Digital media has emboldened many brands to consider themselves publishers. After all, American Express has credibility on financial matters and Coke has a network 36 million Facebook fans. Who needs publishers to serve as intermediaries?
The problem is publishing is a lot harder than it looks, or rather it’s a lot harder to do it with the consistency, day after day, that’s needed to build a long-term audience. That’s leading some brands to hook onto the idea that their role lies more in the curation of content.
Curation is the vogue digital term for the ability to not only aggregate and distribute carefully selected information, but also to provide a unique voice on top of the original pieces of information. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, it seems like all the world is curators now. Brands want in on the action.
Brands are trying to establish themselves as trusted sources of information. Hop onto Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, and you’ll see brands that gather up articles from all sorts of publications and push them out to their followers. For example, look at IBM’s Tumblr, A Smarter Planet, which is a stream of curated content focused on areas of Big Blue’s core competencies. Or there’s American Express’ Open Forum Tumblr (yes, Tumblr is apparently a good platform for curation) that has cultivated a business community online by providing relevant tools and information to help business owners succeed.
“If a brand is an expert in a certain topic, their reputation might make them a credible source of information,” said Neil Chase, svp of editing and publishing at Federated Media. “But if a company that makes toasters gives health advice, they might not be credible. If they’re sending out recipes, that’s a reason to trust them.”
There’s little doubt that brands can amass sizable audiences of their own nowadays. Show me a chief marketing officer who isn’t interested in an owned, earned, paid media model — often in that order — and I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. It’s been four and a half years since Nike marketing chief Trevor Edwards plaintively said, “We’re not in the business of keeping media companies alive.” Translation: We can build direct connections with audiences, thank you very much.
The devil is in the details. Brands aren’t set up to be publishers. They don’t necessarily understand the editorial process or have the stomach for the length of time it takes to build an audience. Take AmEx’s OpenForum, for instance. It took four years to get 1 million people aboard, and now it gets about 150,000 unique visitors per month. They have the resources to build and cultivate an audience others may not. Additionally, OpenForum was put on the shoulders of the end-user: small-business owners. These business owners are able to communicate and share ideas with one another, but they must be American Express Cardmembers. AmEx recognized the need to provide small-business owners with a connection platform and information that will help their business succeed.
“Brands have a content story to tell,” said Colleen DeCourcy, CEO of Socialistic, a social media agency. “Some brands have data and research they have gathered in the creation of their products that can be contextualized and turned into content — which can give them both real authority on the topic and some real ROI for their effort.”
Publishing content in 2012 can be immensely complex or surprisingly simple, depending on your approach. Curation straddles the line. It can be difficult figuring out not only what tools to use, but also what platforms and, of course, what content to share. The plus side is that once you do figure out how you want to curate — how it becomes part of your broader communications strategy — it’s pretty easy to establish a voice.
Steve Rubel, Edelman’s evp of global strategy and insights, suggests brands start by having an editorial point of view and deciding where the content will live — the brand’s site or aggregation sites like Tumblr or Pinterest.
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“The best way to do it is to identify a high-interest topic that you want to be perceived as an expert in,” he said. “Curate that topic and provide some context around it. If you’re curating a lot of content in a topic area, over time that leads to expertise and credibility.”
Brands need to be careful in not only what, but how much they curate. There can’t be articles that make the reader question why a brand is sharing it. Also, brands need to make sure they’re not just regurgitating content, but instead offering readers/followers valuable information, as readers will quickly determine the curated content — and thus the brand — is not worth their time. Since consumers have their own tools for curating – Storify, Storyful, etc. – brands have to know each of their customers and have the credibility in their field to get consumers to trust the content they spread.
“It takes time to build that reputation, whether creator or curator,” said Chase. “It might take faster if you’re good at what you do, but you still have to get it up and running. You’re competing with a lot of other stuff in people’s in-boxes.”
There’s also a limit to what curation can do. At the end of day, if brands want to be publishers, they need to put in the hard work, warns Jonah Bloom, KBS+P’s executive director of content strategy.
“It’s more likely that original content changes minds than just being a filter,” he said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included an incomplete quote that didn’t fully reflect Colleen DeCourcy’s sentiments. It has been amended to do so.