As large companies look for creative ways to draw attention to their advertising on content sites, a number of Fortune 500 firms are going in the opposite direction. Instead of putting their advertising around articles created by news firms, they’re putting news articles around their promotions. From technology to fashion and from finance to food and drink, businesses are building hubs that allow them to control both content and advertising.
The content hubs look, on first appearance, like any traditional news site. Large headlines and lead stories point out the most important features of the day. Sections often lead to categories within the site while scrolling down the page brings up more stories and articles.
In terms of design the sites haven’t broken new ground; they’ve followed formulas laid out by traditional news firms like CNN and Fox, as well as online news companies like Mashable and Buzzfeed. Copying the design immediately gives them an appearance of objective news gathering rather than a sense of commercial promotion.
Despite the differences in the content the hubs use, the methodology tends to be the same: a portion of the articles are usually syndicated from content partners while other articles are original and produced in-house. Syndication makes filling space relatively simple; creating original writing is the hardest part of running a content site. Through syndication, content suppliers are able to benefit from added reach and extra traffic, as well as a closer relationship with an advertising partner; companies get to load their pages with high quality content created by professional journalists that attracts and engages readers.
According to Digiday, the goal of creating a content site is to strengthen the brand.
[B]y giving people an editorial experience they like, they’ll develop a stronger affinity for the company.
The hubs also allow businesses to stay in constant touch with customers, rather than hitting them with individual campaigns, something that Facebook should have provided if it hadn’t decided to cut organic reach as a way of boosting advertising revenue.
Content Hubs Give Companies Haloes
A good corporate content hub though, should go beyond the simple goal of brand affinity. News content has a halo. Readers tend to trust their content suppliers, believe in a certain level of objectivity, and assume that if a company is mentioned in the media, it’s because it’s done something newsworthy. Companies aren’t following the design of news sites only to reproduce their usability; they’re also looking to win some of the trust that the familiar design evokes. The affinity won by a well-designed and planned content hub should include higher degrees of trust, as well a greater degree of knowledge about the company’s activities and a deeper familiarity with the brand.
Creating the hub should be relatively straightforward. Companies like iJoomla even provide off-the-shelf templates to which firms can add their own branding before admins insert the content. It’s an option available even for small firms. But the differences between the different content hubs do suggest that a number of difficult decisions need to be made by corporate communicators.
The first important consideration is the ease with which the site can be found. None of the corporate content hubs make up the company’s home page. The closest association comes from Coca Cola whose Journeys magazine can be found at www.coca-colacompany.com. By contrast, readers of American Express’s Open Forum, a name which sounds more old Web than modern social, have to surf to www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/explore/.
That difference may be an expression of the degree of importance the company places on content marketing. For Coca Cola, whose marketing aims to make its product a part of life and associated with enjoyable moments, its online magazine is closely linked to the company’s identity. American Express customers are more likely to look at the firm’s interest rates and benefits when choosing whether to stick with the brand so the company pushes its content hub deeper into the site’s pages and offers no menu link on the home page. Coca Cola makes Journeys the second link in the “Coke In The USA” dropdown menu, highlighted with a logo and titled “The Coca Cola Company.”
Not All Content Hubs Are Made Alike
That the style and the content varies from sector to sector is perhaps less surprising. American Express’s content is largely about business and finance, with occasional clickbait stories to bring in traffic. Alongside articles entitled “Obama Unveils New Program To Help Small Businesses Get Paid Faster” and “Innovative Business Strategies” shared at the firm’s Open for Women CEO Bootcamp, American Express also offers “The 5 Bizarre Sleeping Habits Of Successful People” and “5 Lessons For Business Owners From Crumbs’ Collapse.”
Dell calls its content hub Tech Page One and its focus is on the kinds of technology stories that would interest its employees as much as its customers. Curated content covers topics such as Microsoft, satellite data and encrypted cloud storage. Its own original content might discuss new mobile phone providers and the arrival of the Internet of things, as well as the growth of one of its own product ranges.
Pressing puts GE’s logo at the top of the page.
But the variation isn’t only across sectors. Like Dell, GE is also promoting technology, but its Pressing hub copies news sites even to the extent of offering general news content. Articles are drawn from CNN, NBC News, Politico and Vox to create a front page that discusses immigration, the death penalty, Edward Snowden and the effectiveness of government bureaucracy. The page’s subtitle is “Unique views on policy, from the best in the news.” Its own content is drawn from Ideas Laboratory, a partnership between General Electric and Atlantic Media that describes itself as
A place to convene. A place to discuss. A place for ideas.
where “experts and thought leaders… address some of today’s most pressing issues.” The articles cover topics as wide-ranging as collaboration with start-ups to the return of “innovative companies” to the city.
That’s a very different approach to that taken by the other firms. GE has decided to move away from its product range, which is broad, to position itself as a company that’s making a difference to society as a whole. It’s also attempting to win daily readers by offering fresh, timely content that will interest as many people as possible.
Like other content hubs, Pressing doesn’t hide its association with the corporation behind it, but it also doesn’t emphasize the link. The company’s logo is visible at the top of the page, but articles indicate their source with a link at the bottom of the teaser (and for shareable infographics, with a logo at the top of the image.) But for original content, the link is to the Ideas Laboratory, which looks like another objective content source rather than a GE think tank.
American Express is equally circumspect. Even when it’s offering a video from MSNBC, the byline appears to come from a staff reporter rather than from an outside supplier. Contributions of short articles from freelance writers with small LinkedIn profile images suggest the company is more interested in supplying cheap filler than thoughtful information. Content that’s derived from Open Forum’s activities is highlighted and set aside — but placed at the bottom of the page.
That content makes up only a small part of Open Forum’s home page. Just four of the seventeen articles offered on the page are a direct result of the company’s outreach activities. On GE’s Pressing site, the rate is roughly one piece of original content for every seven syndicated pieces although those syndicated pieces are of higher quality. At Adobe’s CMO site, which is aimed at Chief Marketing Officers, the sources of the content aren’t mentioned at all on the home page. It’s only by clicking on a menu item in the navigation bar, one of which is called “CMO Exclusives,” that we can see which articles are original and which are syndicated.
So there are subtle differences between content hubs in their focus, in the extent to which they highlight their own brands and in the amount of original content they publish in comparison to syndicated content.
The question though is how effective the content hubs are at winning readers, building engagement and fostering brand loyalty. Coca Cola’s Journeys is said to have twelve staff, 1.2 million monthly visitors and a bounce rate of between 20 and 24 percent. CMO, whose target audience is much smaller has about 100,000 uniques a month. Those figures are good enough to please most marketing or communications officers and should allow content to continue wrapping itself around the company’s ads.