It’s midway through 2018, and the challenges facing the publishing industry show no sign of letting up.
Print circulations and advertising revenues are tanking. Digital subscriptions and membership schemes are showing promise, but for the most part the associated revenues aren’t growing fast enough to cover the losses. So what can be done?
Nearly every publisher now has a branded content offering. Some are just starting out; others have been doing it for years. Some are more successful than others. No matter the size of the business or the type of your audience, it’s always worth reviewing your structures and processes to make sure you are on top of the market and ready to react to anything that might change.
Labelling and structure
Labelling is crucial. An editorial reputation takes years to establish but only seconds to destroy. One of the easiest ways to do that is to deceive your audience into reading commercial content.
The risks of doing so are not worth taking. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations prohibit “using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer”. Break those regulations, and you could be in hot legal water.
The Guardian creates branded content underneath the banner of Guardian Labs, and their policies are very strict. We should know – our own Director of Content and Strategy was formerly Head of Studio at Guardian Labs. ‘Supported by’ applies to content that is funded by a third party but is editorially independent. The funding partner has no sign-off whatsoever on the content; they cannot even see it before it goes live. ‘Paid content’ means the advertiser has full control. The definitions of these labels are published online.
Ideally, all publishers would make their definitions public, but very few do. Ambiguous labels might give you some wiggle room when it comes to pushing things to your audience, but don’t forget they may lose trust in your brand if they feel duped – and you may get more than a slap on the wrist if you don’t clearly signpost your paid-for content.
Labelling is only one piece in the jigsaw. The Guardian’s commercial content team is entirely separate from core editorial. Given the paper’s DNA, it cannot risk anyone thinking its journalists’ editorial independence can be compromised by commercial imperatives.
The policy at Condé Nast (for whom Graham has also done some work) is slightly more relaxed. That’s fine; it’s not a news brand. Staff journalists can work on advertorial content (if the relevant editor approves). Advertisers get sign off on all content, including editorially independent ‘sponsored’ content, although editorial can refuse to make amends if they don’t agree with them.
All publishers need to have honest internal discussions about the divide between church and state. There’s no hard and fast rule about where to draw the line – every publication will be different. But you certainly need to make sure everyone – especially the sales team – knows where the line is drawn.
The impact of branded video
The need to maintain that line often has staffing implications. Guardian Labs, for example, had to duplicate roles that existed in editorial. That can be expensive, particularly when it comes to video production; good filmmakers aren’t cheap.
In such circumstances outsourcing video work entirely to production partners is a perfectly valid solution. A busy, successful branded content team will want to produce everything from short-form animations to long-form documentaries, and those working for larger publishers will want to cover every subject under the sun. If you can’t predict what you will be working on next, what skills do you really need in-house?
Using production partners with access to extensive networks of specialists makes more sense than having generalists on the payroll. It’s flexible and avoids unnecessary overheads. The best partners can feel just like an extension of your own team.
Even publishers who are comfortable using a central video team to work on commercial and editorial content may want to look at this model as the demands of editorial are often hard to balance with those of target-driven sales people. What takes priority if the in-house team is at capacity and a new campaign is signed off?
Tracking revenue from branded content is easy. Tracking profit is not, but it is also absolutely necessary. When it comes to measuring costs, external invoices are only one piece of the puzzle. Time is money, so remember to build in days for your internal team too. Use either a timesheet or plan in advance how many hours a team will spend on a project, and work out an average rate based on the team’s salaries. Line this up next to the external invoices and you give yourself a pretty good view of branded content profitability.
There is no one size fits all solution to any of this. Audiences’ tolerance for, and perception of, commercial content will vary depending on the context and even the publication. A profitable branded content department has the power to keep a publication going in times of uncertain circulations and memberships. So be transparent, be consistent, and keeping pushing forward.
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