Content Conundrum: How Owned Media Changes the Game

Advertisers Must Think of Content as Part of the Brand Experience and Deliver It With Care

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Point your lens toward Madison Avenue. What you see is the media industry burning its index finger on the digital-content trend. Agencies squirming when clients ask them for a content strategy. Content farms burning, measurements churning and advertisers yearning for content.

Why the fuss? After all, great content has been around since Moses made his low-tech tablets. The conundrum arises from the simple fact that content builds relationships, but those who pay someone else via paid-media advertising don't control that relationship. Since the web provides universal access to publishing, advertisers now have the means to take back some control. Oh, and did I mention that on the web, great content gets free distribution? Consumers come and get it if it meets their needs.

Advertisers can produce content and get their own audience without, ostensibly, the assistance of a media company. In her new book, "Content Marketing," Rebecca Lieb points out that while anyone can become a publisher on the internet, few can do it well.

But even with the know-how to produce good content, we need to make a lot of decisions. How do we measure the new model? How do we communicate brand in a way that supports our business, and how does the content reflect or support our brand?

The aspiring publisher quickly runs into the problem of too many options on blending content and persuasion.

By contrast, traditional publishing leaves advertisers with relatively few choices: There's an ad. It appears in a box. The box contains copy. Ad agencies make the copy. The brand figures out "who," and the media ecosystem delivers those eyeballs. Put money in the slot, and out comes advertising.

It's the mousetrap model: Content is bait, persuasion is the trap. The ubiquity of this model helps grease the skids by making clean lines for transaction. It scales well. The process for connecting brand persuasion to content is simple juxtaposition. But when advertisers create content for themselves, no "box" is required, and weaving brand and content becomes a craft.

In the beginning, advertisers played an important role in content creation. They often owned entire programs, inserted their own ads and bought "carriage" from networks. They had clever ways to build persuasion into content without tainting the content with blatant push. Beyond the inevitable sponsorship message, equity colors may have been omnipresent. The characters may have had problems that the sponsor's brand could solve. The casting may have included spokespeople. The persuasion had elements of reciprocity: "I've brought you some nice content, surely you like me now."

On the web, if the consumer doesn't like you, the results are instant and terminal, so reciprocity seems like a good bet. A 2006 sponsorship study in the Journal of Advertising Research, conducted by Bill Harvey, Stu Gray and Gerald Despain, determined that this sort of persuasion works.

"This study and 28 similar ones preceding it clearly demonstrate that "exclusive' sponsorship on the internet produces a substantial lift in brand consideration and purchase intent. ... And we can now add to this equation that there a considerable and meaningful "gratitude effect' generated by sponsorship."

Especially for established brands, branding mechanisms can work to develop top-of -mind associations, a visual connection with the packaging and a positive view of the brand. In "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," the early-1960s classic sponsored-TV show, the announcer said: "Just as the mother lion protects her cubs, you can protect your children with an insurance policy from Mutual of Omaha."

The web adds dimensions to that dynamic by enabling advertisers to knit content fragments into whole fabric.

Recently, in a room full of advertising brain trustees, one executive said, "The "new creative' might be an ecosystem of content." Brilliant. The brand lives in the connections, the juxtapositions, the inferences, the feeling of reciprocity.

The relationship of content and distribution is not the setting of traps in every hallway, but more like a system of helpful Post-it Notes and handrails that help consumers get where they want to go.

Advertisers can manage the conundrum by thinking of content as part of brand experience and delivering it with care. Value, not persuasion, is at the center.

You want those mice to love you. If your place isn't pleasant, the mice will move next door.

Ted McConnell is exec VP-digital for the Advertising Research Foundation.

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