What is paid media? Defining the essential distribution channel for your brand marketing strategy

Ghost Works brand journalism

This article is the second in our series on defining the terms of content marketing. First, we covered owned media, the most important channel in a brand marketing strategy. Next up: paid media.

 What is ‘paid media?’

Paid media is spending money on platforms to distribute marketing messages, promotions, and other branded content. An investment in content distribution is the next stop after content creation. Except in the rarest cases, just creating the content isn’t enough. A comprehensive distribution strategy is necessary to get this content out into the world. Platforms are reducing organic reach, making it nearly impossible to get enough traction on a piece of content without some form of paid amplification.

The transition to pay-to-play platforms

Organic reach used to be much easier on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The platform sprints and devised to provide user attention to brands, so the brands got used to the power of the platform. Once the platforms became deeply ingrained in the global conversation, organic reach dropped in favor of paid placements. This trend continues, with organic reach no longer guaranteed.

Today, outside of owned media channels, paid placements are the only way for brands to have some control over which audiences see their messages.

Strategies for paid media

There’re three ways to leverage paid media online, each of which leverage another company’s audience to bring attention to your brand: sponsored content, social media ads, and search ads. We’re not including public relations or influencer marketing here, as there’s not a direct correlation between the money spent and results. Paid media should have robust analytics supporting each initiative.

Sponsored content. Paying a publisher to distribute your content has become quite popular in the past two years. As publishers seek to offset decline advertising revenue, new outlets for content distribution have emerged. For a price, most publishers will share branded content with their audience. Price varies tremendously, depending on audience size as well as audience demographics. Publishers have become quite sophisticated in audience segmentation so that messages can be hyper-targeted to specific demographics. The greater the segmentation, the more valuable the content placement.

There’s a caveat when it comes to sponsored content: Many publishers will only distribute brand journalism that has been created by their own internal studios. These in-house content studios approach commercial content with the editorial familiarity of the publisher’s brand. There’s also another benefit: the internal content studio has a closer take on the types of content that resonate with the publisher’s audience, including which mediums and topics get the most engagement. You’ll have to decide whether these insights are worth the markup these studios charge when compared to independent agencies or freelancers — in our experience, working with an internal content studio will cost at least 20% — and up to 50% — more than working with independent agencies or freelancers.

When considering whether to go with a publisher’s content studio, an independent agency, or a mix of freelancers, think first of your budget and then of your audience. If your budget can support it, a publisher’s content studio offers both content creation and distribution. This is handy but also limits your distribution somewhat — you may not have enough money left to distribute elsewhere. Independent agencies can provide a full-service approach that places content in a variety of channels — but have more overhead. A mix of freelancers takes a lot of management time but can provide the greatest value, as well as provide more specialization since you can select the best freelancers for the job. When making the next budget, we recommend trying out the options to see what works best for your organization. You may want to make the decision on a per project basis or stick with what works over time.

Social media ads. As we saw above, social media is mostly pay-to-play. While this is unfortunate for those who have invested a lot of resources in developing a large community, the upside is that content amplification becomes much easier. You just have to pay for it. These platforms have simplified targeting so that each message reaches the segment of your audience most interested in that message.

Budgeting for this can be tricky, as the average cost per click shifts every quarter depending on commercial interest. You also have to decide — or better yet, experiment — on how to bid on your audiences. For most content amplification opportunities, we recommend cost-per-click versus cost-per-impression. The goal is to bring your existing audience to your content, thus increasing the content’s impact through more engagement. Take time to experiment: test how different combinations of ad formats, targeting, and ad creative impact your costs and engagement rates.

When investing in social media ads, we recommend taking advantage of custom audiences. Most platforms allow you to upload emails and contact information that can then be used to target existing audiences on these platforms. Whenever there is an opportunity to craft unique audience segments, take it. Yes, there’s some time investment that seems intimidating at first. Even so, it’s really the only way to see a consistent and repeatable return on the investment in social media advertising.

Search ads. Search doesn’t work for every brand. Since search is a place where consumers express specific interest, some brands might not feel that the investment is worth it. Even so, we recommend experimenting with the power of search to drive traffic to blog articles, white papers, and existing branded content. This can be an unusual approach in a brand marketing effort, as its usually the product marketers that rely on paid search. Nonetheless, many brand marketers overlook the power of targeting specific questions on search engines. If you can identify 3 to 5 common questions related to your brand’s industry that prospects often ask, Then you should create content around these questions — and send traffic to them via paid search.

If you’re not confident that your brand is showing up at the top result for a branded search, you may want to purchase related search terms. Be careful though: This can end up costing a lot of money with little result. We recommend testing a period with these branded search term ads to benchmark against a period without. Then you can be sure that you’re investing you’re limited paid media dollars effectively.

For display ads, be sure to include graphics that are attractive and appropriate to the targeted audience. By honing in on what works for each of your audience’s segments, you’ll save money and you’ll reduce the risk of alienating your audience through serving irrelevant creative.

“Marketing used to be a creative challenge but it’s a data challenge now.”

Provocative words from HSBC’s former head of marketing in EMEA Philip Mehl. While creativity — and intelligence — still hold away, data is the third pillar of a smart brand marketing strategy. Data is especially influential across all of your paid media strategies, as clever use of data lowers cost, increases relevance, and generally improves results. This is especially true when the focus is on segment-level conversion rates. Now if only there were an extra hour in the day…

What is brand journalism? 4 approaches to creating content like a journalist

In 2012, the Public Relations Society of America named brand journalism one of its top trends for the year. In 2018, brand journalism is at the heart of how brands create content for consumers. But what exactly is brand journalism? And how do companies apply this approach to their content?

