Gary Andrews, Managing Editor at MercerBell, muses over ‘viral sameness’ and how to deliver business objectives from your content strategy

Marketing is fond of coining cliches and jargon but nothing quite sums up branded content like the phrase “viral sameness”, coined by Digiday President & Editor-in-Chief Brian Morrissey at his recent ADMA Forum talk.

Morrissey, who was on an Australian stage for the first time, was ostensibly present to talk about the challenges publishers face in a world dominated by Facebook and Google, but a lot of what the Digiday chief was preaching could be applied to brand work as well.

So what is viral sameness? Morrissey’s definition was the content that publishers know will perform well but is also being cranked out by every other publisher as well.

So as soon as the latest Games of Thrones episode airs, every site will hit publish on an episode recap, or the sheer volume of articles in the run up to the eclipse on how to ensure your eyes are protected (insert your own Donald Trump gag here).

Publishers know this content will pull in the traffic, but it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the publishers. Essentially, traffic is coming ahead of the brand, and in an age when fewer than half of users who arrive on a story from social or search can remember the publication they’ve been reading (Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, 2017) this is a problem.

With no loyalty, you’re chasing the same viral content. Hence viral sameness.

This concept ties into a wider ecosystem whereby publishers are increasingly beholden to the direction of digital platforms, specifically Facebook and Google. So when Facebook decides to pivot to live video, publishers are forced to follow suit, regardless of whether it’s what their audience want or if their broadcast is any good or not.

The platforms have made themselves an essential step between the publisher and audience. The direct connection has been lost.

So what does this have to do with branded content?

For me, there’s plenty of parallels between publishers and brand content, not least because many brands are pivoting towards becoming publishers themselves, and inevitably a lot of these new publishers will gravitate towards viral sameness because that’s what everybody else is doing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in social media. Ever since Oreo’s famous dunk in the dark moment, brands have fallen over themselves on social media to pass comment on every cultural moment from the eclipse to Game of Thrones. It’s illustrated neatly by the Royally Desperate Tumblr, which was created to highlight some of the more tenuous brand efforts after the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s children.

As you can see, it all leads to viral sameness

But this wasn’t a doom laden talk. Morrissey was optimistic about the prospects of publishers who shunned these tactics, and his favoured solution is one marketers should be well versed in: brand building.

Publishers need a point of difference and purpose to stand out and avoid a race to the bottom that just chases the same web traffic. And if publishers need that point of difference, this is core territory for brands with a strong identity and vision (even if the best of them occasionally go awry when it comes to chasing social and content metrics).

Morrissey’s final point on how publishers can build that direct connection to their readers – or consumers, if you will – was email, again, a discipline very familiar to marketers.

Sure, email may not be sexy, but it cuts out the reliance on Facebook and Google and enables you to build a ongoing, more personalised experience for the reader direct to their inbox. It’s a discipline we’re well versed in, with a number of email-led learnings and success stories.

The media industries are in a strange position at the moment. Brands are playing in spaces traditionally occupied by publishers, publishers are trying to muscle in on agency space, and different disciplines of agency are starting to become a lot more homogenous. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from each other, even if the answers significantly predate the questions.