April 28, 2014

This post first appeared in the Buchan Consulting blog.

Big four bank ANZ set tongues wagging – and the jaws of few old scribes dropping – with the launch of its financial news site, Blue Notes, earlier this month.

But any surprise at a bank – arguably the most conservative and risk-averse institution in the country – branching into publishing should be tempered by similar movements overseas and a general trend towards owned content. In the US, a market that leads Australia’s marketing sector by the tail, companies as publishers is simply another part of the marketing mix.

Indeed, media observers in Australia have seen “branded journalism” on the horizon for some time. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.

At its most basic level, Blue Notes is just another player in an increasingly bustling media landscape

The Blue Notes website, launched by ANZ CEO Mike Smith – a former social media sceptic turned acolyte – to great fanfare last week, continues the recent expansion of Australia’s media sector, but by a player with a built-in audience and, importantly, the funds to produce the kind of high quality, targeted content that can succeed in a crowded marketplace.

Blue Notes is also part of a wider trend of companies embracing media strategies involving AOTM – anything other than media.

In the US, branded journalism – essentially a more evolved, expanded version of blogging – first entered the zeitgeist in 2009 when former Financial Times journalist and media analyst Tom Foremski famously declared “every company has to become a media company”.

Branded journalism had made the transition from theory to practice by 2011, led by HSBC’s Business Without Borders and software company Cisco’s The Network. But it wasn’t until early 2012 when the Australian Football League, inspired by what Major League Baseball achieved with its own news site, opened the branded journalism bottle in Australia by launching AFL Media, and summarily demolishing its sporting media rivals in the ensuing, often spiteful, scrap for eyeballs.

The arrival of ANZ as a serious publishing contender marks an important milestone in the evolution of content marketing in Australia. Sporting organisations producing and distributing content directly to fans is one thing, but for a bank to launch an entire news site – one edited by former AFR doyen Andrew Cornell no less – shows the most conservative pillars of industry have converted to the benefits of owned content.

The launch of Blue Notes can be placed in several contexts. At its most basic level, Blue Notes is just another player in an increasingly bustling media landscape:

  • UK broadsheet The Guardian launched its Australian edition in January last  year, and is now attracting a unique audience of 1.69 million, just behind the Herald Sun at 1.86 million, according to the March 2014 Nielsen survey.
  • New Daily, funded by Australian Super, Cbus and Industry Super Holdings, and run by former Herald Sun and The Age Editor Bruce Guthrie, launched in November last year, and has since carved a niche serving a mixture of BuzzFeed meets ABC-style content.
  • Publisher Morry Schwartz’s latest foray, The Saturday Paper, launched in February this year with a circulation circa 100,000 according to Audit Bureau of Circulations – just behind The Australian and well ahead of the Australian Financial Review.
  • The world’s biggest English language newspaper, the Daily Mail, will launch its Australian website this year.

Blue Notes is also part of a wider trend of companies embracing media strategies involving AOTM – anything other than media. The rise of owned and earned content in the past few years has seen hitherto sceptics embrace innovative approaches in reaching key audiences.

Native Advertising is another fledgling industry in Australia that alongside branded journalism is giving companies an alternative means to hit key demographics , albeit one that carries significant advertising costs and appeals more to younger demographics who aren’t worried where the lines separating editorial and advertising blur.

Native Advertising involves companies paying media outlets for editorial space on their sites. Not to be confused with advertorials, native adverts must stand up as content in their own right and sit alongside “normal” news stories. The difference between natural and native content is often hard to distinguish; see BuzzFeed Australia as example of a news site relying solely on native advertising for revenue.

Large and well-respected brands in the US, including the once impeachable New York Times, have long embraced native advertising, but Australian media outlets have been slower to respond.

Online publisher Sound Alliance claimed in September 2013 to be the first publisher in Australia to appoint a dedicated native advertising editor, and Fairfax and News Ltd have since followed with debut offerings in September and November 2013 respectively. Yahoo!7 sold its first native advertising package to Telstra in February this year.

The rise of native advertising (paid) and branded journalism (owned) has caused plenty of consternation in the media industry. Media Watch host Paul Barry, in paraphrasing Andrew Cornell’s description of Blue Notes as “the future of journalism”, said simply, “We wish him success but we hope he’s wrong”.

The laying of new avenues such as Blue Notes and paid editorial begs the question; why bother with Media Street when there are plenty of other roads which lead to your customers?

True, paid and owned media present companies with new tools to reach audiences, but they will never replace media pitching entirely.

Why? The answer, put simply, is trust. Information presented by an independent third party will always be trusted more than the same information presented as advertising or owned content.

According to a recent Nielsen and inPowered study, good old fashioned public relations remains “the most effective source of information impacting consumers’ purchasing decisions”. The study’s findings were conclusive:

  • Earned media is 80 percent more effective at purchase stage;
  • Earned media is 80 percent more effective at affinity stage; and
  • Earned media is 38 percent more effective at the familiarity stage.

While Blue Notes may have pinched a few journalists to run its newsroom, it appears it can’t replicate the trust inherent a publication such as the AFR has earned (at least yet). But a PR strategy running on just a media pitching track is doomed to fail for a few reasons.

 

  • There are fewer journalists and space for stories than there once was, meaning more companies are competing for less copy space.
  • Journalists are increasingly turning to social media to find news stories (hence the need for a social media strategy).
  • Media consumption habits are changing. People are reading less, skimming more, and turning to blogs and social media for their news, instead of newspapers and magazines.

Earned (the good old fashioned style of PR pitching), owned (blogs, social media sites, corporate news sites) and paid (advertising, native content) content are not freestanding columns but three sides of a supportive structure (imagine a triangle). Each works in concert with the other, making the whole structure stronger; social media campaigns can produce outstanding media coverage and vice versa. Clever advertising can result in positive chatter on social media. A good blog post can be picked up and run by media outlets, and even repurposed in an advertising form. And so on.

Earned, owned and paid content – it’s the triple threat strategy that ANZ and other corporates understand is the way forward.

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Brand Journalism, Content Strategy, Native Advertising, Public Relations, Social Media

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