Has coronavirus killed content marketing?

Content marketing has been a growing source of advertising revenue for news publishers in recent years and according to the Content Marketing Association is worth £5bn a year in the UK alone. But it has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. With in-flights magazines grounded and many publishers closing down their content marketing divisions – does it have a future?

Roughly speaking there are two broad divisions in content marketing:

  • branded content – where the content appears on a platform that is owned by the brand (either directly or through a partnership)
  • native advertising (or content) – where the content appears on a third-party platform but is designed to look like that platform’s own content.

Native advertising – also known as advertorials or sponsored content – is what typically appears in newspapers and magazines, designed to look like the editorial content that appears in its pages, although under ASA guidelines in the UK it must be clearly marked as an advert.

This content is often created using the publisher’s in-house team who use their expertise in storytelling and reader engagement to help brands reach potential customers.

A number of national news publishers have commercial content divisions: The New York Times runs T Brand Studio, The Guardian runs Guardian Labs and the FT runs FT Commercial, to name a few

However, some are now turning their backs on this source of revenue, particularly as the pandemic has hit advertising spend.

The Telegraph said in June that it will close its award-winning branded content division, Spark, at the end of the year. It has worked with brands such as IBM, Specsavers and Skoda. The title has said it will instead focus on long-term partnerships that tie in with its subscription-focused strategy.

Around 90 staff lost their jobs as a result of the move which was planned before the pandemic but hastened by it. It appears to have been a result of a strategic decision for the publisher to focus on paid-for subscriptions rather than advertising.

In 2018, its latest available full-year accounts, Telegraph Media Group made a pre-tax profit of £0.9m – down more than 90% on the year before – on turnover of £271.4m, down 2% year-on-year.

Business news website Quartz was ad-funded from its launch in 2012 under Atlantic Media through until 2018, when it was bought by Japanese firm Uzabase and installed a premium paywall – which became a metered paywall a year later, offering fewer free articles.

Design was a key part of Quartz’s offering to advertisers. Even display adverts were treated to make them appear seamless next to editorial content, with native advertising a key revenue stream. The site worked with 80 brands in 2014, Digiday reported, including GE and Land Rover.

But in May this year Quartz closed its offices in London, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Washington DC as it cut 80 jobs to mitigate the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Similarly Buzzfeed, which also relied heavily on income from native advertising – selling its ability to make things go “viral” – was forced to close its newsrooms in the UK and Australia during the lockdown.

The digital-only news outfit made a loss of £9.4m in the UK in 2018, with turnover down nearly £12m. In 2019 it cut 15% of its global workforce.

All this might seem to spell the end for content marketing in news media, but in fact it may simply be a case of refining publishers’ approach to it.

‘Branded content is and should be the story…’

Matt Potter, chief content officer at content marketing agency John Brown Media, told Press Gazette that publishers were wrong to think that “branded content is a piece of the pie that you can grab” and workshop “with the same staff that do other kinds of content”.

When it came to sponsored content on Buzzfeed, he said it was essentially “glorified advertising” – not the compelling content needed to make content marketing work.

Potter said publishers have to stop interrupting what people really want to read with “a message from our sponsor” and instead “help brands become the very thing that people are interested in”.

He said: “Branded content is and should be the story… it has to fight twice as hard as content that we know people already subscribe to [in order] to be fascinating and to be brilliant, [to work] for different generational groups or even just to be funny, to be deep, to be true.

“It has to not be this kind of ‘we interrupt your Daily Telegraph [with] stuff from the sponsor’ or ‘we interrupt these listicles on Buzzfeed to produce some stuff about Coco Pops’. Nobody engages with those things. What people do engage with is great content, wherever it comes from – great storytelling. The examples are everywhere.”

Potter himself gives the example of Netflix documentary series The Defiant Ones about the creation of the Beats headphones empire. Another, often seen as the gold standard of content marketing, is BMW’s The Hire, a 2001 limited series starring Clive Owen. The goal in each case being to get potential customers to engage with the brand without the focus on selling its products to them. As Potter said, the brand is the story.

So what can publishers do to improve their content marketing strategies?

Nicola Murphy, chief executive of River Group, the ad agency behind Superdrug magazine Dare, told the FIPP World Media Congress this year that content has to resonate, whatever medium it’s in.

“It’s all about whether the editorial lead on that – the person speaking, the host of the podcast, the people in the video, the journalist who wrote the article, the editor who curated and edited the magazine – really understand why that content is important to its audience and what is important to its audience in that content. That’s what’s really key.

“Lots of magazines have gone… but for the most part that’s because they weren’t giving something unique in a vertical that enough people were interested in even to buy a copy or indeed for an advertiser to advertise in. So much has now gone online. It’s not about more content, it’s about content that does more.”

Kim Willis, group strategy director at global content marketing agency Cedar, told Press Gazette it was important for publishers to deliver a “brand safe experience” and to be “really strategic about who you work with”, while making sure the content is of high quality “because customers won’t engage with it otherwise.”

Willis said brands are “looking for experiences that are really integrated into their customer’s own journey”, so there should be a focus on where the customer goes next to find out more information about a product, or where to buy or book those products.

Potter said content marketers should not rely too heavily on data to lead them. “Your data can give you a steer, your data can tell you what people are already interested in, [but] your data cannot make you amusing, funny, fascinating,” he said. “Your data cannot make you compelling.

