It would not be too difficult to dismiss the current fetish for ‘content’ as little more than a fad. After all, it is not as if the idea of content marketing, or even brand journalism, is anything particularly new. All of the marketing communications disciplines, in their own way, have built their industries upon a basic ability to develop content for different types of people.

This is as much true for the traditional press release as for the classic 30-second advertising spot. Yet it is the digital-fuelled convergence of these two polarities that is reshaping the conventional relationship between brands and content, offering significant new opportunities for the public relations industry.

Our investigation into content marketing is a three-part series. Jump to the following stories:

Agencies compete for content dollars
Content in action

Three years ago, the Holmes Report analysed this area in detail, concluding that dramatic technological shifts were giving brands a much more effective opportunity to take their story direct to consumers. Barriers to entry for content generation had fallen, giving any brand manager with a smartphone the opportunity to develop a multimedia blitz that just might go viral.

At the same time, the rise of a bewildering array of social media platforms offered an instant feedback loop, assisting efforts to better understand and interact directly with a variety of audience groups, a process that has been hastened by the irresistible rise of ‘big data’ to boost research and realtime analytics.

Accompanying these trends is the slow fade of the traditional media, leading some brands to try their hand at becoming journalists themselves, often by hiring endangered reporters and multimedia producers. Nissan, for example, puts out a daily news show that has nothing to do with selling cars, while tech company Xerox set up a minimally branded educational site that focuses on healthcare, as specialist coverage of their industry dwindles.

Speaking at the Global PR Summit last year, Silicon Valley veteran Tom Foremski wondered if a company might one day win the Pulitzer prize. If they do, it is unlikely to come via some of the higher-profile branded content efforts, such as Virgin Mobile’s $100,000 per month dealwith Buzzfeed (‘15 of the Dirtiest Pictures on the Internet’).

Yet it is the “Buzzfeed effect” that perhaps offers the clearest indication of how the PR industry can turn an aptitude for content into concrete returns. Sponsored content sections are, by now, relatively commonplace, and may actually say more about the continued struggles that media companies face when it comes to making money online.

Instead, it is Buzzfeed’s algorithmic approach, which it claims as the secret to viral nirvana, that warrants closer examination. Much of its success and, by extension, the success of content marketing efforts in general, depends on the impact of paid media efforts. In Buzzfeed’s case, this might involve buying Facebook ads to promote specific posts. A company like Outbrain, which has become a major presence in numerous PR campaigns, uses 42 algorithms to recommend content across thousands of websites, constantly tweaking to improve a brand’s ability to connect with the right kind of user.

Think of it as Google AdSense for content. Sometimes called ‘native advertising’, many see it as a quantum leap forward for digital marketing, replacing intrusive, decaying banner ads with something much more engaging.

“Companies are now understanding that this is a unique opportunity for them to reach a highly engaged audience, and to build a trusted relationship that is not necessarily about the brand but about a common set of values and interest, really building long-term loyalty,” says Outbrain UK MD Stephanie Himoff. “We are just making sure we drive a highly engaged audience who are in a content consumption mode.”

It is that last point, says Himoff, which is of particular importance, by ensuring that content reaches someone who is in the right frame of mind. For example, an HSBC campaign that provided small business advice, independent of any specific product sell, was placed across numerous business-focused websites, finding readers that were already viewing a similar subject.

Interestingly, Outbrain believes that this approach plays to PR’s strengths, noting that brand content produced by PR firms often performs better compared to other disciplines, because of a more relevant understanding of the news agenda, and less dependence on a direct sales hook. “The risk is that brands are still going to focus on the product and spending a lot of money on sites where they are not necessarily going to have that level of engagement,” says Himoff. “That’s where PR agencies play an important role, and publishers, they know better than anyone what it takes to engage an audience.”

The rise of content marketing as a specific discipline is not without some measure of discomfort, not least because of the prospect of content pollution, where online users are bombarded by articles rather than ads. For the PR industry, already used to earning attention, the prospect of spending on media may also carry some unpleasant connotations. As far as Weber Shandwick chief digital strategist James Warren is concerned, though, they shouldn’t, because the new model offers the potential to “turbocharge” PR assets.

“It’s been game-changing for our business, for the impact of the digital and social content we produce,” says Warren. “If you backup what is relevant, engaging content with paid promotion/syndication, it can be five times more effective. It’s a bit of a dirty truth for us PR folk, because we like to believe that earning media is what it’s all about.”

Warren’s view might explain why Weber Shandwick is not the only agency setting up a dedicated content unit that focuses on creation and marketing to the right users. Chris Perry, who oversees Weber Shandwick’s Mediaco, notes that the full potential of content is limited by thinking about it within a marketing context. As Perry points out, and as BP demonstrated following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, “you can see a lot of the same techniques in crisis/risk situations.”

“ I just cannot envision how any organisation cannot have a content-first approach to their communications, whether’s it’s for reputation management or marketing purposes,” states Perry. “Clients are attracted to some of the shiny object stuff - what’s far less sexy but more important is making sure your organization is oriented to a new way of doing business.”

