Balancing Church-and-State In Custom Content
Afar and The Fader are taking different approaches to keep custom content aligned with their brand voice.
As custom content production becomes standard practice, publishers are still figuring out the best ways to execute on programs that don’t fully belong to either editorial or sales (or even to any full-time staff).
Often, that means setting up processes or bringing on individuals to bridge the gap.
Afar has built a custom content business that generates a host of six- and seven-figure programs each year, but it’s taken a conservative approach to get there.
“When we came into the publishing world, one of the things that drove us crazy was the lack of quality around custom advertorial units,” says co-founder and chief product officer Joe Diaz. “Part of that was because of the way they were priced. A lot of custom units had been priced as buy-one-get-one-free—and you get what you pay for. In order to express the story the marketers want to tell, there has to be additional attention paid to those units. And we charged them a premium to make sure there would be.”
That philosophy spread from print advertorials to Afar’s custom unit, but as an independent publisher, scale and speed have taken time to build. The company has been patient growing the division, outsourcing talent at first, then bringing it in-house as demand grows. Heads for creative and business development have only been added this year.
“We try to be proactive about where we think the marketplace is going, and then bring that team on when the market goes there,” Diaz says. “We see video as a big opportunity and we’re starting to look at ways to bring that production inside.”
Even with dedicated staff and an increasing amount of resources at its disposal, siloing custom content production isn’t the goal. The creative process is extremely collaborative—both with the client and in-house.
“Editors aren’t involved in the day-to-day concepting of a program, but I’ll ask them how it feels or if it’s hitting the right notes,” Diaz says. “They help create the compass to tell us the direction we need to be headed.”
The Fader has accomplished that same collaborative relationship between custom and editorial, but largely by using its vice president of content, Joseph Patel, as a liaison.
A long-time fan and former writer for the magazine who went on to manage content for companies like MySpace and Vice, Patel knows the voice and standards its custom content needs to mimic. And before he arrived, the wall between custom and editorial became too high at times.
“The editorial department had always done its own thing,” he says. “It’s a different crew of people handling custom, or we’ve been outsourcing to freelancers. I think I’ve been able to unify those sides of the company.”
There’s still a rigid separation between the two units in the building, but through Patel, editorial has been able to influence custom projects.
“You always want your editorial team to be autonomous from the business side—that’s how you get the strongest edit. But there is a voice to The Fader—we champion emerging talent, we’re not going to cover gossip, we’re not going to be sarcastic—and it’s always been very pure,” he says. “The custom content has reflected that tangentially in the past, but I’ve tried to give the content we create a lot more of that voice. Even using a lot more of the photographers and videographers that we’ve used for editorial.”