Good reasons for playing hard to get

After a decade or so of being unloved, print media is suddenly looking like hot property. If Japanese financial publisher Nikkei’s move to scoop up the Financial Times for $1.3 billion wasn’t enough, now former FT owner Pearson is set to jettison its 50 percent stake in the Economist Group, publisher of the venerable self-titled magazine. Given the hefty premium the Nikkei shelled out — over 35 times the FT’s estimated operating income, according to Ken Doctor in Nieman Lab (http://bit.ly/1IlV6V7), way beyond media industry norms — the Economist sale is bound to attract a lot of interest, probably from more than a few companies that were prepared to give old-school publications up for dead.

So — is this the beginning of a newspaper/magazine bidding frenzy? Can we expect private equity funds to start squabbling over other well-established broadsheets that may (or may not) be up for grabs, like the Los Angeles Times? Maybe not. For one thing, it’s probably no coincidence that the current buzz surrounds two of the few ‘legacy’ publications with successful digital strategies — over half the FT’s revenues come from digital, and the Economist’s ‘Espresso’ daily briefing app has been downloaded over 800,000 times since its launch late last year. The FT and the Economist are powerful names; two of the very few publications globally with broadly affluent and sophisticated audiences, sterling reputations, healthy independent streaks and genuinely international credibility. Viewed in that light, the Nikkei’s purchase looks like a bargain.

The Nikkei-FT deal also seemingly vindicates a couple of strategies that raised questions in the past. One is the FT’s reluctance to work through middlemen, no matter how big or powerful, for the sake of a larger audience, demonstrated by its decision to ditch its iOS app for one of its own making. The other is Pearson not rushing to offload the paper at the earliest opportunity. It’s a simple enough calculation that paid off: in this world, there are (and always will be) only so many FTs and Economists to go around.

It’s also a nice reminder that bidding excitement, and heady valuations, aren’t limited to the current crop of digital-first, platform-neutral, social-media driven publishers (Buzzfeed, Vice, Gawker, etc.) that tend to dominate industry discussions. Relentless dedication to quality, combined with a certain degree of exclusivity, also creates massive value. It’s a formula the luxury industry knows very well, but many in the media sector seemed to have forgotten — until now.

The delicate art of keeping score

As investors in China’s stock markets are fast discovering, it’s tricky to put, or predict, a price on a lot of things, and the same applies to content. Companies that produce content as part of their marketing or branding strategies regularly attempt to measure its value or impact in a quantifiable fashion, like contributions to the bottom line or customer numbers. The ever-helpful experts at Contently have come up with a scorecard that aims to make that easier: http://bit.ly/1H9fiaJ

To sum up, the scorecard suggests assigning content ‘points’ based on how prominently it features the company and the importance of the media outlet(s) it makes its way into. Thus an op-ed written by a senior executive that runs in the Financial Times, say, would score far higher than a press release picked up by an obscure industry journal.

This seems sensible enough, especially if, as the author states, content marketing and traditional PR are pretty much the same thing. But we’d argue they’re not — and that a ‘score’ assigned to content based on these metrics may fail to reflect its value, for a few reasons:

*Media mentions are the holy grail of most PR campaigns, but that doesn’t have to be the case with content. Star billing in the likes of a Bloomberg TV piece is always nice, of course, but the whole point of the web and social media is that companies no longer need to rely on media outlets to publish, distribute, or connect with an audience. Compelling, informative content (not blatant sales pitches!) will travel.

*If you’re creating content yourself, you can include, exclude, praise or blame whoever you like. However that shouldn’t be seen as a license to bar all references to the competition. Including balanced information on competitors in a thought piece or interview suggests confidence, and that the content represents a broader statement rather than the (probably biased) views of a single organisation.

*As Contently acknowledges, assigning a value to a media outlet is difficult because it depends almost entirely on context. For companies in specialised sectors building credibility with a limited number of influential experts is probably much more important than connecting with the mass market reached by the likes of CNN.

*Content campaigns are primarily about building a recognisable persona in the marketplace, and loyalty with existing and prospective audiences or clientele. These processes touch on the intellect and emotions, and can’t be wrapped up overnight since they require a sustained voice. Excessive concentration on numbers in the early stages can therefore be counterproductive — and demoralising — since they might convince a company to abandon a content program before it has any real shot at making an impact.

All that said, we’re in full agreement with the need for any content marketing drive to have clearly defined goals, and to be measured against them. But these goals will most often have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, and standard formulas will be difficult to apply.