AFL Media: the future of content marketing?

Content marketing is all the rage at the moment, but those having the most success with the tactic, like the AFL, appear to be forming their own newsrooms rather than just pushing branded content.

Graph for AFL Media: the future of content marketing?

Is this the next evolution of content marketing?

Last year the AFL made a decision that would have lasting ramifications on the future of the game. 

It wasn’t about the draft, nor was it a crackdown on drugs in sport. The code decided to hire a team of journalists and editors and start its own newsroom that solely covered AFL-related issues. It created a situation where it would employ journalists to report on – you guessed it – itself.

Now, just a year after that call, AFL Media’s own coverage of the game rivals that of the news companies. The AFL’s media division employs more than 100 staff who work to produce and promote news, views and video content for the AFL’s Telstra-supported media platform. To this point, Fairfax and News Corp Australia recently identified the firm as a threat to their own reporting on the game.  

Amidst a sea of content-based marketing options out on the internet, many would call the AFL’s example a unique case. A situation where the existing popularity of the game and the fact that it owns its intellectual property made such an editorial enterprise possible. After all, as a business the AFL is already being fuelled by advertising dollars. It’s halfway to being a media company anyway.

This ‘journalism marketing’ hybrid isn’t unique to football, or even sports, but is it possible for any company to run its own newsroom and take on the traditional media?

Well, some have made it work.

Nike, Red Bull and cyber-security firm Sophos are just a few examples of the diverse range of companies hiring either journalists or experts to push an editorial agenda and, in the background, a brand.

For the AFL, using an editorial strategy to promote traffic to its site has the added benefit of allowing the firm to offer more complex – and hence attractive – advertising bundles. Before AFL Media, the primary attraction of the AFL site was its Dream Team fantasy football game.

While that still may be a drawcard – given the overwhelming popularity of Dream Team – the following figures offered up by AFL Media’s former head Sam Walch during his presentation at the recent Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) conference show that the editorial team is making a difference to the site’s traffic, particularly its mobile page views during matches. 

AFL Media monthly audience metrics (Source: AFL Media) 
Before AFL Media (2011)After AFL Media (2013)Difference
Desktop unique vistors 2.9m3.0m3%
Clubs unique visitors1.6m 2.0m25%
Mobile unique visitors600k1.6m167%
AFL app unique visitors90k920k922%
Clubs apps unique visitors0350k
All video platform streams1.5m5.1m240%
Social media
Facebook likes360k520k44%
@AFL Twitter follows45k140k211%

The same can be said about security vendor Sophos' cyber security blog, Naked Security.

The group's social media and community manager, Anna Brading, says the site is just as happy to report on the exploits in its company's software as much as it is about the awards it receives, because "nobody likes a vendor that pretends bad stuff didn't happen when it did".

"Having said that, we believe in what's called responsible disclosure – where you don't break news or reveal details that might directly open doors for the bad guys before the affected parties have had a chance to fit bolts to those doors and lock them," Brading adds.

Brading hints at an interesting dynamic within all newsrooms. Depending on the story, reporting with any sort of integrity may eventually put the newsroom at loggerheads with a corporate partner. In the case of a corporate-led newsroom, such a situation could even jeopardise a business relationship.

Consistency and passion 

Naked Security appears to have navigated this tightrope, as it is now a major marketing and brand channel for Sophos. Unlike AFL Media, however, it wasn't originally created to serve this purpose. When the blog was started back in November 2010, it was simply intended as a way for the firm to answer to the countless questions it receives about cyber security from both the public and its clients.

Now, this company-driven publication has grown to rival established technology sites. It receives up to one million page views each month and boasts a 40,000-strong subscriber base.

Brading attributes this success to Sophos' writers, who are not 'marketers' but cyber security enthusiasts.

"We think those passions come through in their writing, which helps to build our credibility," Brading says.

"And in one of life's serendipitous outcomes, that just happens to produce good marketing results too."

If there's one point that seems to be understood by both by AFL Media and Sophos, it’s that trust is built through consistency.

You can’t take readers on a 10 article journey only to present them with a brand-based takeaway in the eleventh. It just doesn’t work like that. The minute you override the narrative – or the point of the publication – with a brand message, the readers switch off. It's perhaps a disconnect that pervades most content-based marketing strategies.

There's also the fact that, unlike the AFL or Sophos, not all companies are blessed with an obvious link as to what they should cover if they were to start up a publication.

Taking content marketing to the 'extreme'

But, as seen with Red Bull, you can also just pick something that you want associated to your brand, and focus on that. You may think Red Bull would write a blog on energy drinks – or maybe even aviation, given their “gives you wings” slogan. But you'd be wrong.

As Mashable puts it, Red Bull has taken content marketing to the “extreme” by becoming the world’s leading source of information on extreme sports. Red Bull is now the front page for all things extreme sports on the web.

There’s no doubt that this content marketing trend isn’t going to go away anytime soon, though it's arguable that many companies engaging in this kind of New Age marketing won’t run their own publications. They will instead employ copywriters, who will craft a piece to a given message, and then pay the mainstream media to promote that content for them.

As Media Watch has noted over the past couple of months, heavily-branded advertorial is rife across Australia’s mainsteam media. In some extreme cases, it’s been passed off as editorial content.

To argue the media industry’s point: all of this is necessary in order to sustain a business that is being eroded by the internet and digital disruption. But it also risks losing credibility with one's audience.

So while brands are getting a grip on how to gain customers through offering unique content and building trust, media companies may be eroding it by appearing to cater to the whims of advertisers over their readers.

At this rate, who knows what the media landscape is going to look like in the next decade.

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