A well-established brand is supposed to be a key asset. Everybody keeps dreaming of building a long-lasting brand with lots of positive attributes. How true is it for media ? In the rapidly changing environment, in the massive shift towards electronic media (and the vaporization of value that goes along with it), how relevant is the notion of media brand?

Quite important, actually. Brand management must be handled with great care, especially when business models are threatened. The brand becomes a critical line of defense, and a strategic component to build upon. There are conditions, though, to the survival of media brands — and to the emergence of new ones.

Adjustable. The media brand is no longer a monolith embodied into a unique, “noble” product. Today’s brand must be considered as a flagship, a hub surrounded by satellites, each dedicated to one type of business or assigned to a well-defined audience segment. A news sites tied to a newspaper can, for instance, be at the center of the galaxy in terms of “brand awareness” but not necessarily in terms of audience. A flagship brand will tend to reduce itself to a niche market (small audience, fairly good monetization ratio through a combination of pricey ads, subscriptions, etc).
By contrast, peripheral assets could draw large audiences: participatory sites, social networks, blogs clusters; these might grow faster than the flagship site and, at some point, could outrun it.
Problem is : monetization will be tricky as the yield per viewer will remain low. Those sites  will have to invent new ways of selling ads by capitalizing on the relationships within their audiences (for a good example, see our case study of the French social network Skyrock and its 40 million members). These new breeds of advertising campaigns will only fit a young audience that is more willing than the older generation to accept commercial invasiveness.

Connected. Linking brands and sub-brands is mandatory. A well-networked ring of sites will have an audience far greater than the sum of its parts. Sounds pretty obvious but, still, some don’t get it. Take the French media brand Le Monde. Great paper, great (profitable) site. The group operates several other sites, among them an experimental one targeted to a younger audience. Le Post.fr is viewed as a lower-grade journalistic product by Le Monde’s editorial aristocracy. (Granted: Le Post.fr had the strange idea of labeling the news it publishes; some are tagged “verified” other as “raw” which, to put it gently, is in opposition to the basics of the trade). Result is: Le Monde.fr doesn’t link to its shady offspring (and internal factions are pushing for selling the unit). Considering the figures, this deliberate disdain is not the smartest move. Over the last three months (April-June measured by Nielsen), Le Monde’s audience rose by 29% to 4.96m unique visitors. As a comparison, Le Figaro’s audience — the other big national daily that obsessively links every single piece of its online portfolio — rose by 35% to 6.67m UV, which makes it the clear number one among the media sites in France. Too bad for Le Monde, reluctant to take advantage of the audience of its “Post”: it grew by 36% over the period to 2.8m UV…

Diversified. A media brand won’t stay media only. As the online perimeter is concerned, brands, sub-brands and sites have to be as numerous as the revenue streams are: ad supported news (general or specialized ones), exclusive paid-for contents, all sorts of classifieds, e-commerce, services, gaming… Sometimes the main brand will appear in full view, sometimes it will be concealed behind another one with more appeal to the targeted audience.
Extensions will be considered in accordance to market opportunities and realized as products ranging from publishing (educational, professional) to paid-for events such as high profile conferences.

Managed. In some instances, a media brand will better sell itself as an unlabeled service, in other cases it will gain from putting is name forward. Let’s be trivial: it is mostly a question of cost versus revenue. Last week, the BBC struck a landmark deal with four national newspapers groups for which the TV network will provide videos — for free. In that particular instance, the cost of the news material is already amortized through the regular broadcasting. Therefore, generating additional revenue becomes secondary to expanding the brand through powerful distribution channels. (The BBC move is widely criticized as unfair competition by commercial video providers who were used to selling their stuff to media sites). In France, some TV networks are considering the opposite move, which is selling their video content in exchange for a fee set on a per minute basis. Flexibility has to be the rule.

Monitored and protected. It is fairly easy to damage a brand. A wrong product, an ill-timed diversification and you’re done. The Washington Post, whose management wanted to organize sponsored “off the record” dinners, paid the full price for a bad judgement with a terrible PR embarrassment.
But as Alan Mutter put it in his blog, “Papers shouldn’t shy from for-profit events”. But there are events totally unfit for such profit-seeking initiatives. Readers are quick to see the difference between revenue generation and selling out. There is no substitute for good judgement and for attention to these issues at the highest level of any media company.

Above all:  Trusted. Let’s face it : in the permanent “noise” of today’s e-media, the ability to deliver a reliable “signal” remains a media brand’s most precious asset, which therefore is the ultimate label of quality and steadfastness. Trustworthiness has nothing to do with self-aggrandizing “History” presumably  associated with old companies. Recent events show that good media brands — Politico to name one (read the story in Vanity Fair) – can be created from scratch. It goes for superblogs as for traditional news organizations, successful recipes remain immutable: professionalism and balance in the news gathering and the editing processes and a fiercely defended independence. As long as this principles apply, media brands, old and new, will thrive. —FF

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