How to Integrate Branded Content and Social Media
Digital media is being pulled in two different directions. Branded content, produced by professionals and distributed by corporations, is increasingly being made available online. At the same time, consumers themselves are producing their own content in astonishing quantity and, sometimes, quality as well.
The two forces seem diametrically opposed, can they be reconciled? For either to survive, they will need to be.
The Media Revolution
Our conception of media has changed drastically over the past decade. What used to be a bastion of authority has given way to an “information wants to be free,” open source, socially networked movement.
News is not only created by journalists and editors behind closed doors, but also by private individuals in their spare time.
Live footage transmitted out of Iran by its own citizens can transform world opinion. A clip from a talent show being replayed on YouTube can achieve far more coverage and impact than the original broadcast. A rumor reverberating through the blogosphere can be picked up and reported through traditional news outlets.
The line between professional and amateur has been substantially blurred.
The Profit Crises
Inevitably content, like anything else, must be paid for. Subjects must be researched, sources checked, graphics created, etc.
All of that takes time and effort and we can’t expect, nor would we want, to rely on amateurs to provide us with all of our entertainment and information. Just like anybody else who provides us a service, professional content people expect to be paid.
Moreover, even free content isn’t exactly free. Servers need to store it, fiber optic cables need to transmit it and web developers need to create an environment where it can be produced and displayed. These things are, as Chris Anderson pointed out in his latest book, marginally free but not actually free.
So we have, in fact, not one but two profit crises:
Today’s media industry is in crises: Newspapers are being closed, journalists are being downsized and profits and being transformed into losses. With such an onslaught of free information, who will pay for content?
Social Networks are notoriously unprofitable: The situation isn’t so rosy in user generated media either. While collective audiences are huge, advertisers value the audience at only a fraction of what they are willing to pay for branded content. After all, most amateur content is crap, some of it offensive, etc. (See here for more on this).
An obvious solution to both problems would be to integrate Branded Content and Social Media.
How Free and Paid Content Can Work Together
There are 2 possibilities that make sense to me:
1. Socially-empowered content sites: Big content sites with a loyal audience can easily add social components. People like to comment on articles and it’s possible to set up successful user blogs – so adding a profile, scoring system, etc. is relatively easy and makes a lot of sense.
Ranking user content as part of a branded content platform is a fantastic way for amateurs and up-and-comers to gain attention and reputation alongside established professionals.
This idea becomes more powerful when the site is aggregated with other content sites: So people can share their friends across the networks. Social networks are already doing this, by piggybacking on registrations of larger sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter, but branded content sites still haven’t caught on.
For smaller brands, aggregation is probably the only way to take advantage of the social media revolution. (See the Primal Forces that Drive Social Networks)
2. Content Plug-ins: The second way would be for existing social networks to build resources for content sites to connect through them (through either API’s or co-development). This is exponentially more challenging technically, but not impossible.
Users already see the value in this and share what they see in mass media with their friends on social sites. Traditional media companies can do a lot more to help the process along, but they need to get serious about social partnerships.
Some Practical Ideas
Add social newswires to content sites. Real Clear Politics does this with Twitter, and there are a lot of tools around the web can help branded sites bring in social content. There are a variety of free plug-ins for Word Press, for example.
The problem here isn’t technical, but philosophical. Most traditional media companies want to keep audiences engaged with their content. Many believe that the notion that value can be gained by sending users out of the site is lunacy.
However, it can be done and be done well, as The Atlantic Wire shows.
Syndicated Blogs: Top blogging sites should allow their users to syndicate their blogs on branded content sites. Bloggers would get more exposure, the content sites would get more content and inventory and the hosting site could get a share of the higher CPM’s.
Of course, Branded media sites would have to agree, once they stop whining about how they can’t make money on the web.
Portable Profiles: By enabling users to keep their friends when they join mini networks on branded content sites, top social networks can empower their users, forge revenue sharing deals and continue to spread the social movement. The emergence of registration services like OpenID and profile aggregators should send a clear signal that people want to own their identities.
The above is not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure there are people with more ideas out there, but it does appear that efforts in this area have been pretty feeble.
If digital media is going to become seriously profitable, it would seem that everybody is going to think more seriously about integrating branded and social media.