Don't count 'brand journalism' out

The concept of "brand journalism" suffered a serious setback a few weeks ago when August Busch IV, the CEO of Anheuser-Busch (AB), told analysts that AB's $30 million investment in launching Bud TV would likely "fade away" at the end of the year.

The concept of "brand journalism" suffered a serious setback a few weeks ago when August Busch IV, the CEO of Anheuser-Busch (AB), told analysts that AB's $30 million investment in launching Bud TV would likely "fade away" at the end of the year.

AB had hoped to attract millions of unique visitors to its Web site with thousands of hours of original content video - everything from star interviews with sports personality Joe Buck to reality shows to stand-up comedy - but the site proved a disappointment, scoring only a fraction of its stated goal of 2 million to 3 million hits. (Comscore tallied it at 152,000 unique visitors in March, and even fewer in April).

But does that mean that the concept of "brand journalism" should also be considered a flop? Maybe not. Though Bud TV failed to take hold in any meaningful way, and struggled to show a workable ROI, many of its shortcomings can be attributed to the cumbersome age verification system - a robust filter designed to keep minors off the site, but which had the effect of keeping everyone but the most dedicated Bud fans from perusing its content.

AB can't be blamed for the age verification system - it is absolutely necessary for a Web site promoting alcohol consumption - but it should have taken it into account when getting into the branded content game in the first place.

Bud TV's failure, though, should not stop other brands from acting as "content providers" in some way, shape, or form. While their business model may be to sell widgets or provide a service, most companies also sit atop a mountain of possibilities when it comes to offering content of some kind - content which, if delivered properly, can help create new and deeper relationships with key constituencies. This content can come in the form of everything from proprietary data to staff anecdotes to internal blogs made external, and so on. And it doesn't necessarily entail a $30 million investment or creating an online network.

The company as content provider, or brand journalist, isn't entirely new: Companies (with the help of PR firms) have been commissioning white papers, authoring studies, publishing surveys, and offering expert commentary for years; they've been a staple on the PR front for decades, and are unlikely to disappear.

The difference now is that - with the proliferation of new media technologies, like blogs and the like - brands can now create a genuine dialogue with audiences in a way it never could. Moreover, it has opened up countless possibilities as to how these conversations can take place - possibilities that circumvent the mass media filter, as well as traditional corporate communications and marketing.

And that, in a nutshell, is why brand journalism is relevant to our profession. New media technologies should be viewed as a means, not an end - a tool empowering companies to bypass the mass media, traditional marketing, and, in some cases, even out-of-touch corporate decision makers. It turns one-way marketing into two-way communications - a discipline better suited for PR than traditional marketing.

To use a sports analogy, what had traditionally been the domain of marketing is now a jump ball between marketing and PR - a jump ball that PR is well positioned to win.

Nick Ragone is SVP of media relations at Ketchum.

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