He said brands needed to remember to be “human-centric” and also step away from their “brand orthodoxy” – the branding rules they abide by – otherwise customers “already know what they’re going to get”.

He said content marketing also takes expertise. “It takes proper journalists and proper sector specialists, not just a rank of SEO copywriters, to engage people,” he said.

“You can’t just get people who in the morning you tell to spend an hour writing something about toothbrushes, then in the afternoon it’s kettles and then it’s cars and then it’s holidays and expect that to be anything like doing the job for you…

“You do have to say ‘who knows, who cares, and who can use that data they’re given’ to take this and spin this, just like every great investigative journalist would, into ‘you’ve got to hear this, stop everything you’re doing and listen’.”

Among the business casualties of the pandemic are free newspapers and magazines, particularly those served on planes which were grounded at the height of the lockdown. Flight numbers continue to be low as people avoid traveling and rolling quarantine rules come into force.

High Life, British Airways’ own in-flight magazine – the first of its kind when it launched in 1973 – is produced and published by Cedar. The agency also publishes the Tesco Magazine for the supermarket chain, which is the most-read free magazine in the UK according to ABC circulation figures.

High Life remains in print, despite coronavirus, although its distribution model has changed. The magazine is still available in BA airport lounges, but it is also now mailed out to 40,000 of its customers direct to their door.

With the coronavirus came a spike in digital engagement, seen across the news media industry, said Willis. As a result, Cedar launched a High Life website on 1 September, publishing content on a monthly basis. It emails the content to BA’s 5.8m customers each month.

But is there a long-term future for print?

“As long as I’ve been in the industry, it feels like year after year there is a call that maybe print is dead now and that has never happened – and it’s definitely not happening now,” said Willis.

“Yes there’s been a growth in digital content consumption and growth in digital engagement behaviours, but there is definitely still a role for print – particularly with our older audiences, but also in general.

“Print just delivers a very different kind of experience, it’s a much more ‘lean back, spend time with this piece of content and really luxuriate in the experience of reading these amazing articles and enjoying the photography’, rather than looking at something on the go on your phone.”

She added: “Tesco magazine is still the UK’s most-read [free] magazine, which is saying something, and these are still delivering really good results for brands, so I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.”

Potter said: “I think anybody would be a fool to declare one platform or another as always the right thing or always the wrong thing. It’s really clear that if we know anything from the Covid era, it’s that everything we assumed about where [things ought to be]… is subject to change.”

He said there are benefits to “messaging you can touch physically”, with research by John Brown Media showing tactile content is perceived as being more trustworthy, more permanent and more authoritative.

“So for brands where trust is vitally important, there will always be this advantage to having some trust capital in something like a high-quality magazine piece, or a journal, or a book,” he said.

“However, I think absolutely we have seen a quantum shift to online and actually to people stopping pretending that online is a very specific niche and realising that online is the default medium for a lot of people.

“The fact that we do now have that we do now have Zoom meetings, that we now sit a lot of time in our dormitory towns, or in our suburbs, instead of in the centre of town – it means that there are two factors at work.

“One is that online has become part of what we want, but two is that we know, as physical closeness and physical presence becomes rarer, then it will become a more valuable commodity.

“I wouldn’t bet against the idea that there are lots of [brands thinking] how they can become, or invest in, something of that permanence and trust and physical presence in their media – and it might be that print has a place at the table for them.”

Future of native advertising: Emerging trends

Willis said the coronavirus was “the biggest disruptive event” she’s seen in her 20 years in the industry, changing not only what the brands were able to offer to customers but customers’ mindsets as well, with their needs and desires “changing really dramatically” during lockdown.

“That totally changed the landscape for content marketing,” she said. “It meant that we needed to… find ways in which the brand could be useful and entertaining and helpful to customers given where they were at in their lives.”

She said customers were engaging with brands digitally, with content engagement across Cedar’s brands, which also include Eurostar and IWG, up 5,000%. Engagement via social media and email also doubled.

Willis said there was a huge demand for branded content as a means of communicating with customers during lockdown, particularly when traditional advertising might not be reaching them.

More generally there is higher demand for video content now than ever – “it is definitely a growing field,” said Willis – but this can range from a 15-second Instagram story to something closer to a documentary-style movie.

She said audio was another growth area. “The opportunities in audio are growing all the time, and that’s not just podcast, that’s audio guides, having audio versions of the article content.” The New Yorker makes audio versions of their long reads, for example, “so you can just press play and listen to it like it was a podcast”. This is something High Life has also tried.

Willis said the other big industry trend was towards data, namely using data and insights to “power your newsroom”.  “This has become 100 times more important in the time of coronavirus where customer needs are changing so quickly,” she said.

“It’s become absolutely vital that you’re able to get good customer insight, good data about your customers in really quickly, get that into the data teams, respond to it fast, and get that content out really fast so that you can keep on top of the changing trends and changing mindsets in the marketplace.

“And if you can do that you see the results. The engagement levels are always far better than if you didn’t… There’s a real value win in that if you can be the first to respond to that need, it really pays off.”

It seems branded content does still have a future within news publishing – and even one in print – but it may require some changes on the part of publishers for it to remain a healthy source of revenue.

Picture: Shutterstock

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