This is part of a series of articles focused on the key issues that will be covered in our Monetising Media event at the end of September.
For a publishing industry that grew fat on advertising, the scary truth is that the web has reduced newspapers, magazines and even TV from a must-have for advertisers to a nice-to-have. Sure ad buyers often choose old media over new, but among many of the big brands there's a growing realisation that they can go direct to audiences with their own content, completely bypassing the tolls from which media businesses have made their money.
Does that mean all the ad money will drain from publishing, siphoned out into search ads, in-house content teams, and social media distribution?
Perhaps not, if the strategy of US conglomerate General Electric is anything to go by. GE, which operates in industries ranging from aviation to healthcare, has invested heavily in ways to reach out directly to consumers and business people via its own content, yet it is also enthusiastically pursuing partnerships with media organisations such as Vox, Quartz and The Economist.
As GE global head of media strategy Jason Hill tells TheMediaBriefing, media may no longer be able to dominate the channels between consumer and brand, but it does still fill a vital role within the multi-channel approach of a company like GE:
"We are really looking at multiple touchpoints to reach a business decision maker audience. We have invested heavily in social, we've invested in some of our own channels and blog properties. [But] we believe that kind of taking a look at our media strategy when it comes to publishers and partners pays dividends. We believe there is still great value to that and some of what the great media companies have done is provided great, educational content for some time to certain audiences."
"We like to think of ourselves as a kind of diversified media company. Ultimately audiences have more choice but they are behaving across all these different places and ultimately brands have to do the same thing. At some point the publishers and the media companies might not have dominance any more because there will be enough owned and social channels to augment those. They're still going to be a very important part of the strategy because I think they provide an enormously important service just in the overall consumption of content, news and information. It's just not the sort of hegemony any more."
So media brands can relax. They're still a part of the puzzle... right?
Not quite. While firms like GE believe publishing still has an important role to play in helping them communicate with customers, Hill says the industry is becoming ever more aware that display ads have limited usefulness.
"Brands have long suspected that digital display advertising is not particularly effective," says Hill. "You look at the industry benchmarks for things like click-through and engagement and it was the best publishers had to offer for a long time, and I think a lot of advertisers are realising that it's not particularly effective."
What Hill and GE are keen on are more sponsorship style deals such as those with Vox, and in particular the kind of close, content-led partnerships the company has developed with the Economist on its Look Ahead series.
One of GE's longest running and, Hill says, most effective partnerships, Look Ahead is a daily series of articles written by Economist staff (who work separately from its core journalists) but bylined as GE content. A look at the pieces produced under the partnership shows that there's very little in the way of a heavy sell, with the GE brand rarely mentioned in the text.
As Hill says, the idea is to cover areas relevant to GE but ensure they are as informative and useful to the consumer as purely editorial Economist articles:
"We want to create content that's as good or better than what is on the rest of the page that's coming from The Economist's editorial team, because that's the environment we've chosen to be in. It's an incredibly high editorial bar and the audience coming to that has expectations about what they're going to learn, the level to which it's going to be written, what the takeaways are going to be and so forth."
"That's really how we test ourselves and we're happy to say that when we get the results on certain days and on certain posts we beat engagement rates for the true editorial, which we like to think is a proxy for value add, and that people are coming to the content and realising it's from a brand, but it's not sending them away."
There's little getting away from the fact that publishers are no longer gatekeepers for audiences, and when you're competing wth the likes of Facebook and Google, remaining competiive in the scale game of standard display ads is a thankless task for most.
Native advertising, or whatever you want to call it, isn't going to change that situation. But what it does provide is a way of interacting with consumers that both taps into the audiences publishers spend their time trying to attract, and uses the ability to interact with those audiences.
It won't lead to a return to former glory, but it might just convince advertisers like GE that it's not worth cutting publishers out of the puzzle completely.
Image via Flickr courtesty of r.f.m II used under a Creative Commons licence.