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How to Do Branded Content Marketing: The Brand Publishing Spectrum


March 8, 2022


March 11, 2022

When HubSpot acquired The Hustle for a whopping $27M in 2021, it left a lot of marketers scratching their heads: What’s a martech SaaS platform going to do with a media company? As we’ve seen brands acting like media companies quickly become the norm, it’s no surprise that some brands are turning into media companies.

So will HubSpot slap its logo on The Hustle and start slanging its software to its 1.5M+ new Internet friends? Will they mine the subscriber data and slide it over to their sales team? Or will they let the editorial stand on its own and just keep the new revenue stream going? The answer is probably D) all of the above.

Beyond the B2B world, D2C brands like Dollar Shave Club and Casper have been playing around with different forms of brand publishing for the better part of a decade. Glossier and goop were doing content before they had anything to sell (both brands launched as newsletters). More recently, hardware and software purveyors like Apple and Peloton have been doubling down on content through the likes of Apple TV+ and Peloton’s recent struggles (and comparative margins on software).

Even when content is what the company does, marketing through content (instead of traditional ads) often still makes sense. Enter Netflix’s foray into content marketing with the launch of Tudum, a branded blog that only talks about Netflix shows.

If you ask a marketer what their content strategy is, the typical answers come in the form of doing SEO, starting a blog, and sending out emails. In a decade-plus-long career in marketing that started in journalism, I’ve found that there is one major piece that is missing in the launching of a content strategy: I call it the spectrum of brand publishing.

How should your brand think about content strategy? Start with where you want to fall on the brand publishing spectrum.

Content Marketing: Quick Clarification

Everything is content, so let’s simplify. I like to think of content marketing as the soft sell, that when done right, can work better than the hard sell. Call it selling through information, education, or entertainment. Pretty much any form of marketing that is not direct response advertising. Content marketing is about adding value, not asking for the sale. Think Apple Store rep, not used car salesman.

How Content Contributes to Marketing KPIs

Before we dive into the spectrum, it’s important to clarify what you hope to gain from said content strategy. Brand publishers borrowing from the digital media playbook can create value in a variety of measurable ways. Are you looking for some quick-hit traffic or trying to impact public opinion? The answer is probably all of the things listed below, so pick your priorities and stick to them.

Short-term benefits of content marketing

  • Traffic—Fill that funnel! When you build an audience around content that adds value, you get high-quality and relevant site visits that can be leveraged for retargeting and lead generation.
  • Lead Generation—Get those digits! B2B lead gen is all about getting you that hyper-relevant whitepaper/guide/case study in exchange for your email and/or phone number. B2C players would benefit from offering something more creative than a discount.
  • CPCs—Content clicks are cheap! CPCs are low and CTRs are high when you pay to promote content. Compared to direct response, this higher funnel traffic acquisition tactic is a goldmine for paid media managers.
  • CVR—Always be closing! When you add value with content, your leads are more likely to trust you and buy what you're selling.
  • Shares, Comments, Likes, Faves, Saves—When you have something interesting to say, people engage.

Long-term benefits of content marketing

  • Data—Retargeting isn’t what it used to be, but marketers pay top dollar to access publishers' audiences, whether that’s through direct buys, private marketplaces, or programmatic auctions. Imagine if you had a site of your own to mine for ad targeting and insights.
  • SEO—The more you publish thoughtful, engaging content on a specific subject, the more the Google gods shine down upon you with that sweet, sweet, organic search traffic.
  • Brand Awareness—Content creates trust and authority; when you’re talking to, educating, or entertaining your audience, they’re more likely to see you as experts.
  • Community—When you launch or sell into a highly cultivated audience, your chances for success are exponentially higher. But the road is a long one, so don’t forget to have the build vs. buy conversation (HubSpot built, then bought).

The Spectrum of Brand Publishing

Want to know a not-so-secret secret? There is no one-size-fits-all for content marketing strategies. All brand publishing operations fall on a spectrum: somewhere between unbranded and branded, subjective and objective. Each brand’s approach varies greatly and there are advantages and tradeoffs to every strategy. As businesses evolve, they often shift from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Branded: brand logo in the lockup, brand as part of the name, on the brand domain, etc.
Unbranded: no clear affiliation with the brand
Subjective: clear bias, writing from a point of view, more salesy
Objective: closer to or actual journalism

When you plot these on a chart, a pattern emerges. A few examples: 

Branded + Subjective:
Features clear intentions around who the message is coming from, with no attempts at true media. It elevates your marketing as you’re telling stories around relevant topics to your products and audience.

and goop built a specific audience through email, which gave them insights into what to sell and a community to sell their own products into. Neither makes attempts to be impartial, which puts these two squarely in the Branded + Subjective section.
Key KPI = Community

Branded + Objective:
This is one of the more popular approaches for larger brands, which allows them to associate themselves with thought leaders without getting in the way of authentic industry news and reporting.

