Speculating on Content

There’s a lot of industry talk about compensation right now, probably because agencies are worried that the Internet has lower margins than traditional marketing. But everyone’s getting paid pretty well for most online work. It’s just that the “mass-market” advertising-the industry’s bread and butter-is mainly cheap banners and pre-rolls; there’s not really a category for premium, mass-market online advertising that can compete with television. At least, not yet. We have to make one. And to do so, we might have to pay more for online advertising space.

The ad industry has grown in response to the content that the Internet has created. Banners grew out of news portal sites, pre-roll grew out of embedded video. The marketing industry is reactive, and the time and money spent on creating the marketing does not add value in the long term to the Internet as an ecosystem. Most marketers are going for short-term gains that serve the brand’s campaign agenda, which is still based on the interruptive nature of old marketing methods: you’ve paid for your time, so you can say whatever you want. But what you’re really buying, or should be buying, is the opportunity to be a part of the Internet’s social fabric. If you don’t make yourself useful, you’ll be quickly ignored.

Some agencies and brands realize it’s time to start investing in online experiences, utilities and content that gain in value as time goes on — serial content, functional social experiences, gaming, who knows what else. To do this, you could start from scratch, building something that evolves over time, such as a community for your brand’s followers. Or, you could find what’s already out there and contribute to it in a meaningful way. You could also create original content-but you know it’s super hard to make interesting branded content.
Even better? You could find existing online content that has potential and invest in that.

Think about what’s already online, from YouTube channels with tens of thousands of subscribers to amateur game designers with 100,000 users. The problem is that the primary model for marketers is to advertise on the portals that the content is hosted on, but any site with large amounts of content is likely to be full of bad content. On average, it’s not good enough to motivate agencies to do really great ads.

What we need is a better financial relationship between advertisers and content creators, one that motivates both sides to do better work. Everyone’s looking for some brand-new model and what we should be doing is thinking about something more old-fashioned: long-term relationships.

One of the hurdles might be that the advertising industry is not paying enough for online media, particularly its budding players. Specifically, we’re not motivating them financially-we’re not paying enough for media space, be it interruptive, sponsorship, or something more interesting, so that content creators can raise the bar of production or even just continue creating work beyond hobbyist level. Bottom line, we’re not paying enough to create online celebrity that can compete with offline celebrity. Without stars you don’t get a fundamental belief in the longevity of characters, stories, audiences.

There’s a fallacy that you should just wait around for something or someone to get famous and then co-opt, sponsor, integrate, exploit — maybe because initial distribution is basically free online. You’re not giving yourself enough credit.

Your help is needed greatly. There’s a symbiotic relationship between content and advertising that encourages quality, growth and investment. More specifically, high-quality marketing associated with content creates legitimacy for that content, as much as the content enhances your brand. If brands and marketers don’t take the content seriously enough, it might be because they haven’t invested enough for it to be meaningful in the way that a corporate entity feels it, e.g., on its balance sheet.
You’re already spending a lot of money in other, more mature media where you put your ads next to great content. But in this budding online medium, you need to consider putting your mature brand next to new content. Look at it like speculating or investing: You need to create a diverse portfolio. Gamble on a long-term deal with a bunch of different content creators of varying sorts. Make some serious deals, e.g., five-year contracts where you pay an escalating fee based on audience metrics, but definitely make it a long-term investment. This will be world changing for the creator because he or she will now have a massive motivation to keep succeeding. They’ll now have a job, not a hobby.

I suspect that these deals, while they may be huge for some content creators, would be a drop in the bucket for advertisers. And the result will be your brand will have some hits and, the times it doesn’t, you’ll still be making a meaningful contribution to Internet culture. And for that, you won’t be forgotten.

Benjamin Palmer is CEO and co-founder of The Barbarian Group. He can be contacted at  Benjamin@barbariangroup.com.