Q&A: Veteran IT industry analyst Dana Gardner talks about shifts in the content landscape (Part 1)

Interarbor Solutions founder and analyst Dana Gardner has always been able to see which way the winds are shifting before other people. He got into tech journalism from a newspaper job in the late 1980s and was at ground zero for the Internet boom. He realized that online news was the future and edited one of the first tech news websites for IDG at a time when online journalists were the industry’s unwanted stepchildren. He later worked as an analyst for both Aberdeen Group and Yankee Group before striking out on his own with Interarbor Solutions, a market research and media production firm in New Hampshire. Now he combines his experience in tech industry analysis and content production with social media strategy with his savvy at public speaking and brand journalism. He shared his thoughts with Bateman Group about media past, present and future in this two-party blog post series.

Q: You were ahead of the sponsored content curve in 2005, partnering with clients to produce thought leadership pieces from blog posts to podcasts before “sponsored content” was a buzzword. How did you know this was going to be the future of media?

A: I certainly didn’t know what was coming. But I realized early on that advertising alone cannot support all media. The economics of what was happening on the Web with news was driving a wedge between B2B enterprise IT information and high impressions-driven gossip about startups and consumer technologies, especially shiny mobile devices. Also, there were multiple $20-30 billion technical infrastructure markets that were underserved by an advocacy voice in the media. There was a lack of attention to enterprise IT, and I realized that conversational media was attainable and affordable for this, be it in blog posts, podcasts or other new media forms. There was an opportunity to develop audiences that would follow these stories, based on the utility of the editorial material and not on the marquee brand of the company or media outlet.

So I combined this market need with the industry analyst briefing discussion model with syndicated podcasts to create BriefingsDirect in 2005. The model of briefing analysts, who could then inform media and industry professionals, also provided an outlet to forge useful information, such as podcast and blogs, that could be put to work informing specialized audiences using social media. This type of company-backed information needs to be absolutely transparent in its disclosures to provide value, much like analyst disclosures in the financial community. These disclosures need to be intact if the content marketing domain is to remain a valued asset.

Q: How do you see publications shifting focus to native advertising, and what’s driving the move?

A: When social media first came about, nobody really saw the enormous opportunity it would provide in terms of brand-backed messaging and influence. Years later, here we are and corporate marketing has embraced these new channels to expand beyond traditional media and advertising. The enormous benefits come from a way to link interested audiences, regardless of size, to deep technical knowledge. No need to worry about page views and click-through rates. Sure, it’s great if a company’s use case story can play in big media and get a mass audience. But it doesn’t stop there — and it doesn’t even necessarily have to start there.

Quality content on topics that people need to know about can be amplified into social channels to reach wider audiences. And it can bypass news media altogether and go in a direct-to-market model to readership to reach even more like-minded people across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or other destinations. The advantages of playing on these audiences is the viral sharing, or network effect, causing people to interact with content that’s been passed along by someone in their trusted network. Audience impact and influence is far more robust when shared in the social sphere, allowing marketers to better gain returns on their content investment than those in traditional media.

Q: What effect will the move toward sponsored content, or native advertising, have on  search from Google, Yahoo or others?

A: That’s a big unknown. It remains to be seen how algorithmic search will evolve to handle queries involving native content. If press releases, for example, are down-ranked in search, will the same apply to native content? It will always be the best practice to clearly delineate, as content creators, the sponsorship relationships. But if people are sharing and passing this information along, it raises the question, “Shouldn’t certain types of branded editorial work be afforded the same search rank as that from news publishers?” Also, many companies have moved away from traditional press releases toward blog posts and other story narrative forms, so this is a huge consideration in search discovery. Having a landing page for a company’s steady stream of editorial content on products, people and industry perspectives is more important — and evergreen — than press releases. These can be driven better by social distribution channels as well.

There’s another element to branded media. Embedded former professional journalists who work inside companies can pull out stories, digging into data points that might not otherwise be surfaced. Likewise, content bureaus of agencies that bring veteran journalists to the picture can surface compelling content that can entertain, inform and even inspire or excite. These will play better in terms of sharing across social channels and, of course, are a rising category to pushing into native advertising programs.

Scott Martin and Elinor Mills contributed to this post.