Brands as Content: Content as Brands - Michael Kassan

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One of my favorite things about living in a tech-enabled world is what I call the digi-moment, when you're looking for one thing online but get sidetracked by something totally unrelated but irresistibly fascinating. It happened to me last week when I was preparing for our MediaLink panel on branded content Wednesday afternoon at Advertising Week.

Surfing the news for fresh examples of brands as content creators, I stumbled upon a report in the Los Angeles Times about a Cornell University study. Researchers analyzed two years worth of tweets from more than 2 million people around the world and discovered that most of us wake up happy but get increasingly more miserable as the day goes on.

The story went on to note that the data indicated that bacon is more popular than sausage and that "it takes seven hours to become inebriated, based on the lag between tweets about 'beer' and tweets about being 'drunk.'"

Earth-shattering, I know. But I had a ball reading that story. It was great content. And I would have had the same reaction if it had been written and published by Coca-Cola instead of the Los Angeles Times.

Here was a perfect metaphor for our panel discussion of marketers' metamorphosis into content creators and the implications of that evolution. A story well told, with appropriate disclosure of corporate involvement, works. Bad storytelling, crass and heavy-handed messaging and unclear corporate affiliation, doesn't.

The public has a knee-jerk reaction to branded content (like advertising,) but they will accept branded content if the story is good and nobody tries to fool anybody. Besides, the connection is hardly new. TV shows, after all, were created to sell TVs.

And a lot of this stuff is really, really good. From BMW Films to Evian's roller-skating babies, brands can be excellent content providers. Especially online. Johnson + Johnson' BabyCenter, for example, is the web's top global interactive parenting network, netting more than 25 million visitors a month.

Our exploration at Advertising Week will include the touchy questions of what all this means for content creators and media companies. And to be sure, there are important questions to ponder.

Are marketers now competitors to content providers? Are there regulatory issues? How does a publisher, online or off, determine what is and what isn't appropriate brand involvement in content creation? How deeply should brands get into content creation, when and where should they do it, and how should its effectiveness be measured?

We do need to answer these questions because the brand-as-content trend will not only continue, it will accelerate. I've seen estimates that up to 25 percent of marketing budgets are already devoted to branded content efforts of some kind.

To borrow a legendary old-media term, there is no line between the message and the medium in digital media. And social networks, with their insistence on authenticity and antipathy to traditional forms of commercial messaging, virtually compel brands to create their own content.

The ecosystem isn't just conducive to brands acting as creators as well as sponsors, facilitators, buyers or users of content.

It demands it.

Michael E. Kassan is Chairman and CEO of MediaLink, LLC, a leading Los Angeles and New York City-based advisory and business development firm that provides critical counsel and direction on issues of marketing, advertising, media, entertainment and digital technology. Michael can be reached at michael@medialinkllc.com

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