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News & Insights

News & Insights

The Golden Age of the “House Organ”

I was once the publisher of the Standard Periodical Directory and that database of magazines, newspapers, journals, and newsletters had a category called “house organs” to cover the in-house publications of corporations and nonprofits. These publications were full of group shots at picnics and United Way events with helpful notices on changes to health care plans, recent births and retirements, plus a random assortment of articles put in the periodical by the volunteer staff. Little did I know at the time that perhaps the weirdest thing to come out of the digital revolution would be the elevation of these homespun house organs, via the miracle of social media, out of obscurity and onto center stage.

In-house publishing operations took their first steps into a larger digital world when corporate home pages emerged, typically handled by in-house marketing folks. These were full of quirky personality at first, but were soon homogenized as industry best practices and interactive agencies emerged. The implementation of social media was much more carefully managed than the Web 1.0 initiatives were, but P&G’s “everybody poops” theme for their Charmin Facebook site, Ragu’s site for mothers (because mothers buy tomato sauce?), and the like are showing an eerie similarity to the tone-deaf house organs of yore.

Like the funky home pages of the past, these corporate publishing forays are likely to mature into something less comical in the near future, but, strangely enough, they also could evolve into a major threat to the traditional media business. How, you ask? Big corporations support advertising-driven media. If those corporations could buy and own their marketplaces by creating single-sponsor media properties (Internet/Radio/TV/Events), or networks of them, that aggregate their target audiences then they are way ahead of the game. They have the money (“reach”), they have industry experts as employees (“personalities”), they are driving innovation in their respective fields (“news”), they are able to target their markets at increasingly granular levels (“narrowcasting”), and they can reward loyalty through targeted discounting (“coupons”).

The problem is that when corporations have produced media in the past they have failed miserably. The reasons don’t include the lack of money, but seem to boil down to a kind of navel-gazing marketing myopia that just falls flat with audiences, hence the need for advertising agencies to tell stories that make their products more appealing. Media companies have much broader perspectives and tend to be a lot much more savvy about what interests audiences, but their chronic lack of cash, slow decision cycles and failure to create innovative experiences for their audiences makes them vulnerable to their deep-pocketed customers.

Nike, for instance, spent $2.4 billion on advertising in 2011, but it shifted 40% of that budget away from mass-market TV and print ads and moved it into digital (web, social, email, etc.), and spent another 10% on the sponsorship of niche sporting events, product placements, and other non-traditional media. How long will it be before they field their own basketball team, own a beach volleyball league, or broadcast Brazilian regional soccer matches on their own network? Japanese baseball teams (not just the stadiums) are already named after the companies that own them and the move to single-sponsor media in the US has also been a long time coming. Will the rise of social media be the tipping point that finally gives corporations the direct line of communication with their end-users – without distributors, retailers, and media in the way – and thus makes media companies irrelevant?

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