This is about more than just advertorial — it’s about brands going direct

We’ve been writing a fair bit lately about “native” advertising or sponsored content, including a recent post about BuzzFeed’s challenges in relying on that as a business model. But as former founder David Churbuck points out in a recent essay, this phenomenon is about a lot more than just traditional publishers trying to adapt to what advertisers want in terms of content — it’s about brands and advertisers literally becoming publishers themselves.

Churbuck, who helped create and later went on to work with McKinsey, was responding to a piece in the New York Times about the increase in sponsored content, and how it is being used in different ways by publishers like BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, Mashable and Forbes — a piece that includes some pointed criticism of the trend from blogger Andrew Sullivan (Note: We’ll be discussing this and other issues around publishing at paidContent Live on April 17)

Digital publishing

As Churbuck points out, this focus on how sponsored content is being used by existing publishers ignores a much more disruptive force, which is brands using the same tools to “go direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described it — something we at GigaOM and paidContent have been writing about for some time now. Says Churbuck:

“The Times missed the bigger trend: marketers going direct to their prospective buyers by becoming their own publishers, producing their own media and using professional editorial placements only to rent names, just as marketers have been renting circulation lists for decades to drive their direct mail campaigns.”

Cheap tools and an oversupply of talent

The former Forbes executive goes on to detail some of the examples of this broader phenomenon that have been growing and evolving for some time, including brand “newsrooms” such as the ones that Intel and Cisco manage — which in many cases consist of unbranded content about technology that looks indistinguishable from any other tech blog. Churbuck also mentions:

  • Branded partner-produced content: These are sites that get produced in partnership with a media company, such as Intel’s “Creators Project,” which is a joint venture with Vice. Another brand that is producing its own Vice-style content is Red Bull.
  • Brand magazines: As Churbuck notes, in the past advertisers like IBM or the Four Seasons hotel chain would hire the “custom publishing” arm of media companies like Forbes or Fortune to produce an advertorial magazine, but now they can easily create their own.
  • The talent exodus: Senior writers and editors have been moving from traditional media to content-related positions at non-media companies — Churbuck mentions Fortune’s Rik Kirkland going to McKinsey to edit the McKinsey Quarterly and oversee the firm’s editorial strategy, Steve Hamm of Businessweek going to IBM, and Dan Lyons leaving Read/Write Web to join HubSpot.

Ignoring this phenomenon is not a strategy

As Churbuck notes, the driving force behind this trend is the desire to reach customers and potential customers directly and engage with them, and producing their own content allows them to “cut out the editorial middle-man.” It also allows them to be more agile and effective when crisis strikes, he says. And most importantly, he argues that trying to remain above the fray and not even experiment with sponsored content is a head-in-the-sand approach:

“They will either produce the content as a service to the corporate advertiser or see their former editors and reporters get hired away to do it under the more stable umbrella of a big organization with deep pockets. That the press is now selling the opportunity to publish corporate content next to their own reporting is a foregone conclusion. Hand wringing and saying one is ethically ‘aghast’ is the personification of the cliché, ‘pride goeth before the fall.’”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Goodluz