By James Dillon published February 9, 2015

Should You Buy or Grow a Pineapple for Your Audience?

Gardening is a fruitful endeavor. There’s so much joy that comes from creating something from scratch. The journey from seed to sprout to tree to flower to harvest to plate – it’s a captivating marvel of nature. Instead, many of us spend our lives tapping the keys at an institutional desk bolted down to an urban concrete monolith. We dream of breaking the shackles, casting off the pressures of KPI’s and overdue parking fines to start our own little orchard in a countryside paradise.

So what’s stopping us? Apart from the fact that we all really, really love our jobs (take note, Gorilla!), we realize that the whole farming thing isn’t all beautiful sunsets and fresh produce.

After working in a vineyard for five years, I can tell you that growing stuff from nothing is one of the hardest gigs going. Give me content marketing any day. The weather only threatens the comfort of our morning commute, not our entire year’s profit (the product perks are so much better at a vineyard though).

Growing grapes is still harder than growing audiences image 1

(That’s me on the right, enjoying a beautiful Hunter Valley Semillon with my IronBark Hill Vineyard colleague, Phil.)

The vast majority of us know that we don’t have the skills, patience, or time to grow our own produce from scratch. We leave it to the experts.

If we want a nice, juicy pineapple, we don’t go out into our backyard and plant a seed, then wait a whole chunk of time for it to grow. (I assume pineapples need seeds, my research for this post doesn’t run that deep.) We go down to our grocer and buy one. Geez, most of us can’t even be bothered to go to a produce store. We need the convenience of a monstrous all-in-one supermarket to allow us the pleasure of buying our pineapple at the same place we buy our shampoo, dog food, and pre-packaged Jamie Oliver quinoa.

What do pineapples have to do with content marketing?

We’re getting there, I promise. The lesson is about to sprout in all its nourishing glory.

Just recently, Airbnb went to the trouble. It grew a pineapple.

Airbnb Pineapple Content Magazine image 2

No, it is not taking its famous collaborative consumption superpowers to the agricultural industry – it has developed a print magazine titled Pineapple. (For those playing at home, the name is not a nod to the salacious juiciness of the content, but the English symbol of colonial hospitality.)

Airbnb is the latest in an impressive line of brands turning to print content marketing. The likes of Net-a-Porter, TD Ameritrade, Four Seasons, and Red Bull have made successful high-profile entries into print publishing. These brands have established internal media companies to develop an audience of subscribers who share the beliefs and lifestyle of their brand. Instead of monetizing this audience by selling display advertising, these brands sell their products and services. All of these companies are growing pineapples for their audiences. They are the farmers of the content marketing world. And you have to admire their guts.

The Brand Publishing Print Revival image 3

Building an audience from nothing is tough

Just imagine the time, money, and heartache involved in developing an audience from scratch. It almost rivals the blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed by the farmers of our nations. Through the droughts of subscribers and the floods of furious internal demand for instant ROI, these brands are taking on the dream of creating something from nothing.

Carefully crafted content marketing strategies sow the seeds. Internal processes are nurtured to cultivate a high-functioning publishing orchard to rival those of the expert media growers who have been ploughing their fields of audience for decades.

The move to sustainable, healthy content marketing from the mass-produced norm of interruptive, promotional advertising could be the savior of the marketing industry. But like organic, biodynamic, paddock-to-plate food production, making healthy content marketing happen is really, really hard. Imagine your CEO walking out tomorrow to start a pineapple orchard in the far north of Australia. That’s probably what it would feel like for a marketer like you or me to launch a print magazine tomorrow.

Why Airbnb chose to grow, not buy a print subscriber base

Thankfully, Airbnb is more green thumb than greenhorn. Otherwise, its Pineapple might have ended up in the same trash can as the likes of Verizon’s now infamous SugarString content play.

Passionate, community storytelling runs through the pipes of Airbnb’s organizational structure. Since the beginning, it has used content marketing to grow its audience. The new Pineapple print magazine is just the latest venture in a plantation of customer-helping content including:

So you see, Airbnb isn’t really starting its magazine from scratch. The seeds have been sown. The audience has been fed, watered, cuddled, and harvested with expert care and attention for many vintages.

You can’t be a hobby farmer to grow a pineapple

It’s not as hard to grow a pineapple when you already have the whole farming thing sorted. You have the skills, the processes, the structures, and the talent – you’re just adding a new crop and only require the subject-matter knowledge to understand its nuances.

