How far can brands go in becoming publishers?

Content is king. No, context is king. Wait, customer is king. I love content and the role it plays in marketing but the context matters, always. Are brands publishers and should they even act as publishers? Doubts of an early content marketing adopter that never cared too much about buzzwords or concepts but more about context and customers.

I remember a discussion I had many years ago with a friend who now runs an interactive agency in Asia. We were sitting in an Italian restaurant, exchanging ideas and thoughts. Since I was a publisher at that time and have always been strongly focused on the importance of content in creating conversations and business, I told him I thought brands should be publishers.

Now, you have to know, the guy I’m talking about has an enormous interactive marketing track record and expertise, and he ran a respected agency. He agreed with me that brands had to do more with content, and he stressed the importance of creating content for what he called “all the new screens”. You should know that back then the only “screen” people had to go online was the computer monitor and stuff such as digital billboards and smartphones didn’t exist yet.

However, I told him I thought it should go much further, and that I thought brands really had to become publishers. Creating their own media online, not simply branded web sites with tips and tricks, community aspects, relevant content, etc. but real online media. And publishing content as a way to engage customers, even without being exposed too much on the medium. That went a little too far for him. And maybe it did and does. He said there should always be a strong brand connection and that businesses would never become publishers like, well, “real publishers”.

I started doubting my own thoughts and, given my respect for his experience, sort of softened my views.

The thin line between building branded media and communities and being a publisher

Then came social media. I know a few brands that have blogs and branded content platforms, acting as publishers. The brands appear as ‘the drivers’ of those blogs. Branded blogs and branded community platforms. They inform and answer questions. And sometimes they slip in a post about an own product our service. Of course they never talk about competitors. I think they should. Not everyone sees that this blog is “powered by”. Perception is everything. Publishing and the thin lines between what your advertisers (in the case of branded blog communities often sales or PR want) on one hand and the editorial team on the other.

Now I ask myself again if I was right or wrong at that time. Should brands be publishers? Is it good to be a publisher? Do brands know that thin line? Can they deal with it as a publisher should be able to? Can they be transparent enough? I guess we all know content is crucial in engaging customers, followers and fans and in building communities. I guess we also all know that user-generated content is crucial. And I suppose we all know the role of content in marketing overall.

But should brands really be publishers? And, if they do, how far should they go? Should a big company that sells baby stuff set up a community for soon-to-be mothers and ‘new’ moms? Should it offer personalized content in function of the age of the child? Should it be clearly visible on that platform and put its products in the spotlight? Or should it be more on the background? Doesn’t it have a responsibility in publishing content for soon-to-be-mothers?

I wonder when a brand becomes a publisher and how far it can go in its publishing and community-building efforts. I wonder how far a brand can go in offering value, without being present all over the place, before the connection between the brand and the community or medium it created, gets lost. And knowing the implications poor information can have on people’s lives. Like soon-to-be-mothers who deserve more than self-serving content but deserve to be informed in the most possible objective way. Becoming a mother is something important. Maybe we shouldn’t be publishers. Being relevant and valuable, yes. Publishing in the sense of the publisher?

Of course the answer is not an eternal truth that goes for all brands and businesses. It always depends from so many elements. But, still, I wonder. And I wonder what you think.