Brands *Should* Be Publishers

With so much discussion about “content marketing“, brands are learning that they need to think and act like publishers if they want to thrive in social media. But, while brands may aspire to be like RedBull (the most well know example of Brand as publisher), there are still some real questions about whether most brands will actually be able to do it. My answer is a definitive “yes”, brands can do it. More to the point, i think the best brands *have* to adopt the mindset of publishers to win in a socially connected consumer landscape. But, brands will have to get over philosophical, business and operational barriers if they want to do what great publishers do.

At the most basic, great publishers do the following:

  • Make useful stuff: Publishers deliver useful – interesting, helpful, inspiring, entertaining – material to people who can use it. Whether it’s a magazine or a radio show, a TV network or a website, the exchange between publisher and end user has to be based on a certain level of utility
  • Build an Audience: Publishers build a reachable audience – consistent, identifiable, unique, engaged – over time around that material.

Seems pretty straightforward. Why would this be hard for brands? First, most brands today don’t have the basic service orientation. It’s just a philosophical disconnect. Brands are inherently interruptive and self-centered (“Buy me!”). They are all about using annoying TV ads and banners to deliver their own message in order to drive short term results for themselves. In order to make the transition, and build an audience that cares, brands will have to adopt “service first, message later” as a core philosophy.

Great publishers see their audience as a core asset that can be translated into revenue opportunities. An active, engaged audience that’s growing takes investment, time, and careful support. That long-term business perspective runs counter to the short term urgency most companies bring to their brand building. Brands typically see advertising media as a painful expense to minimize in the short term. To fully adopt a publisher mindset, brands will need to embrace a long-term business orientation, and see the investment in audience building as a modern way to create a valuable business asset.

Operationally, the vast majority of brands will struggle with the content production process. But, it’s going to be even more important for brands to develop a consistent and unique editorial lens. Great publishing ventures need great editors, someone who can discern what’s great for the audience and pushes the editorial agenda. Brands will struggle with any message that isn’t pushing their campaign message or product features. When faced with a decision about whether to invest scarce resources into an article that’s useful vs. one that delivers their campaign message, 99% of marketers will go with the one that “sells” more. To truly deliver on “brand as publisher”, brands will have to put their audience needs before their own.

Brands can overcome these challenges and the potential upside is significant for those willing to work at it.   But what happens to brands that don’t adapt? They won’t evolve their spending mix and will remain reliant on paid adverting too long. They won’t adapt their brand, and instead of connecting with people on a higher emotional or aspirational level, they’ll simply blast out their features and benefits, losing relevance :15 at a time. They’ll miss the chance to build assets, and keep throwing money at ads. While it may require brands to work against their long grooved instincts, those that commit will end up with a built in audience, content that drives interaction and, eventually, a valuable marketing asset.

Social Media is Going to be Everyone’s Job

Good overview of the changes happening in the social media job space. Key point is that, just like “digital” before it, social media is blending into just about everyone’s role. But, companies aren’t really ready for that (Surprise, surprise):

Whether everyone is adequately trained for that job, however, is another question. Just as it took years to fully onboard email, integrating social media into the workplace is frustrated by a skills gap.

But, the biggest transformation is still just beginning. And functional skills won’t be the problem. Businesses are going to have to remake their cultures. As more and more of the core functions of business take on social, realtime dimensions, businesses are having to become truly social business. That’s a culture problem. Companies are still in the mode of adding social as another tool to do what they’ve always done. But, real innovation comes when businesses realize they can solve problems in new ways and pursue completely transformational opportunities that come when brands work in new ways.

So, lets do away with the job title. Let’s make social media part of all of our roles. But, great leaders will have to both understand the practical/skill aspects AND have a deep curiosity about how the culture of their businesses can evolve quickly.

Brand Ecosystems

TLDR version: Brands can create strategic differentiation by delivering a fully realized consumer experience across an entire ecosystem. By moving beyond simplistic persuasion messages, mass marketed brands can now offer a richer, more relevant value proposition for consumers. 

Doing a quick scan of how others are talking about brand ecosystems. It's a pretty suggestive term, but still nebulous enough that there's plenty of room for interpretation. I know we've been using the phrase here for years (but it's never gotten an especially warm embrace), but it seems like it's gaining steam more broadly. 

Jennifer Rice talked about way back in 2004 and i know others were using the term way before that. Forrester's been talking about it for years too, most notably Nate Elliot's recent work on ecosystems and how to balance presence across paid/earned/owned touchpoints. Here's a useful, publicly available deck that lays it out visually. The official Forrester stuff is worth buying, by the way, if you're just getting your head around the subject. 

Brandmdna  take a different approach, looking at the various elements that make up a brand itself, suggesting the facets – Brand DNA, goals, purpose, vision, visual identity – form an ecosytem of sorts. I don't think this is the best use of the metaphor though, and i think it misses the importance of the connections the brand has elsewhere and to other contributors.  

I think Dan Pankraz was onto this theme years ago, suggesting the best brands need to embrace their role in a broadly connected community. Extended quote: 

it’s an organic model,  where the role of the brand is to listen to the conversations happening around it, energise those conversations with interesting content and experiences. It’s all about giving the ‘brand community’  something to talk about within their own personal social networks and ‘influencers’ in youth culture are then able to add velocity to your idea penetration …eg: make sure it hits the mainstream as quickly as possible. It’s a virtuous circle that keeps re-inventing itself, so brands need to be listening to whats happening in culture so they can quickly react and create conversation around topics, new experiences. If you stop contributing, you’re dead. 

