The trickle-down economics of content marketing

tim burrowes landscapeYesterday The Guardian was revealed as offering just 14c per word for creating branded content. But the dilution of brand dollars before they reach creators is widespread in the rapidly changing content marketing landscape, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

A few weeks back, I had an interesting inside glimpse of trickle-down economics in action.

A big media company (not The Guardian, as it happens), had done a content marketing deal with a luxury client.   

The deal involved this big media company creating bespoke content and publishing it. I suspect the client thought that the work would be done in-house, by this company’s own journos. And I suspect they paid a premium for it.

Instead the publisher called in a content marketing agency, who agreed a fee to create the content. I presume this was a fee that allowed the media company to retain a nice profit margin of its own, while also outsourcing the content creation.

But this wasn’t the end of the trickle. In turn, this content marketing agency outsourced the content creation down a further level, to the owner of a small fashion blog it had a working relationship with.

No doubt the content marketing agency also made a nice cut along the way.

And it didn’t end there. This social media specialist then did their own piece of outsourcing (while extracting a healthy profit margin of his own), to a student in regional Australia who was willing to write for 20 cents a word.

This person bashed out the article overnight and filed it to the fashion blogger, who passed it back up the chain to the content marketing agency, who delivered it back to the media company who then no doubt gave it back to the client for approval.

It’s trickle-down economics in action. Those at the top of the pyramid get most of the content marketing wealth, while each of those in the lower layers get their own slice of the action.

By the end of it, the actual creator of the product gets a relatively small slice, in that case 20c per word.

Guardian AustraliaSo I wasn’t too surprised to see yesterday afternoon’s example highlighted by journo Tracey Spicer. The Guardian had asked her to write a piece on (ironically enough) women’s financial empowerment on behalf of client ANZ bank for 14c a word.

This compares to the union-recommended national freelance rate of 93c a word. (Admittedly this doesn’t reflect the market reality, with many mags paying between 30c to 80c per word. For the record, with Encore magazine, our freelance rate was 60c per word.)

And I do feel some sympathy for ANZ and The Guardian for being the ones embarrassed over this.

Blue Notes ANZANZ’s Blue Notes project has been a good example of content marketing in action, and that’s been done anything but on the cheap, with former AFR journos on the payroll and newswire resources many newsrooms would be jealous of. And The Guardian generally has a reputation as one of the fairer payers in the industry.

Instead, it reflects an industry where there is a race for territory.

Brands will become in the longer term more savvy about what they can expect for their content marketing dollars – or they will start sourcing the material themselves. And media owners will gradually take the skills in-house.

One of the great levellers of the rise of digital media has been the empowerment of entrepreneurial journalists. In the days of print, starting a magazine or newspaper would probably have involved mortgaging your house just to get the first edition on the street.

By contrast, starting a blog costs next to nothing.

Or starting your own content marketing agency, come to that.

But there will always be somebody at the bottom of that trickle of marketing dollars. The challenge for journos is to work out ways of climbing up a few levels.

And the challenge for brands, if only for reputational reasons, is to ensure those at the bottom of the trickle are not exploited.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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