Brands Should Stop Trying to Be Publishers

Curate Others' Great Content, at Less Expense, and Share It With Consumers

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If buzz implies truth, then there is no doubt about it: Every brand must be a publisher. It's the mantra for advertising in this social age.

If you believe this, then every brand should have a newsroom watching for flashes of cultural zeitgeist and coming up with witty retorts. Oreo is heralded for telling people to dunk in the dark when the Super Bowl's lights went out, and it earned a lot of impressions and a bunch of new Twitter followers from that clever and timely tweet.

But this one-in-a-million viral success story obscures the reality: Being a publisher is not for the faint of heart. It requires a huge investment in content, most of which will yield negative returns; its performance is inconsistent, unpredictable and often immeasurable. Of the brands I know, 99% wouldn't even consider taking that kind of a risk.

Successful publishers have a strong point of view. TMZ and Perez Hilton can snarkily tear down celebrities at every turn on the red carpet, but could brands like Chanel and Pantene ever call out even the tiniest flaw in Heidi Klum's outfit when it's their turn to comment on the Oscars? Not a chance.

An authentic point of view draws a line. It has both praise and punishment to meter out. Without an edge, it would have nothing to stand for, nothing to relate to. The social world is one of conversational marketing, but how boring is the conversation where all one party says is, "I'm really great!"? Get me out of that ego-fest -- fast!

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that brands can't have a point of view: companies like Virgin and Red Bull built their brand identity on standing out from the crowd. These are some of the most delightful and engaging brands, but they are few indeed; most brand managers I know would be fired for pulling those sorts of stunts.

One of the premises driving the current "brands must be publishers" mania is valid: Brands do need to earn a spot on consumers' radar. And to do that, they need content that has a point of view, and is relevant to their audience. But most importantly, they need to move beyond talking only about themselves.

Try reading Oreo's current Twitter feed: you'd have to really love Oreo shtick to want to subscribe. Since the Super Bowl, Oreo's been tweeting little mini-ads once or twice a day, cute and benign and edgeless … and so hopelessly devoted to itself.

But just what else does Oreo have to talk about?

A lot, actually. They could write about the joy of being a kid, sharing moments with friends, or finding sweetness in life. What if they could move the cookie out of the spotlight and focus on delivering meaningful, exceptional content to their customers' newsfeeds? Their audience size, conversational relevance and impact would improve by tenfold.

Crazy? Not really. American Express has devoted tens of millions to supporting small businesses with content, events, tools and resources. L'Oreal would be well served by offering consistent beauty help to its audience. And for a delicious chocolate cookie that begs to be twisted, opened, and licked, it's not crazy to delight people with lots of other examples of those sweet moments in life.

But to write about sweet moments twice a day with anything of substance would require a whole publishing operation. And oy, the approval cycles from the marketing department!

A full-scale creative operation quickly sounds expensive, not to mention hard to pull off reliably. The evidence from other media is clear: most TV show pilots flop. Over 80% of Hollywood movies earn back less than they cost to make. And that's just the visible tip of the content creation-iceberg; the greatest hidden cost of creation lies down below, on the cutting room floor.

Few marketing departments have even long odds of being able to handle the pace, volume and risk profile of publishing. Successful publishers on the web post dozens of times a day, while a single piece of marketing creative can take weeks to be approved in most organizations.

What's a brand to do? Creating all that content in-house is messy and risky, so why not leave the sausage-making to the experts? But there's another way to bring great content to your customers: Be a curator. Being a curator allows you to:

Let other people take the blame. Brands don't have to fully "own" the point of view of curated content. As Jason Hirschhorn loves to say in his daily news roundup for media execs, he's "just" the curator. Granted, a great curator selects great works, as Jason does. But it doesn't mean he has to agree with them; he just needs to declare them worthy and relevant. Get the credit without the blame.

Let other people do the work (and pay the bills). Creating truly standout content is hard and expensive. That's why ad agencies obsess for months to get each campaign's worth of creative just right. And it doesn't happen every day. Have you seen any other notable Oreo tweets since the Super Bowl? Selecting content, on the other hand, is a skill that can be exercised with close to daily perfection.

Let customers know the real you. Consumers know that marketers are marketing to them, and for Oreo to say that its purpose in life is to create original journalism chronicling life's moments of sweetness would be dubious at best. But a sponsorship role is accepted and, frankly, appreciated. Oreo can say that these sweet moments are brought to you by Oreo, because hey, that's just what we cookie guys and gals are like. It's believable and real.

Don't buy the hype that every brand must be a publisher. Remember that your brand is a brand. You don't need your customers to know what you think about the latest political scandal; you need them to know why your product is awesome. You don't measure success based on engagement the way publishers do; you measure success based on sales.

Connect with your customers on a personal level by becoming the honored convener and even patron of great content. Relate to your audience via the dreams that you stand for, beyond just your product's attributes and flavors. What do your customers want to hear about, and what have you earned the right to discuss? Find third-party publishers who have something to say of meaning that you can really put your brand behind! Lead with the content, not the cookie.

Be a brand, and use a chorus to back up your own voice. Let others who are experts spend money filling the cutting room floor.

Ben Elowitz is is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a technology platform company.
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