With last week’s $25 million investment into Percolate, content marketing’s moment in the sun has finally arrived. The Percolate deal is the third significant SaaS funding of b2b content plays in just a few months, aggregating, curating, creating and distributing content objects and the people who make them. Along with big funding for Contently, NewsCred, and the Content Marketing Institute, it’s part of a wave elevating networked marketing to the sophistication and volume of adtech, already eclipsing social marketing, the last fad to sweep through digital. With the Percolate deal, it’s becoming clearer than ever that there’s a whole new content infrastructure coming together—a content stack so tightly erected we’ll soon need DSPs just to handle the breadth and complexity of the available solutions for creating native advertising (or whatever you want to call these new ad units).
For anyone who’s watched the decades-long transformation of brand publishing in other countries (especially the UK where it has triumphed for years), this latest twist is very welcome. Brand publishing is customer publishing, not “custom publishing”—not a brand monologue, but a dialogue or conversation supposedly replacing the infinite replicability of advertising (whether that’s pages in a magazine or tv ads) with something more valuable: the creative and authentic use of brand associations to embed consumers in a brand experience. Done right, brand publishing tickles consumers, grows brands, creates more value. Back in the print era, this was tough to prove. (See this article written about my experience with Samsung in Contently’s Content Strategist.) But in the brave new big data world of digital/social measurement where every last signal and echo can be measured and optimized, marketers know what they’re getting down to the bit, if not yet entirely down to every conversion.
If you’re a brand, and you move your investment from display to native, this is really good news, especially if you take control of creation and distribution yourself (Red Bull territory). On the other hand, if you’re a publisher, this may be game over: brands have less and less reason to share brand experiences with publishers. For one thing, most publishers aren’t equipped to bridge the church/state gap that keeps their editorial separate from advertising, and when they do—I’m looking at you, Forbes’ Brand Voice—pundits yelp that they’ve cheapened the brand.
What’s left is the stack of content marketing creation tools like Percolate and NewsCred, and to a lesser extent content inventory tools such as Outbrain, Taboola, Livefyre, Disqus that auction off the remnant pixel space on pages publishers might once have reserved for display. These are all amazing tools, and when managed and/or hoisted onto demand generation platforms (say from Contently or Zemanta), can bring gigantic, value both to publishers and brands. It just makes much sense: Display is tanking, and social (as we used to say at Dachis Group) is engagement@scale. Native formats create real value, better correlated to real-time, and are agnostic of platform, with more utility in owned channels and greater amplification in earned media channels. What’s not to like? The smart minds are working through the complexities of native programmatic, and I have no doubt it’s going to scale, spewing more new companies and a bunch of cash before the inevitable culling.
So why I am already feeling the anticipatory grief of that culling, just like there’s been in ad tech and social? It’s not that the space is already overcrowded. Yes, there’s already a Lumascape for native, but there’s still plenty of room for earnest competitors and the inevitable slew of trailing me-toos and anklebiters. What makes me sad, I guess is the greater realization that native is so quickly becoming the problem it was intended to resolve. Instead of providing authentic, high value brand experiences—a way to break out of the clutter—it’s just becoming another kind of clutter embedded in a different agency cohort and with different price points. We have met the enemy and he is us.
So what’s a CMO to do?
In my next post, I’ll dive into the area where I see the opportunity to drive the content marketing explosion into brand experience. For now, just one statement seems to sum up the essence of my thinking: the future of content marketing isn’t better widgets or better supply chains for those widgets (although all that will help). Whether you’re a content brand or a marketer, the key to the future will be design thinking: recognizing how the customer journey shapes the touchpoints and distribution channels of innovative content creation. Design innovation of bits to channels is where we’re about to go.