In fact, the Airbnb team planned the introduction of a print magazine for some time. Its head of brand creative Andrew Schapiro explained as much to The Guardian:

A couple of years ago, we mapped out the user journey of the experience of Airbnb hosts, guests, and travellers … it was a natural transition to tell stories in a printed format. We see the magazine living in people’s homes on their coffee table.

Apart from this prep time, Airbnb has one of the (if not the No. 1) best content marketing professionals in the corporate world. Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall is the one who moved Coca-Cola’s competitive advantage from “creative excellence” to “content excellence.” His brainchild, Coca-Cola Content 2020, was “quite simply, a manifesto … in how content is going to reshape the strategic marketing process,” according to CMI Chief Strategist Robert Rose.

All this content marketing brown-nosing is sufficed to say – Airbnb knows storytelling.

Consider buying and save yourself the heartache

Airbnb didn’t grow Pineapple from scratch, it had been learning for years how to create content to bear the fruits of its own labor. But if your brand wants its own Pineapple, you might think about bypassing the whole grow-your-own bit. If you go to the store, it can be much quicker and easier. It might end up being cheaper and more successful too, especially if you’re an amateur.

You see, a swath of media and publishing companies already are out there doing it and as traditional magazine ad revenues decline, they are finding it harder to make money. Yet, the skills, processes, and structures of these established audience-building veterans are far superior to the majority of marketers.

We brands have the opposite problem. We are not as well-versed in building our own audiences with helpful content, but we don’t want to keep paying others to rent their audience with interruptive advertising.

Why not go out and buy the pineapple?

We have the money and business model to make an audience profitable. Media companies have the storytelling capabilities and structures that could take us brands multiple years, millions of dollars, and buckets of executive-level gutsiness to develop. Isn’t it a match made in heaven?

Sure, issues and challenges present themselves when a brand decides to buy a media outlet. Many opponents of the buy strategy cite a couple of key factors as insurmountable barriers:

  1. Editorial independence will be threatened.
  1. Key staff members may become disillusioned and leave.
  1. The existing audience could be disappointed in the perceived “sell-out” of the publication.

Are the dangers of buying an audience insurmountable? No, and I’ll go step-by-step later to explain why these three challenges aren’t all that problematic.

There have been too few examples of brands successfully investing in a publisher’s audience, but the likes of L’Oréal, Adorama, and Johnson & Johnson prove it can be done. Sure, some concerns are legitimate, but if a brand is serious (and strategic) about a sustainable content marketing program designed to help and entertain its audience, a media-outlet acquisition can work.

Media brands already know a print magazine publication is not designed to sell or promote products. The content’s objective should be to establish authority, build trust, and grow a targeted subscriber base in a niche. Sure, the end goal of the content marketing program should include an increase in sales, but the magazine itself is not the vehicle to make this happen.

The best part? You don’t need hundreds of thousands of subscribers for success. We brands don’t rely on ad revenue (though we could snag some if we decided to dabble). We sell goods and services to make our profits. So you might only have 200 subscribers, but if they happen to become furiously loyal, unpaid brand ambassadors that regularly buy your stuff, they are more than worth your while.

Airbnb’s content mission proves that the buy can work

We can refute the opponents’ objections to brands’ acquisition of media with the example of Airbnb’s Pineapple. In an introductory note, the magazine says its aim is “to explore our fundamental values: sharing, community, and belonging,” and to “inspire and motivate exploration, not just within the cities featured, but within any space a reader finds themselves.”

Aren’t there existing publications with similar editorial missions? Aren’t there existing audiences interested in exploring the same topics as Pineapple and aren’t there readers who believe in those same fundamental values? If Airbnb had bought Lonely Planet, Monocle magazine, or even a smaller travel magazine, couldn’t it have achieved those same objectives?

Could Airbnb have bought Loneley Planet or Monacle image 4

Let’s address those three common concerns of the audience-buying naysayers.

  1. Would editorial independence be weaker or stronger?

According to the Airbnb content mission, the skilled storytellers at these media companies would be able to get on with the business of telling great stories about the same stuff. They likely would have a bigger budget to accomplish that because that little problem of an advertising-supported publication is gone. The publisher’s sales and editorial teams no longer need to squabble over questionable native advertising requests or the damage any particular story may do to a partner relationship.

  1. Would the staff really vanish in a simmering rage?

Pineapple is not about selling or promoting. It’s about “inspiring and motivating exploration” and telling stories about “sharing, caring, and belonging.”

With a content mission like this, an existing masthead’s stories could be just as good (or even better) than before the brand’s investment. Why would an editorial team be upset? There’s no reason why it cannot continue its existing practices without a bunch of salespeople marking up its final drafts.

