So you want to build a digital media brand? Here are four key ingredients.

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It has been a tumultuous few years in digital publishing, abuzz with talk of the effects of COVID, Facebook and Google’s Duopoly, the YouTube ‘Adpocalypse’, and plenty more. Established companies, startups and individual creators remain optimistic on the odds of snatching their piece of the fast-changing market.

During this year’s global pandemic, and amidst the incumbent campaign of the most click-bait U.S. president the world has ever seen, the future is as uncertain as ever. It’s a perfect time to find an elevated view of your brand’s foundation to ensure it can withstand a storm.

Whether you’re launching a new project, expanding into a new vertical, or trying to allocate a budget properly, here are some key pillars that successful publishers lean on for their brands and businesses at large.

1. Define your language

Successful branding is more than a logo. It’s a visual and verbal system that should serve as a language for your brand. Visual markers and a consistent voice evoke emotion and provide subconscious cues to your audience. The strongest brands are both memorable and instantly recognizable. When you encounter the work of such a brand, you know who created it; you’ve come to expect it from them.

This is a lot easier said than done. Every element, from the copywriting of your social posts and thumbnails on YouTube, to the imagery in your pitch decks needs to be intentional, authentic and aligned. Media companies can look to the rise of the design system in the tech world for clues on how to organize and deploy visual assets.

While your design system doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, it definitely needs to exist. If visual guidelines aren’t set in stone, it’s easy for things to slowly drift apart. Make sure to include the basics: typography, color and logo usage, but don’t neglect the specifics for every type of content you produce. If you do video, that means editing, and it’s writing, how to perfect a headline.

National Geographic: You’re never too old.

Case Study: National Geographic has a powerful visual brand, harnessing a network of photographers & creators to great success. The strength with which they employ color over evolving substrates is undeniable. That gold is well, gold. Furthermore, they’ve successfully brought their legacy to digital with the same colorful imagery, and a refreshed attitude of curiosity and exploration.

2. Productize your content

Let us borrow the term ‘product’ from the tech world. Content formats and tech products are more alike than they may seem. You can conjure up a picture of a web app, an email client, or a new project management tool. The increasing use of tools such as Airtable, Jira and Asana by both camps indicate how closely connected they really are.

In the world of content, we can define a product as an easily packaged, singular unit. Something you produce, that you can reference clearly and distinctly: the honey from your hive. These reference points are going to be identical for your audiences, your advertisers, and for the team that creates them.

The key here is to get specific. Tasty’s now-ubiquitous product format is a 90-second, camera-overhead, textually-narrated cooking instructions, served up in platforms that are conducive to the exact type of content. Other interesting productized formats include the daily news podcast, the Let’s Play and the infamous React series.

The leading digital media publishers treat their content as products. These products are why audiences come back. They know “that brand makes this thing.” Without that thought out there, you can’t succeed.

When you productize your content, it helps you communicate your value. Products can be replicated, but are made unique by how they come to life through the brand itself.

In my experience onboarding the sales teams of Discovery and Group Nine Media, referencing our content as products was invaluable. It evolved to be common language, allowing us to offer solutions to advertisers cleanly and clearly. It’s paramount to train your teams to be fluent in your products.

The Hustle — an email newsletter turned lifestyle brand
The Hustle — business and tech in 5 minutes or less

Case Study: Before the age of Substack, the Hustle began as a daily email newsletter for millennials. They’ve since built off of this single incredible product into a full-fledged pseudo-lifestyle-brand. There are plenty of similar products out there (Morning Brew is my favorite), but the brand has come to represent a lot.

3. Be smart with your platform distribution

You have to live where your audience lives. The evolving roster of platforms demands very purposeful, flexible strategies. Remember that because these platforms have home-court advantage, you need to be ready for change. Or you may have the rug pulled out from under you.

What works on one platform may not work on another. Unfortunately you can’t just produce a great piece of content and expect audiences on YouTube and Twitter to consume it the same way. Ever watch a 7-minute explainer without scrolling to the next tweet? Me neither.

The current pipe owners in content distribution — whether Twitch, YouTube, or TikTok — have a lot of power. Sometimes, they pay for content, occasionally they share revenue, and others simply expect that because they have coveted audiences, the content creators will come. Maybe you’re targeting a more niche audience and can look at things differently.

A few things to consider:

  • How do strategies for 3rd-party platforms fit in with your own?
  • The platform mix of today, may not be best tomorrow. Be ready to shift.
  • Build your 360º content pipeline: A potential story could take shape in various mediums for specific platforms. It’s not one-size-fits-all.
  • Regularly audit your content: Is this packaged properly for the platform and current device specs?
NowThis — A truly millennial news company

Case Study: Nearly a decade ago, NowThis famously built its brand as a ‘homeless’ media company. Upon bursting into the scene, they focused on building native social content with an eye toward mobile, not on a website. The rest was history.

4. Empower your brand’s flag-bearers

Those who act on behalf of the brand come to represent it. Any powerful brand needs ambassadors, and depending on the size of your team or company, this can look pretty different.

The ‘Why I Left Buzzfeed’ Meme of yesteryear, and the recent scandal at Bon Appetit show that investing in, and respecting your people is vital. But it’s not only the people in front of the proverbial camera who we’re talking about.

Flag-bearers come in many forms. Imagine everywhere your brand is being talked about. In large media companies like it could look something like this.

  • Hosts & talent (characters, too!)
  • Sales & marketing
  • Affiliated creators, partners
  • Recruitment team
  • Producers, writers, and other internal teams
  • Executives & leadership

Sure, there’s a clear hierarchy in terms of representation. Your show’s main anchor and C-level executives are a bit more visible than a video editor behind the scenes. But every single group is tied to the culture and attitude of the brand, and to how it’s perceived in the world.

You don’t necessarily need a script, but there should be a common language, air and talking points amongst all these constituents. Everyone should be empowered to represent the brand. This is an important ingredient to the theme of valuing continuity and authenticity across the board.

In practice, you’ll need clearly communicated on-boarding and training for everybody you want representing the brand in any way.

Vox — the original ‘explainers’

Case Study: The people are a huge part of what makes Vox a successful brand. Executives are oft-interviewed, and the brand is nearly synonymous with its leading contributors, from editor-at-large Ezra Klein down to every single member of the video team.

Bonus: Here are a couple great pieces of insight from a couple years ago to sink your teeth into. Oldies but goodies.

I’m Franko Ali, a nature-loving, multi-disciplinary creative and proud generalist grown in California and living in Sydney. Say hi on Twitter.

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Franko Ali

A nature-loving, multi-disciplinary creative operator and proud generalist based in Sydney.