He's got a unique visualization that's worth checking out, too. 
image from


BRR does a direct comparison to a true ecosystem, visually laying out the brand analogues to the biological counterparts. Their focus is on nurturing and adapting the brand overtime in a sustained way. 

The brand ecosystem is not just an integrated network; it is a living system that functions by the interaction of each of the system's elements. When you think of the external factors of the brand ecosystem, like climate to a biological system, your competitors, markets and the economy can play an unexpected role in your company and brand. So its about quickly adapting and realigning every aspect of your system – not just about changing your logo or updating your website.

Here's their visualization: 

image from
The seemingly unstoppable David Armano has a useful visual that articulates increasingly complex connections a brand has to have to thrive. The write up is really useful too, arguing businesses are social, brands must be social, and the focus has to be long term and essentially generous for brands to thrive
image from

@Quarkstone's write up of the engagement ecosystem is definitely worth reading, too. He's squarely in the "networked world" view, and his approach blends a descriptive overview of what the components of the ecosystem are with a strategic role the element plays in helping the brand meet its business objectives. 

Most recently, Cindy Chastain presented her talk about brand ecosystems at the 2012 MiMA Summit. While her primary focus was on the way work will change for experience designers as a result of the many touchpoints, her overview of ecosystems themselves as a business model strategy drive was really helpful. Most importantly, she articulated a critical shift in our thinking about messaging and the creative experiences that drive it. The ecosystem approach enables brands/businesses to focus primarily on a multi-faceted value proposition vs. a simple persuasion message. For mass-marketed brands (e.g. breakfast cereal, clothing, snack items, beverages, etc.) this is a huge deal. The competitive field for high-turn, consumables is no longer constrained to the product itself or the effectiveness of their mass advertising. Brands can now seek ways to differentiate and win over a full consumer experience – inclusive of inspiration, persuasion, service, support, promotion, and expression. Example A: Redbull.  

Modern Agency: More McKinsey, Less Madison Avenue

I work with a pretty wide variety of agencies, from small digital production shops that may have 2 partners to some of the largest, best known ad agencies in the US. Almost all of them are struggling with the dramatic changes in the services  brands need to thrive. The small production shops seem bewildered when we ask them to bring us "big ideas" and we reject their cool app idea. The big agencies seem bewildered when we ask them to more strategically integrate social and digital into their thinking and we reject their app idea. 

Both are too focused on the output, the visible end product of their "process" and their people. What we're really seeking is smarter thinking about how brands are built and a more nuanced understanding of how to solve the business problems we're dealing with. The answer is rarely a single ad, app or video. As people are more deeply & frequently connected than ever, the business solutions, the big ideas, are  going to have to be just as networked. Our brands and marketers are seeking more nuanced solutions to meet a more complex business challenge. 

The best brand stories are always going to be simple, clear articulations of a well thought through position. BUt, the way those stories are built and delivered will require a command of many more tools. Its going to be an almost algorythmic approach to delivering the messages. We'll need partners with a deep appreciation of the how all the variables in the algorythm interrelate, not just the biggest ones.  We'll need more McKinsey, less Madison Avenue. 



From Buzz to Something Real: The Peril of “Earned Media”

Like most marketers, we're trying to figure out just how real the promise of "earned media" is. Truly earned, positive exposure for your brand is almost unicorn-esque: it takes a fantastic product, a clearly articulated brand story, and a lot of elbow grease to get it started.But more and more, we're talking to brands about how "earned media" can be a powerful benefit from great marketing.

But, we're nowhere near close to being able to answer the legitimate questions we'll be getting from smart marketers about how to equate the value of earned media to the stuff we're hoping to displace. So, when marketers ask "what's the value of earned media", we don't have the tools to really answer that question.

We know, generally, that exposure for the brand that we don't have to actually pay for is good. But, can you put a media value on the amount of blog posts, tweets, mentions, comments, etc? How do we go from vague "buzz", to real, legitimate "media value" from the conversation?

(Yes, i know the whole question is kind of crass. But, it's still legitimate. More importantly, as paid media gets less effective/efficient, we'll need to understand how to prioritize our efforts in the social space. Which brings us back to how to value the conversations… )

Here's the nut that needs to be cracked:

* the promise of "earned" media is that it could, theoretically, replace "paid" media, if we could get our arms around it.

* to get our arms around it, we need to be able to track the activity over time and see real trends emerging from the data and, eventually, make connections in the data, leading to legitimate insights

* to track it, we need a consistent definition of "earned media", and a clear, consistent categorization of the forms that earned media takes, from blog posts, tweets, comments, "likes" etc.

* To measure it, we need to see the differences over time, and equate some sort of value to each of the instances we see it. Even if that value is relative (*this* is better than *that*) and not financially quantifiable. Ideally, we'd be able to identify some causal relationship between "earned" media and cash register rings. But, until then, we'll need some sort of objective way to rank/force rank the desirability of the forms earned media takes.

* all we have – right now – is an "impression" as the common media unit. We have to be able to do better than that.

So, what I guess I'm looking for is a tool that will help us track and categorize the "earned" media we're getting like we track our paid media. I've got all sorts of tools that show me activity, some that can show me sentiment, and one or two that can give me semantic insights in the deluge of text. But, how do i know how much it's worth? It's the unicorn tool, i'm afraid.