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PR Agencies

Pay to play: Content marketing expanding reach within PR and media

This story is 100-percent editorial independent. But what about the next one you read in a magazine or blog … or that cool video you just watched?

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This story is 100-percent editorially independent.

But what about the next one you read in a magazine or blog … or that cool video on social media you just watched?

As more outdoor brands get into the content production game, the industry’s PR and media outlets are taking note, adding services to help produce and distribute the flood of stories, photos and videos coming directly from the brands.

But with that shift comes the growing question of what’s best for the reader and industry. The lines are being blurred between independently-produced material and so-called pay-to-play content. SNEWS looks at the trend and where it might be headed.

‘Authentic’ content
So what does today’s content marketing look like? For starters, we’re not talking about yesteryear’s advertorial. In the past, and even persisting today, some media outlets allow brands space in their publications to tell their story in an-almost news like fashion, but making it very clear to the reader, that the content is advertiser produced and paid for, typically by using different fonts and styles to offset it from the editorially independent content.

Advertorials can work, but in many cases, readers will gloss over them, recognizing the pay-to-play aspect. Advertorials also tend to be written by marketers with overtly “buy my product” wording. Brands are quickly learning that more authentic content is the way to go. Getting their products or names into real news stories are the home-run hitters.

Content marketing looks to mimic those authentic stories — a story about a brand athlete climbing remote Afghanistan peaks, for example — written by a professional writer, not a marketer. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have proven the perfect training ground for content marketing with direct access to customers, explained Nate Simmons, a principal for Backbone Media, which handles public relations and media services for numerous outdoor brands including Black Diamond, Big Agnes and Polartec.

“Social media has been a gateway drug for brands to create content on their own,” he said. The more they experiment, the more they find that the genuine stories of their brand, products and athletes resonate best with customers, and it generates all-important engagement.

“If it’s a video that just says ‘buy this jacket,’ then no one watches it, but if it’s a strong piece of content, they watch it and they don’t care where it’s coming from.”

Distribution hurdles
Many brands are diving head first into content marketing, finding the content part relatively easy to produce if they have some tech, on-screen and writing talent within their businesses, said Craig Randall, director of digital social content at Verde Brand Communications, which represents Keen, Ibex and Princeton Tec, among others.

But when it comes time to distribute that content, brands are encountering steeper hurdles. They aren’t exactly in the publishing business. A brand might spend a lot of money producing a high quality video of their athletes exploring Antarctica, only to be disappointed when it receives just 50 or 100 views.

“You see a lot of great content with no distribution plan,” Simmons said, adding that the problem can also be the other way around — widespread distribution of not-so-good content.

Both Simmons Randall stressed that from the very beginning, brands need to have a comprehensive strategy for both producing and distributing their content. That’s where Verde, Backbone and many other outdoor PR agencies are increasingly offering services — to handle the process from start to finish.

“We began as a PR agency, so we know how to distribute information,” Randall said. “We’re pitching content like we would products or stories.” At the same time, Verde has hired and contracted with writers and videographers to produce the content for its brands.

Backbone made headlines last week with the hiring of former Skiing Editor-in-Chief Sam Bass as its first Content Director and Editor.(Skiing is an Active Interest Media publication, parent to SNEWS.)

“Pairing Sam’s editorial acumen with Backbone’s ability to scale distribution will be a powerful combination for active lifestyle brands,” Backbone Founding Partner Penn Newhard said in the release.

Blurred lines
Media and marketing talent in hand, PR agencies are helping brands get their content distributed beyond the brand’s social media and web pages. The target of late has been magazines and newspapers, which are conversely cutting back their editor and writer budgets as advertising revenues decline.

“The magazines are definitely more open to custom content these days,” Simmons said. “There are conversations happening among the brands, creative marketers and editors.” He points to Outside Magazine, which recently shifted Executive Editor Sam Moulton to the position of content marketing director, and Powder Magazine’s award-winning series the “The Human Factor,” which was presented by Black Diamond. SNEWS, too, does some content marketing pieces.

“Smart brands are going to see the value … ‘It’s a cool story and I want to be by it,’” Simmons said.

But it’s more than just advertising next to a story. Content marketing can come in many different forms. Simmons admits most content marketing pieces are reviewed by brands before publication and edits can be made. A story sponsored by a brand, for example, may specifically require or have a strong preference that all photos with the story include brand athletes and their logoed gear.

Again, no overt “buy my stuff,” but arguably some subliminal brand messaging.

Content marketers are also finding success in putting their stories at the end of news articles (so-called content syndication) in the vein of: “Like this story, read more like it.” Allbeit, the story you just read is 100-percent editorial, the link to the next is content marketing.

Simmons and Randall agree, it’s a balancing act, and while they ultimately represent the brands, there is some education that goes on with company officials, not to push the marketing envelope too far.

“Those are some of the gray areas we have to work through,” Simmons said. “We stress ‘authentic’ over ‘highly edited and polished’ pieces. The stuff that rings true will win … smart brands get that.”

Editors have a brand to protect as well, and typically require some type of sponsor disclosure. Disclosure is important, Randall agreed. “Presented by … ,” “Sponsored by …,” “Brought to you in partnership by …” are some common phrases that accompany these stories. And, for now, readers seem to be OK with that.

“I’ve seen plenty of content marketing pieces posted on social media and you don’t see a bunch of comments complaining: ‘Hey, we’ve duped!’” Randall said. “The good content will prevail, especially if there’s a general resourcefulness to the piece.” Randall added that the outdoor industry is ultimately one of entertainment, so readers are more accepting.

That being said, both Randall and Simmons agree on the importance of strong, independent outdoor media organizations. Someone needs to be watching, for example, the outdoor manufacturing processes overseas where human rights are at stake. It’s not all entertainment.

And while brands may benefit from today’s golden area of content marketing, they may also one day regret feeding the beast. As media outlets get more comfortable with pay-to-play content and its associated revenue stream, it will be tougher for smaller brands to get free content the old-fashioned way.

“Want your product mentioned in that next gear round up? That’ll be $5,000, please.”

–David Clucas

Sound off on our on our comment section below or on our Facebook page. Is your brand using content marketing? Where should the lines be drawn?