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What the heck is a content studio (and why would my brand need one)?

By: Eleanor Pierce

Seems like everywhere we turn, someone’s talking about content studios. Or opening a content studio. Or talking about why content studios are awesome. Or why they (often) suck.

But let’s back up a minute. What are they talking about, exactly?

What is a content studio?

A content studio makes branded content. In the past, there might be a physical space where content is made, but these days, the “where” is much less pertinent than the “how” and the “who.”

Here are a few forms these content studios tend to take:

Internal content creation arms of large brands. In some cases, these content studios even produce unbranded content in order to help cover the costs of ad content. Pepsi has one (that just so happens to be responsible for an infamous commercial disaster). So does Sprint.

Many content studios today are an arm of a publisher (for example, The New York TimesT Brand Studio). In these cases, the studio works with a variety of brands on content creation.

A content studio can even be nimbler. Think of a team that changes its makeup depending on the needs of the particular client, matching talent-to-task to maximize efficiency.

What’s the difference between a content studio and a regular old ad agency that makes content? Aside from the focus on the content itself, it’s often a matter of scale.

  • What they create isn’t just advertising (we’ll get into that more below).
  • Content studios may operate with streamlined production schedules, and some focus solely on specific content types.
  • Often (but not always) content studios produce a larger volume of content than any agency might.
  • Some content studios focus on digital products, leaving print, TV and OOH to traditional processes.
  • Most content studios don’t handle media buying or content distribution.

Content Studios and Brand Journalism

Content studios often produce content that’s more editorial in nature than traditional advertising. Think of brands that employ “brand journalists.”

Thanks to the shrinking of news media jobs, there are armies of journalism ex-pats who now spend their days researching and creating editorial-caliber content that fits the needs of particular brands.

Brand journalists are masters of storytelling—or at least the good ones are. They use these techniques to get brand stories out into the world. This content can be used in paid, owned and earned media channels.

Lifestyle Content

In addition to the more “newsy” types of content many brands need, there’s also increasing demand for lifestyle content.

Consider the proliferation of online lifestyle content including:

  • Recipe—From development to photography and videos
  • Fashion—Including blogs, photography, makeup tutorial videos, how-tos and listicles
  • Home interior—Infographics, Pinterest tutorials, Houzz content, before-and-after content, articles and more

There’s a nearly insatiable desire for this type of light lifestyle content online—and brands who serve it up in an entertaining, engaging way find it’s a great way to provide value to their targets and make an emotional connection with their consumers.

Sponsored and Native Content

A great deal of the branded content being created today goes on to become sponsored and native content.

What’s native content? It’s digital advertising content that lives within the editorial feed of the site you’re visiting, often designed to look and feel similar to what you’re consuming on that site.

While native advertising makes up a fairly small part of marketing’s overall budget, it is still one of the faster-growth segments in the digital advertising world.

The growth in native and sponsored content is in large part related to the mobile-friendliness of the content vs. more traditional digital display, but native content also tends to be well-received by audiences.

In a world where traditional news outlets are facing credibility issues, carefully-crafted sponsored content that provides value and is transparent about its mission can be refreshing.

content studio
In this screenshot from Huffington Post, we’ve highlighted a native content placement. Users can click over to read editorial-style content from a brand.

Content Studios Can Help Brands Keep Up

The fact is, today’s brands need vast volumes of content to keep up in today’s “always-on,” multi-channel world.

Let’s spend a moment thinking about the content needs for a food brand—in this instance, a new snack brand.

Graphics and graphic design.

We need a logo for that. Make this one prettier. Can we repurpose this design for that campaign, channel, or need? It needs to tell consumers exactly who we are, just by the way it looks and feels.

Photography. For owned channels (including web and micro-sites, apps, packaging and collateral), display (banners, social ads, print executions), social media and even earned media executions. Let’s make this new snack look good.

Digital video. Not just for digital video campaigns, but perhaps also pre-roll— and hey, 6-second unskippable pre-roll is performing well. Let’s capture attention and raise awareness about our novel approach to snacking.

Infographics. Content marketing and data visualization are increasingly popular across categories—don’t shortchange the power of a great infographic on Pinterest for informing consumers about a compelling new food trend. And let’s create a different version that we can pitch to HuffPo …

Social posts. All that snackable content? It needs copy. Tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts …

Animation. We’ve dug into our target, and we know animated videos perform incredibly well with them on social. Let’s tell our snack’s story in a fun and compelling way.

For all but the savviest internal marketing teams, the volume of content needed to keep all of your initiatives afloat is simply not attainable with internal resources and a static team.