And perhaps even more important, at least as far as the PR industry is concerned, is the financial dimension to the content equation. By overseeing paid social media marketing, whether via Outbrain’s syndication platform or through promoted Tweets and Facebook ads, PR firms are finally able to make inroads into marketing budgets that often dwarf communications spend. It might not be the CMO laying out the welcome mat, but few PR people are likely to look askance at accessing media budgets via a notional side entrance.

The Holmes Report’s exploration of content trends features several key players, including Forbes chief product officer Lewis DVorkin, Buzzfeed VP Jonathan Perelman, Coca-Cola director Ashley Brown, and numerous executives from the worlds of PR, media buying, digital content and SEO. Read on for a comprehensive overview of how brands can use content to build strong connections with their key stakeholders, and what this means for the modern PR industry.

‘Content Is King, But Distribution is Queen’   

Earlier this year, Forbes rebranded its AdVoice sponsored content platform into the “BrandVoice Thought Leadership Platform.” The name change perked the interest of the PR industry that had previously ignored the platform’s potential when it was positioned as an ad buy.

Our investigation into content marketing is a three-part series. Jump to the following stories:

Agencies compete for content dollars
Content in action

Yet in the last few months, paid thought-leadership has emerged as a viable media play alongside traditional outreach. But does this meshing of paid and earned ultimately tarnish the prize of a Forbes placement -- especially a paid one? After all, the BrandVoice content is distinctly marked as such. 

“What we’re doing with BrandVoice in no way stops our journalists from doing what they were doing -- it’s just adding another source of information,” DVorkin says. “What’s great is it’s creating a bit of competition and requiring everyone to up their game.”

The editorial function at Forbes is now split into two, with the traditional newsroom reporting into DVorkin and the BrandVoice newsroom reporting into the sales side of the organization. The latter has about five staffers and outsources much of its content development to Contently, a content creation agency populated largely with journalists and storytellers.

So far, 14 brands have enrolled in BrandVoice, among them SAP, NetApp, Oracle, UPS and FedEX, with at least a dozen more in the queue says Mark Howard, SVP of digital advertising strategy at Forbes.

Obviously the lure for the brands is being affiliated with a top-tier outlet like Forbes, but in this age of brands as publishers what motivates them to pour $50,000 to $75,000 per month to license their content on Forbes?  

Ultimately, the investment isn’t simply to be featured on After all, that’s a hefty price tag to risk branded content being buried amid the 500 posts added to the site per day. Instead -- and here’s where the editorial lines blur further -- part of the buy is Forbes marketing the content.

For instance, BrandVoice content is embedded in the Forbes stream on its homepage and in RSS feeds, and the content streams in all of Forbes’ relevant channels. For those who pay more, they get their content featured on the home page in rotating four-hour blocks. Paid social distribution on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is carried out alongside social discovery mechanisms via agencies like OutBrain.

But with so much success riding on paid distribution, does the PR industry have the expertise to understand the lifecycle of paid content, beyond page views and shares?

“Most of our interaction is with a combination of media agencies and client direct relationships,” Howard says. “We work with media agencies that are looking to create different, non-banner type of advertising.”     

Increasingly since the rebrand, however, PR firms are exploring whether there is room for them in the equation. The obvious place would be for the PR firms to manage the content creation. BrandVoice participants have the option to author their own content, use the Forbes content bureau, or tap into a blend of both.

But for the PR industry to have a bigger stake in the budget game, it would need to broker the ad deals with publishers, rather than existing simply as the content arm for a relationship being driven by the media agency.

This, is exactly the role that Steve Rubel has been roped into as chief content strategist at Edelman. Buoyed from the relative success of cracking social media, brands have a rush of confidence when it comes to telling their own story. Now they’re relying on the tortured media sector to help find a substantive audience for this content, Rubel says.

“Media companies are having conversations with the PR industry that I’ve never seen before around the confluence of paid and owned,” Rubel says. “You take the owned and run it through their paid property.”

For PR to have a viable play here, agencies need to have ad buyers on board who can build media plans, as well as the traditional editorial expertise that PR brings to the table, Rubel adds. Earlier this year, Edelman brought on Cassel Krollas EVP of media strategy from WPP media agency Mindshare, one of a number of attempts by PR and social media firms to build stronger media buying expertise.

“Content marketing is an economic shift in terms of how we’re working with media owners and how media owners are powering brand sites,” Rubel says.

But if brands stampede onto the editorial pages of respected publications, veiling their advertorials with issues pieces driven by very specific agendas, won’t the power of the media inevitably depreciate? 

“It’s a slippery slope for media companies which is why they want to work with PR agencies,” says Rubel. “They know PR people understand what it means to gain the trust of the reader and that value exchange.”

Forbes’ DVorkin disagrees that BrandVoice will hurt the reputation that Forbes has built over almost 100 years to its 270 million readers.

“Our mission is the same, we have just expanded the number of quality people who can contribute to this,” DVorkin says. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the audience and there’s nothing more humbling than the audience deciding whether what you’ve provided is worthwhile.”

DVorkin points to Forbes’ posts that clearly lay out metrics, like views, channel followers and social shares. His colleague Howard says given the current BrandVoice to non-paid editorial ratio, at any given moment, paid content cannot be more than 10 percent of the site. It remains unseen if this balance will tilt as more brands open their wallets to BrandVoice. 

