Media Strategies Aren’t as Crazy as They Seem

More companies are investing in “media content” like publications, books, podcasts, and shows. Think HubSpot’s acquisition of The Hustle newsletter and huge efforts in building its podcast network; ProfitWell and Wistia’s gamut of high-production-value shows; Stripe Press’s collection of esoteric books; or on-demand streaming services like Salesforce+, Demandbase TV, and Terminus TV.

The core mechanism at play seems simple enough: create entertaining experiences, and people will develop brand affinity — some combination of awareness and trust that might just lead to revenue in the future.

But these media strategies seem anathema to marketing best practice: their high production values create great expense for a seemingly intangible return on investment. As a content marketer, these strategies are both alluring and hard to understand.

So what’s going on? How are these companies justifying huge media investments (and having so much fun in the process)?

When does it make sense to invest in “media”?

1. The Value-Delivery Arms Race

Part of the answer can be found in the perpetual arms race of marketing.

Content marketing allows companies to deliver value to consumers at an earlier stage of the buying process than they would otherwise be able to; but as content marketing becomes more commonplace, media enables this to happen at an earlier stage still.

ProfitWell embodies this idea. The company operates in a small, tightly contested market: according to founder and CEO Patrick Campbell, there are “only 100k–150k subscription companies in the world.” ProfitWell is one of three main companies serving the market — and each company has a mature content marketing strategy, targeting loosely the same keywords with the same type of content.

In this market, it’s hard to differentiate through content marketing alone; but a media play, like Recur Media, allows ProfitWell to reach a larger cross-section of its audience at an earlier stage than its content marketing-constrained competitors. They can compete in an uncontested field and “win hearts and minds” before their competitors.

This works because most content marketing — especially SEO content — is situationally useful, helpful to a particular person with a particular problem at a particular moment in time. As HubSpot’s Kieran Flanagan puts it, “education is … only relevant when you need it.” But the appeal of media content is more universal: it can provide ongoing value to a larger audience.

This is the value delivery arms race. In a pre-content marketing world, much of the benefit from interacting with a company came through product usage:

The company with the best product wins

The advent of content marketing allowed companies to provide value to a larger audience at an earlier stage of the buying process, by answering questions and solving problems. The criteria for success changed:

The company with the most helpful content marketing (and the best product) wins

Now, media offers a similar advantage. As the arms race rolls on, companies like ProfitWell are betting that the criteria for success are changing yet again:

The company with the most engaging media strategy (and the most helpful content marketing, and the best product) wins

2. The Product Marketing Dogfood Strategy

A second justification comes in the form of product marketing.

Many products are media-adjacent, offering the infrastructure required to create and distribute media content: video hosts, transcription tools, and podcasting platforms. For these companies, investment in media content is easier to justify because it pulls double duty as both brand and product marketing.

Take video hosting platform Wistia as an example. It has invested heavily into original video series (like the animated show Gear Squad vs Dr. Boring). The company’s primary motivation is brand affinity, which it describes as an enduring relationship based on shared values between brand and consumer. It’s easy to see how these benefits play out:

  • Its video series offers low-key education in a way that feels radically different from other companies.
  • It attracts an audience of marketers that share Wistia’s values.
  • The company dogfoods its own advice, building the type of strategy it suggests its followers build.

But the benefits of brand affinity — though credible and important — are likely to accrue over a long period of time and in a hard-to-account-for way.

This weakness is offset by a secondary benefit: watching a Wistia video series provides a tangible experience of the Wistia product.

It showcases the Wistia channel, the features of the Wistia player, and the buffering of Wistia’s hosting plans. There are no free trials or contact forms gatekeeping this experience. It is the ultimate manifestation of product-led content: top-of-funnel content that provides a bottom-of-funnel product experience.

The benefits of an access point directly into firsthand product experience are faster acting. This one-two punch of long-term audience growth and short-term product marketing makes a compelling case for media investment.

3. The Post-IPO Awareness Play

Media strategies can also be explained through the lens of shifting priorities as companies move upmarket.

As companies grow, some problems are solved, and new ones emerge. Many of the problems that emerge at late-stage growth can be helped with a media strategy — as illustrated by HubSpot.

As a public company, HubSpot is marketing to a dual audience: its “traditional” audience of business customers looking to purchase software and an audience of investors, journalists, and Gartner analysts. As a public company, both audiences play a role in the company’s perceived value, influencing not just the company’s revenue but also its stock price. In HubSpot’s case, “awareness” has a tangible value.

This is coupled with the fact that HubSpot has long since “solved” the problem of customer acquisition.

The company has a vast repertoire of successful acquisition channels and conversion mechanisms at play; its biggest barrier to continued growth is simply filling the top of its funnel with as many people as possible. The bigger the company grows, the larger its audience needs to be to sustain it. Enter media plays like podcasting networks and general interest newsletters like The Hustle.

As Janessa Lantz, VP of Marketing at dbt Labs, explained to me:

“With The Hustle, HubSpot is attracting people that are probably not going to buy their product within the next year, maybe ever. At some point you want everybody in the world to know about your brand. And they’re almost there. And so that’s almost the shift that I see when you’ve dipped into a media play.”

This has important consequences for companies taking to heart HubSpot founder Dharmesh Shah’s advice that “Next-gen software companies will have a media company embedded inside.” Maybe—if you’re a public company. But as we’ve written before, you are not HubSpot.

The Next Stage of the Arms Race

As content marketing grows more competitive, companies are incentivized to think on longer time horizons, giving away more value now in exchange for payoffs that are deferred further and further into the future.

The company that is willing to write better-researched, better-quality articles is likely to outcompete rivals that write copycat content; gated content is outcompeted by free content; and media content can, in some ways, outcompete content marketing by delivering value at an earlier stage still.

The strategies explored here are situations in which the deferred payoff of media becomes tolerable: in markets highly saturated by content, when awareness boosts your stock price, and when media plays double-duty as product marketing.

But in each instance, these companies still do “traditional” content marketing. And this is perhaps the best way to understand media strategies: it’s a way to build upon the success of traditional content marketing and not — yet — a substitute for it. Media is the next phase of the value-delivery arms race — but not every company needs to fight at the front line.