This is where content studios can be incredibly valuable. For brands that employ modern campaigns—that is, campaigns that use paid, earned and owned tactics together—the content needs can easily become overwhelming.

Let’s get even more granular than the above list in thinking about the channels a given brand might need to be present on. A brand that’s operating a modern marketing campaign may need:

  • Native content
  • Social content
  • Direct marketing content
  • Content that supports PR initiatives (think of exclusive videos or infographics that might be pitched to media outlets)
  • Video/multimedia/print/TV that supports real-world activations
  • 3D and digital content and ads (think of everything from homepage takeovers to VR tours)
  • Storytelling content (such as brand journalism)
  • Content that’s made to entertain or inform

How many brands can keep up with all of this? In most cases, only the largest can execute against all of these needs internally.

Content studios often solve the problem that internal marketing teams face: How to produce volumes of content at the speed and scale they need it.

Brand is Still the Base

Besides content studios, there’s another popular option among marketing teams with exponentially growing content development needs. In today’s gig economy, hiring a series of “makers” can be an appealing alternative to hiring and maintaining a vast internal team.

This can be an efficient way to go, especially if you have a deep pool from which to hire and clearly defined brand standards … but of course, that’s the catch.

If all of this content is to succeed, the execution needs to be built upon a solid understanding of the brand and the strategy behind the tactics. Understanding the tactics well (“We’re experts in social!”) is not in itself a guarantee of success.

Whoever is creating your content needs to know the answers to these questions:

  • How does this piece of content fit into the overall brand story?
  • How does this particular target relate to the overall brand plan?
  • What role does this campaign play in our long-term brand vision?
  • How does this piece of native content relate to the overall digital branding strategy, the packaging design, our social media strategy?
  • How will we evaluate performance?

Content creators may or may not be savvy when it comes to these branding and marketing particulars.

It’s All About Expertise

The volume of content needs by any given brand is one of the reasons they’re increasingly turning to content studios. But there’s another—and it’s big.

Content studios are experts at creating content that connects with audiences in powerful ways. They know how to connect on an emotional level, how to tell stories in big and small ways, and how to entertain as they message.

This is clearly true of a lot of content creators, not just content studios. For instance, the creative power of really great advertising agencies is one of the reasons they exist as a business model.

However, really great content studios, too, use people who get that content is not just about “stuff”—videos, photos, articles and graphics. It’s about what that stuff makes people feel and what it makes them do.

Of course, there are terrifically talented internal marketing teams out there. But many of the best content makers and creators are drawn to places where the focus is on the making and the doing—places like ad agencies and content studios.

Potential Content Studio Drawbacks

As with anything, there are potential pitfalls to using a content studio for branded content creation. Here are a few:

Cost

Many organizations find that outsourcing to any kind of a content studio is costlier than doing content in-house. If the resources and talent exist in-house and budget considerations trump the advantages of hiring experts, a content studio may not be the right choice.

Alignment

If your content studio doesn’t understand your brand, your campaigns, your organization, or your strategy, you can run into trouble. Efficiencies can be built if there’s a good relationship with lots of trust, but first you’ll need to invest in time spent laying out expectations as well as briefing the whole team on the brand, goals, and watch-outs.

Tying Content Success Back to Content Production

A standalone content studio may not be involved in upfront strategy or on distribution on the back end. Which means that the people making the content may not ever hear about how well it performed in the real world.

This is a solvable problem. You can either work with a content studio that’s tied to the strategy and distribution process or you can simply build reporting into your process. Either way, it’s worth thinking through.

And here’s the beauty, if your content makers know what is working best in the marketplace, they can optimize future campaigns based on those learnings to drive even better results. It’s a virtuous cycle.

What’s Right for Your Brand?

 There are so many considerations out there that come into play when a brand is looking to fulfill its content needs.

Perhaps your internal team is loaded up with rockstars and you can do it all yourself.

Perhaps you need to work with a full-service advertising agency that has its own content studio in-house (hint: we can help).

Perhaps you’d be better off partnering with the content studio arm of a publisher you want to focus on.

Regardless, you’d better think carefully about the decision. Your brand—and all of the content you need to keep it afloat—is too important to short-change.

Eleanor Pierce

CONTENT MANAGER

Ellie helps brands tell their stories and connect with their targets on a variety of channels. She's a former journalist who has dabbled in everything from events planning to PR to inbound marketing for both B2C and B2B enterprises. She loves the New Yorker fiction podcast and has never successfully executed a cartwheel.

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