JULIAN LEE April 14, 2012
Content marketing ... "The AFL might bypass the media altogether". Photo: Wayne Taylor
Corporations are creating their own content, bypassing traditional media, writes Julian Lee.
In a small office in The Rocks is the hub of a burgeoning empire. On its books are 1000 freelance journalists, ready to write stories for some of the biggest company names in modern banking.
In the world of ''content marketing'', at a time when many parts of the media are contracting, there is more and more work for journalists who can turn a corporate ''brief'' into a readable - and, more importantly, credible - yarn.
At King Content, its founder, Craig Hodges, says his team can write as many as 800 blog posts a month for American Express, National Australia Bank, BankWest and others on any subject under the sun, as long as it fits neatly with the client's marketing strategy.
Search words are chosen to ensure that those articles rise up Google's search rankings. But, says Hodges, the material has to be credible or people won't read it, which is why he has experts in their fields writing for him. A cursory glance at some of those writing for Amex's small business Facebook page, however, shows they juggle other careers such as psychologists and media relations consultants.
The country's largest and richest sporting body, the AFL, is another with a stake in media production. With up to 40 journalists writing reports and blogs for its website, shooting and editing video clips and even making documentaries that are sold to the major TV networks, the AFL's well-appointed newsroom would be the envy of many a traditional media outlet.
The proliferation of websites and social media is empowering a generation of marketers and public relations professionals to bypass the media and go directly to their target audience. An entire subset of the $30 billion a year marketing industry is emerging to create content, whether that's reality television, documentaries, blogs, Facebook pages, ''white papers'', e-books and websites.
While some in the media - perhaps the jobbing journalist - might look upon it as a potential source of income, others are worried about its impact on the efficacy of reporting and, in the case of the AFL, whether it presages an era in which the media is shut out and unable to report on the trials and tribulations of Australia's premier sporting code.
The managing director of Channel Nine, Jeff Browne, is concerned that the creation of clips and video might lead to full control of what we read or watch about the AFL tomorrow. Would AFL Media, for example, cover the issue of racism in the game or the thuggish behaviour of a drunken player at a nightclub, he asks.
''There was a system like that once, in the Soviet Union, and look what happened to that. People want to know the facts, as ugly as they sometimes are. They don't want a sanitised, city hall version of events,'' Browne says.
There have been accusations that the AFL's desire for control has extended to instructing clubs to cut out the mainstream media and give the stories to AFL Media instead - a claim denied by the AFL's chief operating officer, Gillon McLachlan.
In the jargon of the marketing industry, what the AFL is doing could be called ''branded content'' - the term given to describe content that is created as a vehicle for a company's message. The energy drink company Red Bull years ago decided it was more effective to create events and film them for distribution to a hungry media as programs than to interrupt one with a 30-second spot. It owns sports teams and stages extreme sports events around the world, a neat fit for its overarching brand message that its drinks give you a competitive edge.
Earlier this month, Channel Seven aired a film - billed as a documentary - about and funded by McDonald's. Seven did not pay for the film, which McDonald's paid a production company to make. The program, which followed six people as they explored persistent myths about the quality and provenance of the chain's food, was watched by 761,000 people.
The rise of what is tantamount to corporate journalism concerns the federal secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Chris Warren, who predicts its growth as more content is needed to ''feed the beast that is the web'' and fill the void left as contributions from traditional media contract.
''One of our concerns … is that this area needs to develop with some of the ethical codes, independence and craft that is associated with traditional journalism, otherwise you end up with just puff pieces. And those won't attract the readers or viewers,'' says Warren, who acknowledges that this corporate work offers journalists laid off from newsrooms the chance to earn a living. Australian newsrooms have shed at least a third of their staff in a decade, he estimates.
McLachlan says the media's fears are unfounded and that all the AFL is doing is improving the experience for the 224,000 people who come to its website each month.
''If the only threat that news organisations feel is that because we might be doing a better job, which I would hope we are, then so be it,'' he says.
But it also raises the spectre that one day - perhaps when the next broadcast rights deal is up for negotiation - the AFL might bypass the media altogether and go directly to its fans. It is no secret that the AFL's model is the Major League of baseball teams in the US, which has built up a highly successful business model of creating and licensing its own content around the competition and selling it directly to fans or back to the mainstream media.
Says Browne: ''There's an element of arrogance there in their push to take over a slab of the media at the expense of that critical balance and scrutiny that you get with an independent media.''
McLachlan says that it is not the AFL's intention to put paywalls around its website, which is the country's leading sports site and the 15th most popular overall. Nor is it to cut the media out of the picture in terms of access.
His answer about his motivation will, in all likelihood, not assuage Browne's fears, given it's the fans who are the greatest asset to both organisations.
''We are doing this for the fans. It's about creating a better experience for them,'' McLachlan says.