Defining ‘brand journalism’

The core of the concept is to create content from an editorial approach that puts the audience, not the company, first. What the audience wants to hear from a company might not match what a company wants to write; brand journalism aims to bridge that gap.

A brand journalist is a unique blend of journalist and marketer, using a brand’s own ecosystem as fodder for interesting stories the people actually want to read. This increases a brand’s profile and influence across its ecosystem.

A graphical interpretation of how a brand journalism can work (source)

By creating compelling content, rather than generic ‘brand-speak,’ companies are more likely to benefit from the increased trust fostered by being authentic. Brands can also drive down inbound marketing costs because readers choose to organically engage and share the brand’s original content. There’s no paying a middleman like Facebook or Google.

Within this rubric, there are different ways that brands can approach brand journalism. Here are four approaches to creating content like a journalist within any organization, ordered from easy to most committed.

Train employees to write better

The reality for most companies is that employees are not trained writers. Outside of emails, many employees won’t have written much since perhaps writing longer papers in college. Even with  daily projects like creating presentation decks, most employees have had little-to-no formal trading in writing or communications.

While this may not seem like too much of an issue, think about the last time you received a poorly worded email For a potential vendor. Either a specific example comes to mind, or you might not have even paid attention because the messaging was so impersonal.

Each and every communication that the brand has with a prospect or current client reflects back upon that brand. Improving employee communications, both internal and external, creates opportunities to be more clear and concise. This trickles down into content created across the company, fostering stronger bonds through stronger communication.

Reshape company culture towards curiosity

Beyond giving employees the tools in training they need to write and communicate effectively, a company can also infuse a brand journalism approach into their hiring process. Starting with job descriptions, a company should emphasize the desire for candidates who have the qualities journalists are trained to exhibit.

The most valuable quality a journalist possesses is a deep curiosity that fuels a pursuit of knowledge.

Generally, a curious person will just figure it out. This makes for an employee that is both self-sufficient and able to play well with others. After all, curiosity requires inputs from others as answers can’t be found alone.

Another useful skill combo that journalists have is the ability to craft questions that deliver informative, insightful answers — and the interview technique to move through the questions at a pace that delivers the best results from subjects. This includes a streak of improvisation, as interviews don’t often go as planned. A journalist is a skilled conversationalist, able to pull through threads and tie them together.

Once employees exhibit these qualities, the idea is that this approach then informs all content created throughout the sales, onboarding, client satisfaction, and brand marketing processes. Hiring former journalists could be the thing that most impacts on your company culture!

Hire a brand journalist

The shortcut to all this is to simply hire a journalist! Generally, this person is put in charge of certain brand marketing activities, like owned media channels such as the company blog. Often, this person has also empowered and encouraged to train their fellow employees on the best ways to create content.

Often, companies think that they have no stories to tell. But the truth that most journalists see is that any organization filled with people is also filled with stories. 

Sometimes it just takes a trained journalist to surface the most compelling bits and pieces from a company’s ecosystem. And once these are surfaced, the company has a very affordable inbound marketing goldmine. This story-focused content then humanizes the brand, building an authenticity that fosters trust with both prospects and current clients. There’s also a great benefit for potential employees as well!

According to the 2017 Stackla Consumer Content report, authenticity is elusive. The majority of consumers are underwhelmed by the content currently being created by brands.

And as the volume of content increases, it’s harder than ever for brands to resonate authentically. With a brand journalist on staff, a company gains a sensitivity to creating content for a specific audience and not necessarily about a specific brand. The company gains a storyteller familiar with leveraging limited resources to discover and package a compelling narrative — and then distribute it to the target audience in new and innovative ways.

“Brand as publisher”

The most well-documented example of this approach is Red Bull. Over the years, this company has used content as its primary marketing vehicle. Basically became a media company that also happens to sell energy drinks. Whether dropping a human from space (and broadcasting live on YouTube) to publishing its own magazine, the brand created multiple content touch points for consumers to engage with its brand. These expensive original content efforts kept the brand at the forefront of consumers minds and reinforced its edgy reputation.

“Creating great content is difficult, and delivering great content consistently through established processes is complex. However, this is what is required if you want to take your brand from good to great in today’s communication environment.”

-James Keady, digital marketing manager for McLaren Automotive

This is the most full-throated commitment to brand journalism: It costs the most and requires an organization to structure itself around this priority. It’s also something as old as capitalism: Soap operas were originally created to sell…soap!

And it’s not only consumer brands finding success here. There are many technology vendors and suppliers are becoming the go-to resource and their industry through an editorial approach to content. In fact, there are 851,000 search results for “b2b blogs examples,” showing just how many companies are getting coverage for their blogging efforts. One of the most effective, as far as using minimal resources to deliver outsized impact for a specific target is First Round Review, the blog of VC firm First Round Capital.

It comes down to relationships

Ultimately, the goal is to foster stronger, more meaningful relationships with your customers. Generic corporate content alienates people more than ever before. No one wants to feel like a number on the spreadsheet. By creating insightful content that shows that you understand their problems, preferences, and aspirations, your brand can more easily punch through the noise of today’s digital world.

“It doesn’t matter if a company makes diapers or steel girders, it must also be a media company and know how to use all the media technologies at its disposal.

While this has always been true to some extent, it is even more important today, because our media technologies have become so much more powerful.”

-Tech journalist Tom Foremski