Not long ago the Canadian custom content field was a relatively quiet place with a few well-known suppliers easily meeting demand. But marketer desire for storytelling has become insatiable and newspapers are happily moving in to quench the thirst
In early April, representatives from an unnamed Toronto agency arrived at Pamela Ross’ office looking to convince her of their unmatched ability to help “build a conversation” around her brand.
Recalling the meeting two weeks later, the Sunnybrook Foundation’s vice-president, communications and chief marketing officer briefly adopts a tone of mock gravitas as she describes how the agency characterized its core competency.
Even over the phone, you can practically see Ross’ eyebrows shooting skyward, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Calling up a carefully crafted presentation on a MacBook, the agency executives outlined to Ross a four-step approach for getting compelling, engaging content into the hands of the Sunnybrook Foundation’s multiple target audiences.
The fundraising arm of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, the Sunnybrook Foundation is currently in the middle of its ambitious “Campaign for Sunnybrook” fundraising drive, which has a stated objective of raising $470 million in 10 years.
“I’m not denigrating at all what they were saying. It was all very smart and completely logical,” says Ross of the agency’s presentation. “But in my head I was like, ‘Dude, we totally have that covered. You have nothing to teach me today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.’”
When she arrived at the Sunnybrook Foundation in 2008, one of Ross’ first priorities was streamlining the various communications programs produced by both the hospital and its fundraising arm.
“What we needed was a single voice [and] we needed to save money,” she says. “We needed to communicate in a way that wasn’t corporate and just speaking to ourselves. We knew we needed help to do that because so many organizations, regardless of how talented their staff, struggle to tell their own stories.”
The solution was a partnership with The Globe and Mail’s Custom Content Group on a twice-yearly magazine called Sunnybrook. The 52-page glossy publication is distributed to 50,000 Globe subscribers and an additional 30,000 donors, as well as at Sunnybrook’s two Toronto campuses—which handle an estimated 1.2 million patient visits a year.
Sunnybrook also boasts a dedicated online hub at GlobeAndMail.com that features video and online exclusives in addition to the magazine content. The online component generates approximately 2,500 pageviews per issue, with each visitor averaging nearly five minutes per visit.
According to Ross, the objective for the magazine is two-fold: inform both the local community and Sunnybrook’s 10,000 staff about the work being done at the health institution, as well as convince potential donors to cut a cheque.
“It’s doing an extraordinary amount of heavy lifting,” says Ross. “It’s an extremely important tool for us because it covers so many objectives and so many different audiences. It’s a cornerstone of our communications program.”
In a case study featured on the website of the New York-based Custom Content Council, Sunnybrook—which, unlike most custom content plays, is built around articles supplied by a team of staff writers—is credited with generating $500,000 in donations to the Sunnybrook Foundation.
Ross says custom content offers “so many things” that standard run-of-press newspaper advertising cannot, most notably an ability to communicate the full range of work—research, complex medical procedures, etc.—being done by the healthcare facility’s staff.
“You have to explain this to people in plain language that answers the question ‘Why should I care about that?’ You can’t do that with a display ad or a TV commercial,” she says. “You need the real estate and the environment where people sit down to intentionally find out more about you—and that’s what people do with magazines.”
Custom content, of course, is not new. In Canada, companies like Totem Brand Stories (formerly Redwood Custom Communications) and Spafax have been producing custom magazines for clients including Air Canada, Mercedes-Benz and Home Depot for years. What is relatively new, however, is the influx of newspaper publishers into the space.
“We see more and more newspapers starting custom content divisions,” says Lori Rosen, executive director of the Custom Content Council. “The whole industry is growing [because] content is definitely what marketers are turning to in order to connect with customers and expand their brand. Custom content, says Rosen, can achieve many different client objectives: customer relationship management, up-selling existing customers and even generating brand awareness.
“It has gone from being relegated to the back corner of publishing to front and centre,” she says.
The custom content marketing space is booming, says Rosen, with the North American market (including print, online, video etc.) valued at roughly US$40.2 billion. The space grew rapidly in the first part of the millennium—from US$13 billion in 2000 to an all-time high of US$48 billion in 2009—although its momentum has been slowed in recent years by lingering economic uncertainty.
Cathrin Bradbury, executive director of content development for Star Media Group (SMG) and head of a new business unit called Star Content Studios, pegs the value of Canada’s custom content market at $1 billion. “I think it’s really the sweet spot right now, and it’s going to grow exponentially in the next five years or so,” she says. “[As a publisher] you just can’t not be in the business.”
Bradbury is in the midst of what she calls “a mad dash to the finish line” as she launches Star Content Studios. The group is still hiring, but is expected to have a full-time staff of about eight people. Among the group’s staffers are custom content veterans Dick Snyder and Joseph Barbieri, both of whom left senior roles with Totem in the past year. Both have since joined SMG, with Barbieri serving as a contracted strategic advisor.
The group’s purview is broad, incorporating print, online, online video and social media. “Anything that’s on offer we’re offering,” says Bradbury.
