Some years ago while attempting to explain the thinking behind my then-startup Federated Media, I wrote that all brands are publishers (it was over on the FM blog, which the new owners apparently have taken down — a summary of my thinking can be found here). I’d been speechifying on this theme for years, since well before FM or even the Industry Standard — after all, great brands always created great content (think TV ads or the spreads in early editions of Wired), we just didn’t call it that until our recent obsession with “native advertising” and “content marketing,” an obsession I certainly helped stoke during my FM years.
Today, there is an entire industry committed to helping brands become publishers, and the idea that brands need to “join the conversation” and “think like media companies” is pretty widely held. But I think the metaphor of brands as media creators has some uneasy limitations. We are all wary of what might be called contextual dissonance — when we consume media, we want to do so in proper context. I’ve seen a lot of branded content that feels contextually dissonant to me — easily shareable stories distributed through Outbrain, Buzzfeed, and Sharethrough, for example, or highly shareable videos distributed through YouTube and Facebook.
So why is this content dissonant? I’m thinking out loud here, but it has to do with our expectations. When a significant percentage of the content that gets pushed into my social streams is branded content, I’m likely to presume that my content streams have a commercial agenda. But when I’m in content consumption mode, I’m not usually in a commercial mode. To be clear, I’m not hopping on the “brands are trying to trick us into their corporate agendas” bandwagon, I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. There are plenty of times during any given day when I *am* in commercial context — wandering through a mall, researching purchases online, running errands in my car — but when I’m consuming content, I’m usually not in commercial context. Hence the disassociation. When clearly commercial content is offered during a time when I’m not in commercial mode, it just feels off.
I think this largely has to do with a lack of signaling in media formats these days. Much has been made of how native advertising takes on the look and feel of the content around it, and most of the complaint has to do with how that corporate speech is somehow disingenuous, sly, or deceitful. But I don’t think that’s the issue. What we have here is a problem of context, plain and simple.
Any company with money can get smart content creators to create, well, smart content, content that has as good a chance as any to be part of a conversation. In essence, branded content is something of a commodity these days — just like a 30 second spot or a display ad is a commodity. We’re just not accustomed to commercial content in the context of our social reading habits. In time, as formats and signaling get better, we will be. As that occurs, “content marketing” becomes table stakes — essential, but not what will set a brand apart.
Reflecting on my earlier work on brands as media companies, I realize that the word “media” was really a placeholder for “experience.” It’s not that every company should be a media company per se — but rather, that every company must become an experience company. Media is one kind of experience — but for many companies, the right kind of experience is not media, at least if we understand “media” to mean content.
But let’s start with a successful experience that is media — American Express’ Open Forum. If I as a consumer chose to engage with Open Forum, I do so in the clear context that it’s an American Express property, a service created by the brand. There’s no potential for deceit — the context is understood. This is a platform owned and operated by Amex, and I’ll engage with it knowing that fact. Over the years Amex has earned a solid reputation for creating valuable content and advice on that platform — it has built a media experience that has low contextual dissonance.
But not every experience is a media experience, unless you interpret the word “media” in a far more catholic sense. If you begin to imagine every possible touchpoint that a customer might have with your brand as a highly interactive media experience — mediated by the equivalent of a software- and rules-driven UX — well now we’re talking about something far larger.
To illustrate what I mean I think back to my original “Gap Scenario” from nearly five years ago. I imagined what it might be like to visit a retail outlet like Gap a few years from now. I paint a picture where the experience that any given shopper might have in a Gap store (or any other retail outlet) is distinct and seamless, because Gap has woven together a tapestry of data, technology platforms, and delivery channels that turns a pedestrian trip to the mall into a pleasurable experience that makes me feel like the company understands and values me. I’m a forty-something Dad, I don’t want to spend more than 45 seconds in Gap if I don’t have to. My daughter, on the other hand, may want to wander around and engage with the retail clerks for 45 minutes or more. Different people, different experiences. It’s Gap’s job to understand these experience flows and design around them. That takes programmatic platforms, online CRM, well-trained retail clerks, new approaches to information flows, and a lot of partners.
I believe that every brand needs to get good at experience design and delivery. Those that are great at it tend to grow by exponential word of mouth — think of Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, or Earnest (a new lending company). When marketing becomes experience design, brands win.
There’s far more to say about this, including my thesis that “information first” companies win at experience-based marketing. All fodder for far more posts. For now, I think I’ll retire the maxim “all companies are media companies” and replace it with “every company is an experience company.” Feels more on key.