Why The Content Marketing Gold Rush Dried Up For Publishers This Year

November 07, 2017

Today, everyone wants to be a publisher. Content is one of the few (if only) tools brands have to digitally engage with customers in a meaningful way. As a result, brands are investing more and more into content production and distribution. This gold rush has created a number of millionaires, although growth has stagnated for many this year. We thought it would be helpful to look broadly at how content marketing has evolved to understand why (and what to do about it).

First Era: Social [c. 2010 – 2014]

The first era of content marketing investment was driven by social, from 2010 to 2014, with brands using social platforms as an earned media opportunity. Brands spent endless marketing budgets increasing their social following (primarily on Facebook and Twitter) and producing content regularly to feed those audiences.

That quickly changed once organic reach for Facebook’s brand pages rapidly declined. As a result, brands forced on buying ads to reach the same audiences they worked so hard to build.

In 2014, a Social@Ogilvy analysis of more than 100 brand pages showed organic reach was down to 6 percent. And brand pages with more than 500,000 fans were seeing about 2 percent organic reach. That means if I had 1,000,000 fans on my Facebook page (which would have been expensive and a lot of hard work to accumulate), only about 20,000 of them may see my post show up organically. Read our 22-page whitepaper, How to Boil a Frog, which explains this in more depth.

Second Era: Publisher [c. 2013 – 2016]

The second era of the content marketing gold rush was driven by media agencies looking for a piece of the action, as social agencies were getting all the incremental dollars in digital. As a result, publishers  started helping agencies produce branded content for their clients.

Branded content was showing up on almost every RFP from media agencies (at the time, it was called native advertising, you can read here why it’s no longer called native). It’s no wonder that major publishers built their own custom content studio to meet the increasing demand. We estimate there are over 120 publisher-led custom content studios in the US market alone.

Publisher margins came under tremendous pressure during this second era of content marketing, as they experienced an increase in:

  • Production costs (as brands and agencies wanted more say in the content itself).
  • Distribution costs (as branded content spend growth was greater than organic publisher audience growth, leading to paid acquisition to make up the difference).
  • Competition from other publishers entering the game (many used pricing as a differentiator, so it quickly turned into a buyer’s market).

Brands and agencies also became less enthused about how publishers were acquiring audiences (by buying traffic, mostly on Facebook) and started to invest elsewhere.

Third Era: In-House [c. 2016 – Present]

The third era of the content marketing gold rush is when brands and agencies started to take content production and distribution in-house, opting to cut out publishers where possible.

Who creates the content? Anyone from in-house newsrooms, to content agencies (that media agencies have all started), to traditional production houses and even publisher-led content agencies. Who distributes the content? Facebook, native networks, content recommendation engines and anyone else offering “efficient” (cheap) traffic.

A lot of resources popped up out of nowhere, and companies built entire business models on helping brands build their own content marketing strategies, here are some examples:

  • Building a Brand Newsroom in 2016: Finding Content Themes [source]
  • Chase has a 10-person ‘newsroom’ delivering financial tips and advice [source]
  • Anomaly sweeps its first Digiday Content Marketing Awards with three wins [source]
  • How to build a brand newsroom [source]

The main challenge in the third (and current) era of content marketing is there is a lack of engagement with the content, for two reasons:

  1. The content may not be very good; and,
  2. The distribution is focused on efficiency (cost) versus relevance

Fourth Era: Premium [c. 2018 and beyond?]

The fourth era of the content marketing gold rush has yet to begin and presents an opportunity for premium to make a comeback.

What do we mean by premium? Premium content and premium audiences. And, what makes content premium? It lets the audience decide what gets with their attention. And finally, what makes an audience premium? Trusted distribution that is aligned with a brand’s target audience segments.

After nearly a decade of the digital advertising industry chasing audiences with no real concern for where that audience came from, or its legitimacy, the industry has acknowledged there is value in premium content again: it attracts real audiences and the right audiences.

Context matters. When you open up your Facebook news feed and see an ad for home renovation supplies, a download call-to-action for Candy Crush, and a trailer for The Lego Batman movie, all mixed in with the endless political coverage, debate, and news surrounding current events. Is advertising really going to be effective in this context?

Differentiation Is A Must!

In summary, publishers first need to acknowledge that the content marketing gold rush has passed. In order to get back to real growth, differentiation is a must! It is not about being better than other publishers, rather, it’s about offering a better solution for brands than simply producing and distributing content in-house (or with their agency).

A focus on premium content and premium audiences (via trusted distribution) will lead to higher content engagement, which has true brand value. Publishers need to focus on proving that their content is actually moving the needle on brand metrics such as awareness or even purchase intent.

Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar. Follow his leadership blog at findfocus.today. At Polar, Kunal leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. He is passionate about leadership and finding focus in a modern era. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Medium or Twitter.



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