“Everybody is starting to realize that the content stream is a smart place to be growing your business when you’re in the publishing industry,” agrees Yuri Machado who, as vice-president of integrated advertising for Postmedia Network, oversees the Toronto-based publisher’s custom content division 3i—the three i’s stand for ideas, integration and implementation.
Originally launched as a unit of Postmedia’s flagship daily the National Post, 3i has since been extended to the rest of the company’s operations. It has completed custom content projects for clients including Shell, Dell, GE and Deloitte.
“Content marketing and publishing go together hand in hand,” says Machado.
Maybe so, but it wasn’t always the case. Newspapers have traditionally repelled advertiser advances for new and different ways to connect with readers, but with standard run-of-press advertising declining—print advertising for Canadian dailies was down 6.3% in 2011 according to a recent ad-spend forecast issued by ZenithOptimedia—they may ultimately have little choice but to adopt new revenue streams like custom content to ensure long-term survival.
Tracy Day, vice-president of Business Ventures, a four-person (plus freelancers) custom content group established by Metro English Canada in 2010, says revenues for the unit have increased by as much as 250% since its inception, reaching $10 million annually. The group had 24 projects in the pipeline for May, with clients including the Canadian Mental Health Association, Scotiabank and Canadian Tire. That’s a typical month, says Day. “We’re busy, trust me,” she says.
And Leslie Krueger, vice-president of marketing and media for Toronto media agency Denneboom Media, has also noticed an “increased willingness” on the part of publishers to offer custom content services.
“In general, the economy and shifting ad dollars to digital have pushed the newspaper industry to provide more and more innovative solutions to advertisers,” says Krueger. “Some, like The Globe and Mail, are exceptionally good at putting the reader first and ensuring editorial integrity is maintained and both the reader experience and the advertiser’s message are appropriately enhanced.”
Although the Globe’s Custom Content Group remains separate from the national daily’s editorial department, group editor Charlene Rooke predicts there will be an adjustment period for editorial traditionalists who get queasy at the notion of writers working with advertising clients.
Newspapers tend to be staunch adherents to the principles of church and state, says Rooke, while magazine editors tend to have a cozier relationship with their advertisers.
“I don’t think there’s a [magazine] editor-in-chief in this country who has never gone out and met an advertiser—that’s just how it is,” says Rooke. “It doesn’t impact the integrity of the magazine, but the reality is that magazines are entirely funded by advertising and you want to have good relationships with those advertisers.”
Magazines often partner with advertising clients on promotions or even editorial series says Rooke, who has spent half of her nearly 20-year journalism career working with custom books, including enRoute (Air Canada) and Fairmont Magazine (Fairmont Hotels).
“If it’s handled well and with integrity, it need not impact the journalistic value of the magazine,” she says. “But that is very new in the newspaper world and I think that’s the transition probably every newspaper’s custom content group has to go through. I think the newsroom of a newspaper is not familiar with that model of doing business.”
Rooke says that a commitment to the same high-quality journalism as the Globe mothership has been a key factor in the Custom Content Group’s success. “I think we do it with the same integrity, the same quality journalism that you would find in The Globe and Mail every day, and that’s kind of the sweet spot for me for custom publishing,” she says.
“It’s not something a brand can do for itself. The reason advertisers come to us is they have a story to tell where they need real journalism and can’t really tell it from inside the building with a branded insider perspective. They need a journalistic team to come in, look at the issue and do this media piece as if it’s as good as anything you’d pull off the newsstand or download to your iPad.”
Star Content Studios plans to maintain a strict divide between its business and SMG’s newsgathering operation, but Bradbury doesn’t expect that to detract from its product in any way. “I don’t think that consumers differentiate in the same way they used to between branded content and journalism,” she says. “They don’t refuse to read something because it’s branded. If there’s a good story there, people are going to read it.”
While the group will work with SMG’s advertising staff to respond to RFPs, it is striving to be proactive in its dealings with clients, says Bradbury. The approach will vary, but Bradbury says the team will typically identify prospective clients and then create content ideas that the client would want to attach its brand to. “It can start anywhere, I don’t really care,” she says. “As long as it’s good for the customer.”
Day says that Metro’s Business Ventures approach to its custom content can vary. While a Metro sales rep will sometimes come to Day seeking a custom solution to present to a client, the group will also come up with their own content solutions to sell. Recently, for example, the group developed a pet-related content idea that a sales rep took to Procter & Gamble.
“It works both ways: we can create a custom feature and advertisers can come and advertise in it because we know it’s going to be popular, or we’ll work with an advertiser to do their own feature,” says Day.
Krueger, who has assembled custom programs for clients in both the business-to-business and consumer space—including Grey Goose vodka—says custom content enables advertisers to take advantage of newspaper reach while simultaneously providing an “optimal” editorial environment in which to deliver their message.
“The right media partner brings the environment, the audience and the editorial expertise and credibility to the table,” she says. “That’s important for the credibility and integrity of our clients’ brands as well.”