy drink is not a regular online activity.

Content marketing and the big idea

Back to the main thrust of this article. I’m suggesting content marketers look to the big hit ideas rather than look to the smaller, lower cost ‘flow’ strategies that drive most blogs.

The reason being is that by investing in the big idea, you are normally able to ‘remix’ this into other channels anyway.

The intersection of content marketing and ecommerce

Of course, merely saying that content marketing is about the ‘big idea’ is a skin deep examination.

Ultimately many marketers are questioning the true value of content marketing when many of the above examples are really about making a big attention grabbing splash, rather than the conversion. Campaign based channels, like PPC, are generally much more measurable.

Content marketing to sell products

But of course, content marketing is really a long term strategy, and the attention grabbing idea should drive this, but not be the whole of it.

So when the big idea filters down into the day to day, like articles and blogs – what then? How can we use content marketing to better sell products?

Last year I spent some time researching content marketing across twenty major fashion ecommerce websites (which I will eventually get round to finishing!).

My findings surprised me: very few of any maintained content marketing strategies had any evidence of working properly. Generally blogs and article feeds were hit and miss, unspecific, or badly integrated into the main site.

Only Net-a-Porter and Marks and Spencer were really flexing their content strategy with any real purpose.

Publishers selling products

Clearly content marketing was a bolt on to many ecommerce sites, and it wasn’t working. But from my publisher days I realised there were some sites that were doing really rather well at both.

The best example I could think of was Motorcycle News, a publisher which has three out of four navigation slots geared towards ecommerce.

It’s a great example of a publishing brand dominating a specific niche, where there’s a user need to also buy things related to the niche. For instance, Motorcycle News has always been a newspaper, but user trust has been gained through years of authority, to such an extent that they are prepared to buy products from the site.

At the other hand of the spectrum, Net-a-Porter has always been an ecommerce store, but has long provided high quality curated editorial content to support its luxury proposition.

Its editor, Lucy Yoemans, had this to say of the publishing future:

As this Digiday article professes, content and commerce can be easier said than done. But this problem normally stems from lifestyle publishing and that most users are simply browsing such sites.  

Lifestyle’s broad nature also means it is rather difficult to convert an audience. Similar products to those potentially offered on lifestyle sites are offered by a wide range of highly trusted high street brands. In specific captive audiences, the publishers are often more trusted than the retailers.

Brands as publishers, and publishers as brands

Some brands are having more success than others at publishing. The ones who are succeeding are the ones who have it firmly intertwined into their DNA and mindset through years of experience.

It is not a bolt on content marketing team with an email newsletter and a blog, it is a completely different structure to the regular marketing operation.

On the other hand, many newspapers and magazines are seeing revenues trickle away as ad money simply doesn’t make up for print loss. But the ones who are likely to be successful in the future are those who have cornered a merchandise hungry audience, who will buy off them in the future.

It’s not that publishers are to die off as a consequence of brands becoming more like them, they’re ultimately going to become a lot more like each other.

James Carson

Published 12 May, 2014 by James Carson

James Carson is Director of Content at Made From Media and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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