📰Getting Media Coverage When Legacy Media's Collapsing
Why branded content exists (and will exist) in the tech industry: The Neal Ungerleider Newsletter #74
What happens when a venture capital fund runs an entire media operation for the companies they invest in? Andreessen Horowitz, better known as A16z, is giving us a good idea.
Last week, news got out that A16z is planning a new opinion section which will include columns from outside contributors and will take an openly celebratory stance towards the tech industry (as opposed to places like the New York TImes or Wired who can be quite, quite more skeptical). A16z already produces massive amounts of content; their home page looks more like a digital publication than that of a venture capital fund… that means lots of articles, plenty of podcasts, plenty of newsletters, etc. They also made the smart choice to hire Maggie Leung, a well-regarded industry figure known for building out Nerdwallet’s extensive content marketing operations, as the firm’s executive editor.
If A16z was unique in this, they would just be an interesting case study(1). But A16z aren’t the only tech company or VC fund running their own media operations--not by a long shot. So let’s dig into marketing content and the tech media ecosystem.
Why I’m Writing About This
First off, necessary disclaimer: I’m knee deep in the tech industry marketing media industrial complex. I’m proud of it, I make money from it, my clients get results from it.
My background--like that of many tech marketing/pr industry people--is in journalism. I was a masthead reporter for Fast Company for more than six years, when I transitioned to the advertising world to earn more money and enjoy a more stable industry than 2010s journalism offered. After some time in the agency world, I discovered (much to my surprise) that I enjoyed being an entrepreneur and went full throttle into consulting(2). I never looked back.
By the time I left Fast Company in 2016, I was receiving approximately 100-250 emailed pitches a day from tech companies who wanted me to write about them. Around the time of big conventions like CES, SXSW, or NRF Big Show that number could easily jump up to 500 a day. Meanwhile, I was writing approximately 5 articles a week for FC(3).
And let’s be honest: Those odds suck for companies (and their comms people) looking for coverage. Especially when, as a journalist, my preferred story gathering method was writing about the topics that my engineer and product manager and researcher contacts were passionate about… and not necessarily what PR people were emailing me about.
These days, I work with tech clients on content and marketing projects. I’ve worked on projects with partners like SAP, GE and The Economist and Pivotal along with a number of VC firms looking to promote their portfolio companies(4).
I can say this: It’s much easier (and, in many cases, more effective) for companies to write about themselves than to case around other people to cover them.
Why Tech Companies And VCs Make Their Own Content
TL;DR = In most cases, it’s easier than getting someone to write about you.
The journalism industry is in freefall, including daily newspapers, general interest tech publications, and specialty trade media(5). The internet has also fostered a deep ecosystem of influencers and smaller publications (which, for our purposes, also includes YouTube channels, TikTok accounts, newsletters, and other non-traditional formats) who vary significantly in terms of audiences, quality, and editorial integrity.
With trade publications shuttering and coverage opportunities in general-interest publications disappearing, many tech companies (VC firms included) find value in creating their own content. For many case studies--announcing product updates to users, interviews with executives, publicizing product releases, highlighting corporate announcements--producing in-house content makes more sense.
And, of course, it allows companies to generate coverage of themselves in a manner that’s favorable to them. If you’re writing about your own product, you’re probably not going to mention that your customers largely prefer your competitor’s product and are locked in by contracts with hefty cancellation fees. Or that your executives have a history of saying problematic things when interviewed without a minder around. You know, things like that.(6)
The Forms In-House Content Take
In-house content runs the gamut from small and modest to large-scale media operations.
At the smaller-scale end, you have content operations centered around blog posts, email newsletters, Medium posts, and things like that. These are by far the most common in the branded content world, and are effective choices in many cases.(7)
But in-house content operations also take much more elaborate forms. Apart from A16z’s podcast network, Salesforce has an elaborate media marketing operation that includes everything from articles to podcasts to videos to instructional guides. Payments firm Stripe publishes Increment, a prestige magazine that resembles a literary journal and gives writers room to write deep dive features about technology and the business world. Microsoft ran their MSDN Magazine for almost three decades, which served as a hub for the Windows developer community before web forums, Google and Stack Overflow rendered it obsolete. Companies like Buffer (enterprise social media management) and HubSpot (CRM and marketing tech) have built elaborate revenue generation mechanisms around their content operations.
