The pandemic impacts hit the U.S. business markets in mid-March 2020. Conferences and events, and the fertile business development grounds they provided, were cancelled, postponed or pivoted to online formats that were unfamiliar (at least way back in 2020) to most professionals.
“I generally speak at the Name-That-Conference for industry professionals and get a few solid new business leads out of that engagement each year…,” was the start of many a pipeline-focused conversation. But that pipeline ran dry with a highly transmissible virus attending all the same gigs.
Smart professionals and their firms turned their attention to content – and in most cases, this was what we PR-types refer to as “owned” content (the firm controls and distributes it without going through any gatekeepers, a.k.a. editors/reporters/producers). Webinars, newsletters, resource centers, blogs and even forays into the broadcast realm – in the form of podcasts and video series – proliferated.
This desire to educate, share and engage with potential clients in new ways was music to many in-house professional services marketers’ ears – and in the absence of third-party engagements, focusing on firm-produced media channels seemed the perfect pivot. But there is a dark side.
With the launch of these owned media channels, particularly podcasts and “online magazines,” there’s an emerging new category of “media” out there, and it appears to be confusing even the best and the brightest – somewhat intentionally.
Using recently encountered real-world examples, allow me to describe three different wrinkles on this media trend that should raise questions for communicators, marketers and business developers:
- Example A: An A/E/C industry-focused “online magazine” with a well-targeted title and corresponding URL is “honoring” firms with various self-selected awards (think “top interior designer” or “best plumbing contractor.”)
- Example B: A podcast has emerged in the IT space with a flattering name, online presentation and a cool-enough concept: the episodes profile the cream of the IT crop and discuss issues of interest to the top players in the space.
- Example C: A family of podcasts in the legal industry, managed by a single producer, targets lawyers, identifies the podcasts within the family of managed productions that align with the lawyers’ expertise, and lines them up to participate.
Here’s the “owned” media catch: there is another brand behind each of these media channels.
- In Example A, an A/E/C software developer produces the online magazine – and pushes pop-ups and other company promotion to viewers. (We had to dig in a bit to get to this as it is not overtly disclosed.)
- In the case of Example B, the IT podcast is obviously and proudly branded by a service provider. We’ll discuss why this can be a red flag below.
- In the legal podcasts described in Example C, while not obviously branded as law firm or legal tech productions, each is sponsored by and aligned with a specific legal brand.
Companies create these owned channels fairly transparent reasons:
- Access to potential clients (whether their ultimate target is your firm or your firm’s clients).
- Desirable audience overlap between their brand and the goodwill brought by your firm/professionals (and keep in mind these channels include “subscribe” and “follow” buttons – as well as active chatbots in some cases).
- A halo effect that your firm brand can bring – providing them credentialing implied by your participation (and, therefore, approval) of their channel.
- “Shared” media cross promotion on social channels as you help to amplify your participation.
- Real estate on your website when you post your participation on your domain of authority.
- SEO fodder.
And that leads us straight to the questions these “opportunities” should raise. Before you jump in wholeheartedly, ask yourself:
- Is it wise to align our firm brand with this brand? Do we know the sponsoring outfit and its reputation with our own audiences – including clients, prospects, referral sources and the industry generally?
- Do we want to provide our “implied approval” of this vendor and/or their product(s)?
- Might our involvement or participation signal an “allegiance” – however tangential – that could be misconstrued by others in the space?
- Is the sponsoring brand’s audience desirable to our business development goals?
- Is the production value reflective of our firm’s standards?
- Is the “sales” approach acceptable to us and our connections? (For example, will the channel spam our clients if they follow or register?)
Beyond these questions, as you evaluate these opportunities compared to traditional media outlets, consider that:
- There are no audited circulation or subscriber numbers, so the audience noted may or may not be as advertised. Even if the numbers are there, they may or may not represent a large extended family of the producer, rather than solid targets for your business development efforts.
- The traditional ethical canons associated with the fourth estate, don’t apply. There is no semblance of editorial independence here – so the rules of balanced reporting, separation of editorial and paid content, and protocols for handling correction requests may not be applied.
Now please don’t get me wrong, there are some seriously impressive owned media channels out there. It has long been a goal to land a client in the Costco Connection or to have the cult-like following of a channel like the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. My only caution is to do the work to identify the sponsor of the media channel before replying to the come-on, granting interviews, posting accolades on the firm website or sharing the content with your entire LinkedIn network. Otherwise, you could very well end up doing someone else’s marketing while undoing your own.