While credibility matters for Forbes’ b2b client base, for consumer companies, shareability typically trumps prestige. Jonathan Perelman, VP of agency strategy and industry development at BuzzFeed, says among the site’s 16 million monthly visitors, 75 percent are doing so with the intent of finding content to share.

“People don’t want to share what everyone else is talking about,” Perelman says. “They want to earn currency.”

That currency, it turns out, can come just easily from sponsored content on BuzzFeed as its original posts. For every 10 people that come to the site via a paid promotion, an additional four come organically -- meaning there’s a “40 percent earned media lift on branded content,” Perelman says.

Similar to the Forbes model, BuzzFeed’s editors “compete” with sponsored stories for shares and click-throughs. BuzzFeed’s content model, however differs when it comes to creation.

BuzzFeed’s sponsors only pay for a unit on the homepage stream for a certain period of time. The content, says Perelman, is essentially free. BuzzFeed’s creative team develops the content with the sponsoring brand ultimately calling the shots. The legal responsibility for the material, including obtaining licensing rights, falls with BuzzFeed. 

“Usually our sales team will work with the media agency -- it’s less common to work directly with the brand,” Perelman says. Rarely, does BuzzFeed work directly with a PR agency. “It’s because we don’t charge for content, we charge for the media buy and those are budgets PR agencies don’t have.” 

After signing the deal, the content is usually churned out within 10 days. Like Forbes, BuzzFeed uses social discovery to guarantee views, as well as paid promotions on Facebook and Twitter.

 “Content is king, but distribution is queen and she runs the household,” Perelman says. “PR needs to spend as much time thinking about distribution as it does about the content. There’s lots of high quality stuff that’s sitting at the bottom of the Internet.”

Content and Social Habits

Ashley Brown, group director of digital communications and social media at Coca-Cola, partnered with BuzzFeed to launch the company’s online magazine Coca-Cola Journey, which replaced its traditional homepage.

Our investigation into content marketing is a three-part series. Jump to the following stories:

Agencies compete for content dollars
Content in action

“We wanted to take a risk and it worked really well,” Brown recalls. “They directed really high quality traffic to the site -- people that were spending an exceptionally long time on the site, lots of page views. We would consider doing it again.”

Brown says he sometimes leverages paid media against stories he considers “important or impactful” by tapping into syndication sites like OutBrain.   

“We know people aren’t going to Journey everyday,” Brown says. “So we’re seeding and syndicating our content in venues that are a part of people’s social habits. Social media is a big part of that.”

Six months into Journey, it seems to be working. Prior to the Journey launch, Coca-Cola’a homepage garnered about one million visits per month. This number is now up 20 percent. 

“We didn’t want to start from scratch from an audience perspective,” Brown says. “The people naturally interested in Coke were visiting our homepage, so we wanted to present them with great stories.”

Beyond this, there is potential for brands to work with media companies in ways that present a real opportunity for PR firms, says Joe McCambley, co-founder of The Wonder Factory, the agency that designed Coca-Cola website. The Wonder Factory specializes in building media channels for publishers -- and increasingly -- brands.

The agency recently built a prototype demonstrating how the data from technology, like Nike’s Fuelband, could be shared with sports publications, like Runner’s World, to develop smart content that can deduce whether a runner is training for a marathon or even taking a jog while traveling.

“Imagine getting content on popular routes in a new city when you open Runner’s World on your iPad while traveling,” McCambley says. But in this mutually beneficial (and importantly, hypothetical) scenario, the question is: would the brand pay the publisher or vice versa? 

This, McCambley predicts, will be the next iteration of content marketing - more dynamic and multichannel than paid-for bylines. But for PR to have a stake, the industry must not shy away from content advertising.

“PR firms are better suited for this new advertising,” McCambley explains. “It’s about providing tools that can make content more informative, it’s not just selling.”

For example, a camera manufacturer could develop “sponsored content” that lets users take pictures online testing various lens and camera features, making it possible for these pictures to be shared socially. Or a makeup brand could provide a widget that allows users to upload their photo onto a site and try various shades of makeup, again, sharing this across their network.  

“There’s a lot of informative -- not sales -- content that goes into this that PR could lead,” McCambley adds. 

To do that, though, it seems clear that PR firms will need to continue investing in harder-edged, technological abilities, without forfeiting the softer emotional skills that have made them so successful.

“In the case of content, to do this properly, it borrows in large part from what we’ve done in the PR business, but it borrows from brand planning, interactive marketing, search,” says Weber Shandwick’s Perry. “The added element is journalism. It’s something that PR companies have done for a long time, but the types are journalists are different - they are not just copy creators, but they know how to create a digital editorial operation, that generates attention and audience and ultimately results in some engagement.”

The outdated assumptions that media companies - and now brands - are competing for readership has been supplemented by a new reality in which the discipline or channel that can best make the case for someone’s time will win.

“Sure, the bar for entry is lower for content now,” Edelman’s Rubel says. “But that also means the barrier to consumption is even higher.”