These content projects can be either made in-house or produced by an external marketing or communications agency. In either case, developing them typically requires media domain expertise which requires experts with industry experience coming on-board either as full-time employees or per-project consultants.(8)
In-House Content Challenges
When it’s done well, in-house content can be very, very good. When it’s not done well, you know…
Honestly, sitting in my perch as cranky ex-journalist marketing guy, the big challenge I’ve seen with brands doing content is that they don’t know who their audiences are. You can’t create a Fast Company or a Wired or a New York Times out of whole cloth. Trying to do that sets brands up to fail… but you can speak to your customers and your target audience where they’re at.(9)
And having an existing pipeline to ensure your audience knows your context exists helps too. If you’re a B2B tech company doing video guides to a new update to your product, you should really email your registered users to let them know about the videos. When you’re rolling out a brand podcast, make sure it’s being promoted on your Facebook page and your Twitter and maybe consider doing a cross promotion on a podcast which shares a target audience with you.(10)
Additionally… and I’ve got to say this kinda, sorta gently because of the field I work in and yadda yadda yadda, but the public can smell bullshit a mile away. Noone’s expecting your company to create your own in-house ProPublica, but be honest with your audience, treat them like adults, and focus on creating helpful service journalism (How to use your product better! How to do their jobs better!) or relevant entertainment content (Interviews with interesting people! Sports/entertainment/home stuff that interests your readers!).
Plus, well, in-house content is expensive and challenging to produce. Good writers, editors, videographers, producers, graphic designers, etc. cost money and need supervisors with domain experience from the journalism, marketing, advertising or marketing fields. Do it on the cheap and it bites you in the ass; do it with a big budget and no set goals and you’re pissing money away.
...And Legacy Media Collapse = Bad For Brands!
But everything gets back to the fact that legacy media--the magazines, newspapers, FM radio and broadcast television stations (cable and AM talk radio were exempt from this, but that’s a topic for another article…) are in a state of collapse/deep transformation right now.
Basically, once upon a time that wasn’t too long ago, a tech or business looking for coverage had their choice of dozens of magazines, multiple daily newspapers, and ~100 odd trade publications to pitch to. Challenging, yeah, but you have a decent aperture and good enough odds of getting coverage.
But what happens when the daily newspaper in the major regional market you’re based in (Denver? Charlotte? Miami?) sources 90% of the business and tech sections from the Associated Press? What happens when marquee publications treat their print editions as pure-play revenue generators for full page ads and instead steer content into a ruthlessly SEO-optimized website? I’ll tell you: A shitty situation for brands who want publications to cover them.
Thus: Branded content. I get it--in an ideal world, a functional journalism industry with financially stable publications covering relevant beats would exist. But it doesn’t… so creating in-house content still remains a pretty damned good idea.
The Unauthorized Story of Andreessen Horowitz: Eric Newcomer
Andreessen Horowitz Looks to Launch Opinion Publication as Its Media Ambition Grows: Zoe Bernard/The Information
Inside A16z’s Media Operations: Frederic Filloux/Monday Note
1: My read is that A16z’s skepticism towards the media is real, but that they play it up because it’s… you know, good marketing.
2: Journalism is great but doesn’t pay and has no job stability. Advertising is great but pays and has no job stability. Meanwhile, consulting is great because you get paid to fix other people’s problems.
3: In post-industry collapse journalism, 99.5% of reporters don’t have interns or editorial assistants sifting through their emails for them. Wading through the dozens-to-hundreds of emailed pitches a day is just one more job duty between interviewing sources, filling out paperwork, conducting research and (yes) writing or recording stories.
4: Forgive me clients for saying this, but I’ve generally found founders and executives generally have more of a well-rounded view of their companies than VCs have of their portfolio firms. I strongly believe this is because VCs naturally want to think the best of the companies they’re investing money in, which leads them to overly optimistic views.
5: The public has been trained through decades of learned behavior to expect content for free, but the internet’s monetization mechanisms don’t compensate 99.555% of creators for the investment they place into creating free content. We still haven’t squared that circle.
6: In my experience, 95% of the executive/decisionmaking folks I interviewed as a journalist acquitted themselves wonderfully and at least managed to present themselves as interesting people who know their area of expertise and don’t have any glaring personal flaws. That other 5%, though…
7: Pro tip: Start small, experiment with your branded content, see what your audience responds to and branch out from there. Small scrappy experiments all the way.
8: You ever listen to a podcast where the recording sucks and you wanna listen to the host but it’s pointless? Or go to a website that falls apart when you look at it on your phone? You don’t want that.
9: I hate persona exercises with the strength of a million undying suns, but they are useful. Unless you have an idea of who your audience is, you’re just typing into the ether.
10: One of the cultural DNA similarities between journalism and agency advertising is a certain degree of shamelessness in self-promotion. By contrast, in-house marketing can sometimes be surprisingly conservative. Pro tip: Embrace shamelessness in self-promotion when it comes to content marketing.
Things I’ve Enjoyed Lately:
Slate’s What’s Next TBD podcast on why COVID vaccine signup websites are so badly made.
Discovering the joy of 60 minute YouTube fire engine supercuts with my toddler. It’s a whole subculture and I had no idea.
About This Newsletter: Neal Ungerleider is a strategic communications consultant who works with clients on white papers, magazine columns, videos and other marketing-y things. Check out his bio, his portfolio, and current projects.