In January I wrote that "[c]ustom publishing gives advertisers a chance to keep content and cut out the middleman." Wicks Group, a private-equity investor, had just agreed to buy and combine two custom-content firms, creating a new firm with an estimated $100 million in annual billings.
Digiday has been publishing a series of posts examining the tactics that retailers have adopted to compete against Amazon. In "Retailers are the new publishers", Josh Sternberg wrote:
Now more than ever – with the ascent of social media and mobile shopping – retailers have moved beyond peddling their wares through pamphlets and [have] become full-fledged media players.
Sternberg briefly profiles three retailers with online operations (Gap, Target and startup Refinery29). These companies have staffed to generate content that they expect (or hope) builds relationships with customers, strengthens brand perceptions and ultimately increases sales.
In the post Rachel Tipograph, director of global digital and social media for Gap, offers her view of the emerging landscape:
The Internet requires every brand, business and individual to become a publisher. Content is the currency within our social Web… Consumers are no longer looking for shopping experiences that are distinctly separate: here are my favorite shops to transact with and over here are my favorite fashion publishers. Today, consumers are looking to shop within content.
The Digiday post does not offer any data on how this content focus is increasing sales, but there is at least some evidence that content marketing is off to a rocky start. B2B Online recently reported the results of a survey by iMakeNews, a company with an interest in promoting its own content marketing services. According to B2B Online:
90% of respondents said content marketing is a either a high or medium priority, but 46% said it represented less than 10% of their marketing budgets. Also, 44% cited finding and sourcing relevant content as their primary challenge. Only 27% said the content their company distributes establishes them as a thought leader, with 13% saying it reads like sales collateral.
I doubt those numbers reflect the story at Refinery29. A first-time visitor could easily mistake the web presence for a lifestyle media site. By comparison, a trip to Target.com or Gap.com leaves little doubt that you're there to shop.
Looking at Refinery29, I wonder if there is a lesson for traditional periodical and book publishers. If you have an existing operation, it's hard to start fresh and reimagine your customer relationships. If you're broadly focused, you tend to write to the middle and hope some of the "brand love" washes over to the far reaches of your target audiences.
That tension between "established" and "new" may be part of the reason that iMakeNews found so little financial support for branded content. It's not clear if the media-savvy approach used by Refinery29 will drive enough sales to warrant the investment, but I think a series of half-steps is likely to generate little more than a handful of short-term gains.
That lesson for publishers? Start with an audience, focus deeply on its needs, and keep the established entity at bay. Borrow what you can and invent the rest. Oh, and think about adding a curated event or two into the mix.
An additional resource: If you're interested in an advertising perspective on content marketing strategies, you might consider buying Advertising Age's recent report, "Going native: Content marketing strategies". Subtitled "How to turn brands into storytellers", the report is on sale now for $249.