News & Views

Rise 2016: Media-driven brands, or vice-versa?

Many of the events of the second day of RISE, Hong Kong’s tech-startup-focused conference, were devoted to disruption in marketing and media (how could we not attend?) One of the most interesting panels was entitled “The media-driven brand”, but as one panellist noted the discussion could equally have been about “brand-driven media”. Which is driving which? It’s not a new question, but it has become more pointed as traditional publishers struggle to revamp their subscription and advertising-dependent business models, and as companies are producing more high-quality content (which is where, *cough*, we come in) alongside pure brand advertising.

Publishers have traditionally won or lost on the size and quality of their audiences, but now–in competition with behemoths like Facebook and its endless free newsfeed–they face difficult choices about how make their businesses sustainable. “Media needs to be rebooted,” said Rob Fan, co-founder and CTO of Sharethrough, a native advertising platform, on the RISE panel. He cited Buzzfeed, which has parlayed its mass appeal to the digital native crowd into some serious journalism.

Coming at it from the other direction is harder. Traditional publishers will find it hard to build Buzzfeed-level fanbases and are unlikely to see subscriptions or old-style ad sales recover lost ground. Sadly, great content alone is not enough to make them solvent. (Just ask Alan Rusbridger.) There are some innovative attempts out there–including in our home town–to crowdfund news reporting, but however commendable such efforts are, it seems media and brands will have to keep collaborating to make the most out of their target audiences’ evolving proclivities.

One solution–that Mr Fan’s platform was founded to enable–is to allow native advertising; that is, embedding and integrating a brand’s content alongside the publisher’s own. This can help independent publishers survive, Mr Fan claimed, warning that without them we’d risk a world where “everyone is a blogger” and no one does any serious reporting. But there is a risk with native advertising that companies and publishers alike recognise: if it isn’t clearly demarcated, the audience may start to lose trust in the credibility and authority of the publisher–and by extension the brand paying for the content. (The Onion, itself no stranger to the concept, made a good, and very crude, point about this a few years back. Only follow that link–or read The Onion–if you’re not easily offended.)

Trust is hard-won and easily lost. But as another panellist, Lara Setrakian, co-founder and CEO of NewsDeeply, explained, there is a way to build it and simultaneously make high-quality independent publishing sustainable in collaboration with corporate partners. First, and above all, establish that editorial goals are paramount, and do good work. This will generate loyal and passionate communities of followers that companies will want to reach. Then use this experience to create custom projects on related themes. (It’s also a model that The Economist Intelligence Unit has used to good effect when conducting sponsored research.)

Of course this means walking a fine editorial line, but it is one that it pays both media platforms and corporate brands to adhere to–if they want to build trust in their audiences. Ceding a degree of editorial control is uncomfortable for some brands, but given they share with the publisher the objectives of building a sustainable business and pleasing a discerning audience, it’s a step that must be taken.