Big media brands are everywhere in our daily lives-on TV, in magazines, and in newspapers-and now even the digital frontier seems to be going the way of mass media. Big brand names are snatching up independent, popular entities, such as blogs, which come equipped with loyal followers. One of the better-known examples is the AOL acquisition of The Huffington Post earlier this year. Subsequently, AOL consolidated its 53 content brands into 20 different "power brands."
The concept of the brand is "newly ascendant in the digital world," according to Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. As the number of sites proliferates and companies struggle to find sustainable business models, it becomes all about packaging. "It's called
all-access," says Doctor. "It means: you know us, you know our brand; you value us. Pay us once-as the technology is increasingly enabling-and we'll get you our stuff wherever, whenever you want it. Call it ‘entertainment everywhere' or ‘news anywhere,' including smart phone, tablet, online-and print."
In a paid content era, consumers will "inevitably choose fewer options," says Doctor. "Consequently, brand-signaling top-of-mind awareness and willingness to open the wallet-matters more than ever," he adds. Not surprisingly, what seems to be a branding of the internet comes down to money, notes Kyle Birkemeier, director of operations for Netwirks, LLC, an internet marketing and web design agency. "The branding of the internet, in the AOL example ... is no more than another attempt to monetize websites. AOL breaking itself into 20 brands allows [the company] to expand its reach and focus on niche markets where it may be more successful."
AOL is not the only corporate entity investing in its web-based future. "The big brands-look at Yellow Pages-have spent enormous resources over the last five years to find a way to move their businesses to the web," says Jay Granofsky, a Toronto-based online marketing, optimization, and branding expert.
In a world where page views rule, the digital media scene is changing because big brands are realizing that many small websites are chipping away at their profitability by stealing eyeballs. "They have been a bit slow to react but now it seems they are in full acquisition mode," adds Granofsky. These rapid-fire acquisitions result in plenty of raised eyebrows.
Last fall, many loyal readers of TechCrunch were not pleased when AOL scooped up the popular technology blog. Fans were worried its corporate parent would water down the content. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington assured readers the site would remain editorially independent; AOL's CEO, Tim Armstrong, added that the parent company would "try to be as hands-off as possible." It didn't take long, however, for TechCrunch employees to start to chafe under the new corporate leadership. Blogger Alexis Tsotsis posted a copy of an email she received from Moviefone (part of AOL) asking her to tone down a TechCrunch post, along with her angry rebuttal. It's worth noting that neither her original post nor her rebuttal was "toned down."
In June, News Corp.'s Australian division acquired a series of parenting and child-related blog sites headed by Kidspot. "Since relationships are everything in the digital world, acquiring relationships by purchasing smaller outlets with loyal readerships increases value," says Ryan Evans, president of Chicago-based Rand Media Group, which develops and manages integrated online marketing campaigns for small and mid-size companies.
David Howard, a social media marketing consultant in Alameda, Calif., who also runs the citizen-journalism news website Action Alameda News (www.action-alameda-news.com), points out that a different type of media model is emerging as a result of the branding of the internet. He says AOL's Patch local news sites and the Examiner.com models are "hybrids-corporate structure with citizen-journalists doing the writing." That hybrid model is "facilitating local voices, in a profit sharing model, and with some corporate money to push for advertising," adds Howard.
As was the case with the TechCrunch acquisition, the gobbling up of independent sites by corporate interests has some worried that free speech might be compromised. Birkemeier doesn't agree. "In the old days one media baron could control the newspapers and TV and radio stations. This is simply not true on the internet; in fact, it's the opposite," says Birkemeier. "People get their news from sites they choose to[;] whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, but free speech is in no way endangered by the so called branding of the internet."
Thomas agrees with that sentiment: "Sure, there may be more bureaucracy, but I don't think it will ever stifle the truth from coming out, whether it's written by a media conglomerate or an independent blogger. The public has options now, and there will always be independent and small blogging teams out there creating useful, honest content."
Evans feels that a bigger threat to free speech than internet branding is the threat to Net Neutrality. This could happen, he says, if the giant outlets control not the content but people's access to independent writers and websites. "If we want to retain free speech, net neutrality is essential," said Evans.
According to a PCWorld article from last November by Tony Bradley, Comcast "fired the net neutrality shot heard round the world when it throttled BitTorrent peer-to-peer networking traffic." Reports first surfaced about Comcast's actions in 2007. Ultimately, the FCC sanctioned Comcast for discriminating against specific types of network traffic, noted the article. Last year, Comcast was victorious in appealing the penalty on the grounds that there were no formal net neutrality guidelines in place, and the FCC couldn't enforce a rule that doesn't exist.
It isn't just about snapping up websites, however. Networks are also pushing offline, household name content onto the web to spread the word. John Blossom, president of Shore Communications, Inc., notes that a brand is a "trusted relationship ... and that trust can be built up any number of ways via online media by both traditional and non-traditional publishers."
"We are seeing more branded media taking online distribution more seriously," says Blossom, "and that is the key factor in the perception that people on the web are ‘relying' on it more."
To some, though, not much is really changing. The web has always relied on branded media, argues Blossom. "People have shared content from trusted sources since the beginnings of both the web and the beginnings of human communications," but "as the quantity of web content has proliferated, it remains a challenge to find quality reporting and commentary."