Do Advertisers Even Need Publishers?

Portrait of Joshua Schnell
by Joshua Schnell
Aug 1, 2016

Late last night I found myself looking through Instagram. It’s something I do quite regularly, but this time, for whatever reason, I noticed that I subscribed to several brands alongside the people I know in real-life (whatever that means these days). Increasingly, I find myself growing more interested in the images and stories these brands are sharing than the content people are producing in my streams (sorry guys!). I caught myself wondering if brands even need publishers anymore. And if they don’t, where does that leave publishers that rely on advertisements to survive?

It’s a question we need to start asking ourselves because increasingly marketers seem to be going straight to consumers themselves. How we got to this point today doesn’t matter all that much anymore. We’re here; the publishing industry is in full-on panic mode.

While this is all unraveling, brands are starting to evolve. They now focus on content marketing, native advertisements, and to a greater extent, moving their marketing efforts to internal programs. Brands are now media companies, and they’re doing a better job connecting with audiences and selling their products directly than most publishers are today.

The Power Of Inspiration

I purchased a GoPro over the summer and then immediately followed the company on Instagram, hoping to find some inspiration for my home videos. Because of that simple action, I’m now subscribed to brands like Patagonia, REI, The North Face, Outdoor Research, MEC, and Arcteryx. I didn’t set out to follow those brands, and they weren’t even really on my radar before I purchased my GoPro. But, they found a way into my Instagram feed nonetheless. These companies create some of the most amazing visual content on Instagram, and the posts inspire me to get outside and explore my world a little bit more.

One simple purchase and one follow on Instagram created a halo effect for an entire industry. I subscribed to GoPro. They didn’t pay to advertise to me. I chose them, followed them, and now seek out their marketing materials (let’s face it, that’s what it is) because it inspired me. I then took a moment out of my life to subscribe to other similar brands. Brands that I’m unfamiliar with and brands that I knew little about before buying my GoPro. It did it because they simply offered similar, inspiring content (aka advertisements).

That’s the power of modern, native advertising. It has the ability to inspire, to enact change. It can take someone from passive interest to deep brand engagement in a matter of weeks.

Publishers Need To Get Back To Providing Brands With Tools That Help Them Inspire.

Flipboard, who by all accounts classifies as a modern-day publisher, has announced a product that aims to give brands better tools to create more engaging advertisements.

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but how many pictures is a video worth for brands? Heck, what’s the currency for a short Instagram video snippet? Simple image based advertisements are starting to lose ground to other modern alternatives. We can blame a lot of things. Heck, we can blame J.K. Rowling for embedding the notion that newspapers could have moving images into our heads. It doesn’t matter, multimedia rich marketing campaigns are here to stay, and pretending otherwise does little to move the publishing industry forward.

These contextual, multimedia-heavy advertisements are something that publishers haven’t been able to replicate online, and it’s something that standards-based display advertising have a difficult time outperforming, at least in the current iteration. It’s hard to set standards when an industry moves this quickly.

Marketers know what they want, and they’re willing to transition to places where they can find it. Right now, they’re moving to platforms because they can have a native presence there. Can a brand like GoPro have a presence on the New York Times? What about at Mashable or even National Geographic? What do publishers do to connect readers with brands that add legitimate value to their publications?

Before It’s Too Late.

Whether we like it or not, the definitive lines drawn around traditional advertising are starting to blur. Advertisers are getting really good at developing their stories and then building engaged audiences around them. Why would brands work with publishers when people are willing to connect directly in the first place? If advertisers can create a media distribution channel on social platforms, why do brands need publishers at all?

Large brands are starting to prove that they no longer need publishers to reach valuable audiences. That’s the real ad tech crisis. No one really knows what publishers can do to court large brands back to their sites. Brands have started to uncover the power of the platform, and the platform’s ability to give brands a home in front of an audience on the internet is valuable. Publishers certainly aren’t handing brands a megaphone. Publishers aren’t creating an opportunity for brands to live on their sites full time.

Why not?

It’s 2016, and publishers shouldn’t be stuck with the philosophical baggage of the newspaper industry of yesteryear. Things have changed, and if publishers don’t start changing just as fast, advertisers will completely leave them behind. The rules have changed. The goal posts have moved. For the general public, the content is more important than knowing who the progenitor may be of that content.

Consider my Instagram situation. I’ve given several brands direct access to my attention multiple times a day, and I’m happy to do it because I find the stuff they share to provide inspiration. The videos and images inspire me. It doesn’t matter who put them into Instagram. What matters is that they inspire me.

I can’t say the same thing about today’s display advertisements online, and I certainly can’t say that about most standard-based ads I’ve interacted with lately. Today, advertising online is about building connections between brands and audiences. Display-based advertisements, when rolled out like they’ve been online, do nothing but frustrate and confuse. It’s counter-productive.

If brands can create entertaining and inspiring content that people are willing to consume, there’s no reason publishers shouldn’t be able to build better tools to help them share that content and build new audiences within their publications or platforms.

Brands are already taking their marketing and advertising dollars in house. Don’t believe me? Here are some examples:

  1. NHL teams have started hiring internal content people to interview with players, coaches, and others in the game. These groups have unparalleled access.
  2. LEGO built an entire movie franchise around their products. People now pay to be marketed to and they’re glad to do it because the movies are fantastic.
  3. Apple’s started running its own tips articles and the company live tweets its own keynotes, no longer relying on bloggers to provide those insights.

Will brands need publishers to promote their products in the future? It’s a question worth considering; that’s for sure.