Media Publishers and the Future of Content Marketing

Andrew Schulkind  |  June 15, 2017

Are media publishers doomed?

I’m certainly not the first person to ask that question, and I’ll say right up front that I absolutely do not have the answer. But it is an interesting question to consider from a content marketing perspective.

Think about the music industry and how it’s changed in the past few years: it wasn’t that long ago that recordings, whether CDs, cassettes, LPs or even 8-track tapes, were the end product. Radio play was the marketing, not a real revenue source. (Way back, Payola meant that radio play actually cost money!)

Antique Radios

Fast forward to today. The internet and digital files have thrown the old music industry model on its head. Piracy was certainly disruptive for a period, but even it isn’t really an issue any more as streaming services like Spotify have made music much more accessible and much cheaper for consumers. Piracy is hardly worth the effort for most people.

That’s meant big changes for working musicians, if not for superstars. Bands now tour not to support their new album, but for the income. That new album, which used to be the product, is now the marketing. And the product is now the live performance.

Something similar could already be underway in media, particularly as more and more people become accustomed to consuming free content. But what are publishers selling if they’re giving away their content?

Access to their audience, perhaps.

For years, we’ve heard claims in the marketing business that marketing is going to fund content creation going forward. Content will be free to consumers – and might even be presented with “limited commercial interruption,” so to speak. In other words, publishers will be selling access to their audience.

But isn’t that already what they do in the advertising supported model? Yes, absolutely. But no, perhaps instead of Animal Planet being a stand-alone entity that sells advertising space to pet-food companies, Animal Planet is owned by Purina, who markets and product-places their pet foods 24/7.

I have no doubt this will happen, if not for Purina and a TV channel, then for some other mass marketer and some other mass communication channel.

More likely, though is a world in which there are multiple viable models. TV is already built this way, with broadcast, basic cable and premium channels each providing a different kind of experience and a different pricing model. Add streaming services, which seem to be blurring many lines, and you have a publishing model in flux.

Setting aside the fact that none of that is marketing driven, it’s hard to imagine a similar model for all content publishers. Sure, Purina could sponsor the Animal Planet television channel. But what kind of marketing supports publications such as The Atlantic or Harpers or similar “intellectual” publications? In those cases marketing-funding content is typically called propaganda, no? (Lordy, I hope I haven’t given any political operatives any bright ideas …)

It seems clear that content will be underwritten in one of three ways:

Ads will support content – a third party will pay to be associated with the content

Marketing will support content – content closely aligned with a brand’s message will be created in-house

Consumers will support content – streaming music, buying movie tickets, etc.

Here’s one long-term, longshot bet: musicians, already reeling from the changes they’ve seen in their industry, will come to embrace the idea of their recordings as marketing. They will give their recorded music away as a way to attract audiences to their shows. Performances will pay their rent. Record companies may not survive, but the creative output will.

What’s really interesting is whether this might mean for the quality of content produced, both artistic and more commercial. Will it improve as artists search for their own niche or be a race to the bottom as creators aim for the broadest appeal – which typically means our most base collective impulses?

It should be an interesting decade or two …