Brand as publisher? Yes. Brands buying publishers? Not so much

Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, penned a LinkedIn column asserting that we will soon see brands making acquisitions of media companies. Rob O’Regan, Editorial Director at eMedia Vitals, then responded with a column, which first appeared on the eMedia Vitals website, and is reposted with permission here.


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Rob O’Regan

Should brands start acquiring media companies? Joe Pulizzi, author, consultant and founder of the Content Marketing Institute, predicts a forthcoming “flood” of deals as the next phase of the brand-as-publisher trend kicks in.

Joe argues that brands have already been investing heavily in content marketing, and that buying an established publisher would address their two most glaring needs.

The first is the capability to tell stories. Let’s face it, most brands are horrible storytellers. Content programs are both self-serving (they talk about products and services) and short-lived (based on campaigns). Media companies, for the most part, are the opposite. They have the people and processes to churn out amazing content on a consistent basis.

The second, and maybe more importantly, is that media companies come with built-in audiences. As brands struggle to build engaged audiences on a myriad of platforms, that’s simply what media companies do. Without an engaged audience, a media company can’t sell anything.

… Instead of renting a publisher’s audience through advertising, they can simply buy them. They not only get the value of the brand, they get the circulation list and the storytelling factory that made that circulation possible.

Sounds entirely plausible, and I’m sure there’s a brand or two out there that’s kicking the tires on a potential media acquisition. I can think of at least one example of a deal that already went down: In 2012, online marketer QuinStreet acquired tech publisher Ziff Davis Enterprise and continues to operate the properties, including eWeek and CIOInsight, under the QuinStreet Enterprise brand.

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But there’s one major flaw in Joe’s argument: When a brand buys a publisher, the value of the media brand decreases immediately, because it ceases to be an independent entity. As soon as marketers start infusing their “messaging” throughout the editorial product of a once-independent brand, credibility goes out the window and the audience will churn, slowly but surely.

The QuinStreet case is an exception, because QuinStreet’s main business is lead generation – the heart and soul of the B2B publishing world. So QuinStreet is incented to let the tech sites it purchased maintain their independence – so it can continue to sell advertising and lead-gen programs around the audience. That’s not really content marketing – it’s content monetization.

Joe acknowledges that marketers already have the budgets to outspend publishers when it comes to content development. Brands have been aggressive in hiring journalists for their content marketing efforts. A handful of brands – such as American Express with its OpenForum and Adobe with CMO.com – have built successful media sites from the ground up.

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Becoming a publisher is one thing; buying an existing media site – and expecting the audience (not to mention the site’s journalists) to come along for the ride is something else entirely. Brands would be better served by continuing to invest in creating their own great content and delivering it to their customers and prospects through a variety of channels – their own website, social media and independent media sites. Acquiring a media site represents the type of high-risk/low return investment that most companies would be wise to avoid.

Rob O’Regan is the Editorial Director of eMedia Vitals

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