Marriott mostly lets its travel magazine Marriott Bonvoy Travel do its thing, highlighting 8 romantic getaways or Afro-Colombian culture. You’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the difference between an article here or in Travel + Leisure, and that’s surely the point. What’s in it for Marriott? The coverage tackles locations where they have hotels and there are interactive widgets at the end of every article to take you from contemplation to planning a trip in just a click.
Key KPIs = Lead Generation, Traffic

Robinhood Snacks
is a financial news podcast that Robinhood acquired and expanded into the center of its content strategy, which, crucially, does not include talking about Robinhood. While the content is objective, the name is not (Robinhood Snacks used to be called Market Snacks).
Key KPIs = Brand Awareness, Traffic

Unbranded + Objective:
This is as true as media gets — no slant. It works best when leveraged as part of a larger business strategy. And it requires significant investment.

Winkle (RIP) (Casper) and MEL magazine (Dollar Shave Club) are about as objective as it gets for brand publications, covering sleep and men’s lifestyle, respectively. They don’t talk about the brands behind them or hawk products and instead build an audience around a highly relevant subject. The tie to the brand is practically invisible.
Key KPI = Data

Another example is The Hustle, which is an independent editorial media brand that is now owned by Hubspot.
Key KPIs = Community, Data

Unbranded + Subjective:
Authenticity and ethics can be questioned with this strategy if you’re not careful since you’re sharing opinions without clearly identifying where you’re coming from. I haven’t found any brand publication in this quadrant, which makes sense. If your content is going to be brand-forward, don’t skip the branding!

Where Should You Fall on the Brand Publishing Spectrum?

Most brand publishing strategies seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum: Unbranded + Objective or Branded + Subjective. Why might that be? Why are other quadrants so empty?

What Your Brand Can Learn from Notable Publishing Pivots

The trend for some notable brands has been to shift to a branded and subjective content marketing strategy:

  • Casper shuttered Van Winkle (unbranded, objective) and discontinued Woolly (branded, objective), while continuing to update the Casper Blog (branded, subjective).
  • Airbnb shuttered Pineapple (unbranded, objective) after one issue, pivoting to Airbnb Magazine (branded, objective). Both have been discontinued.
  • Intel launched iQ (first Intel iQ, then iQ by Intel, then just iQ) (branded, objective) in 2021 but it has recently been discontinued.
  • CMO.com is now CMO by Adobe (branded, objective) and is still publishing.

The trend is clear: brands have found the need to bring content closer to their core to seep as much value as possible from efforts that aren’t directly about selling. Even with a savvy strategy in place, many prominent brands have closed up shop on major publishing projects, which tells us this is one big experiment with no single right answer.

What’s the Future of Brand Publishing?

Content is evolving beyond a marketing tactic and becoming a revenue stream for some businesses. If you’re launching, product-market fit is a lot simpler when you already have the audience, the way goop and Glossier got started. Red Bull, (in)famous for daredevil-style stunts like a supersonic freefall from space, has its own media house (branded, objective). BlendTec has been crushing it (get it?) on YouTube for years with “Will it Blend?” (branded, subjective), a show where a kooky “scientist” tries to blend just about anything with, of course, a Blendtec blender. Away, not satisfied with being just a luggage company continues to publish the digital travel magazine Here, to inspire wanderlust (unbranded, objective).

The next phase of content marketing will surely see more brands take a path similar to, say, SoulCycle, which has been expertly leveraging social and streaming, and influencers and talent while expanding into concerts and subscriptions. Others will go the Andreesen Horowitz route and hire journalists to launch Future, a publication that tells the tech stories the VC firm wants told (unbranded, objective). Whether it's about controlling the narrative or finding an audience, brands will always have a lot to learn from media companies and the overlap between the two will only increase. Brands must become media companies and media companies must become brands

If you haven’t already, identify a clear content marketing strategy for your brand starting with where you want to fall on the spectrum. While the trend seems to be toward more branded and loosely subjective content, there is clear value to having access to an unbranded, objective publishing platform to feed your flywheel. But marketer beware, media is a long game and not everyone succeeds. So don’t expect—or promise—overnight success.

Could your content marketing strategy use some help? Drop us a line at growth@rightsideup.co to learn how our seasoned experts can help you use killer content to help scale your business.

Dan Ucko is the senior director of acquisition marketing at the Skimm. Dan has more than a decade of digital marketing and content leadership across media, adtech, and ecommerce, having spent time at Univision’s Fusion Media Group (now G/O Media), PepsiCo, and The Fascination, a DTC marketplace for millennials. He recently traded in his metro pass for a Tesla when he moved from NYC to Santa Barbara, California.

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