Sure, Airbnb might like to introduce more specific stories about its community, but the editorial mission would remain unchanged. With some clear communication and change management, a mass staff walkout would seem unlikely.

  1. Would the audience drop off in an anti-commercial media protest?

We content marketers contend that our audiences don’t really pay attention to who crafts the content, they just care about how good the content is. Many media traditionalists may ardently oppose brand-owned media, but a growing number of publishing professionals have a more judicious perspective.

Conversant Media Co-Founder Zac Zavos has never crossed to the brand-owned media side. With three online publications reaching a combined 2.8 million visitors per month, you may think he wouldn’t be an advocate of the brands-that-buy-media team. His experience tells him otherwise: “If the content is good enough, and the audience is happy, why not?”

New Fortune Editor Alan Murray agrees: “Readers don’t really care who produces great content, but they want someone to make sure it’s great.”

It’s time to seriously consider buying an established audience

“Why spend €40,000 a page to advertise in Vogue when, for the same amount of money, you can publish an entire magazine?” asks Alice Litscher, a fashion communication professor at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris, in The New York Times.

If you want to beat the rush, this is the question you need to be posing:

Why spend all the time, money, and heartache to build something from nothing for your brand when you can buy the established audience and storytelling capabilities of an existing publisher in our niche?

Growing a pineapple is really hard. You could just go to the store and buy one. Think about it.

Have you considered buying an established publisher in your niche? Maybe it’s a small blog or a popular email newsletter – please share in the comments. Or if you think I’ve got this one monstrously wrong, tell me why.

Want to learn how to grow or buy your own Pineapple? Check out the CMWorld 2014 sessions available through our Video on Demand portal and make plans today to attend Content Marketing World 2015.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: James Dillon

James is part of the tribe at Australian online marketing agency Gorilla 360. As Content Manager, James is busy helping businesses use content marketing goodness to dominate their patch of the internet jungle. Catch him on Twitter, or reach out on Linkedin - he's much more approachable than your average primate (and a whole bunch less hairy).

Other posts by James Dillon

  • Ankit Swami

    Amazing Article Loved it
    Thank You James Dillon.

  • Jay Thompson

    Enjoyed your article, and it’s something larger brands should consider. Many of the factors you mention about such a decision are similar to those that smaller companies should consider: whether to develop all their content with homegrown resources, versus working with an external partner such as an agency.

    CM is about creating and publishing content, and many firms (of all sizes) just don’t want to learn to be publishers and see it as a distraction to their core business. Externalizing that effort by acquisition of an existing firm may be an option. An easier path may be working with an existing publisher to craft a private-label publication. One size doesn’t fit all, of course.

    • James Dillon

      You’re bang on Jay. Thanks for your thoughts. Without doubt – building your own media platform with the help of an agency is a fantastic option. I think you’re right in saying this option would be the easier decision. In the long term it may be more costly. In this scenario you are repeatedly paying a third party for content creation (and possibly promotion), and it’s so hard to build subscribers from scratch.

      If brands go with the buy option, an audience is assured. That’s a huge head start.

  • Advertising Agency

    The title of the article is beautifully connected yet misleading at the same time. I love it. Great article, James. I’ll definitely pass this on to the rest of my Chicago SEO company .

    • James Dillon

      Thanks guys – I hope I haven’t disappointed a whole bunch of eager agricultural industry readers with unintentional clickbait! Glad you enjoyed the read.

  • Linked Media Group, Inc.

    Most brands are not equipped to publish their own magazine unless they are overvalued like Airbnb with resources to burn foolishly.

    No brand is going to create content on par with Vogue, Esquire, The
    Atlantic, The New York Times or any high quality print publication with
    experienced editors and journalists.

    And, so many moving parts to publishing a magazine and in the long run, an ad campaign in targeted publications coupled with creative social and just video content would deliver much better return in the long run.

    Vice News is a great example of how long it takes to scale high quality content in an established market.

    I loved the creative way you wrote this. Just disagree with the strategy.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi there…I respect your point of view, but I couldn’t disagree more with your statement. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are producing critically acclaimed, award-winning shows. Red Bull has, perhaps, the most amazing library of sports content outside of ESPN. I’ll put Kraft Content and Data group up against any traditional publisher out there.

      It’s more pronounced in the trade publications. As more trade publishers cut back on research and are letting go of journalists and editors, there are B2B companies that are hiring amazing talent left and right (like Qualcomm, GE…Lincoln Electric is publishing an amazing print magazine as we speak). Every time you see a high profile media company lay off journalists, they are usually being hired by brands. And just fyi, the largest media company in the farming space is not a media company, it’s John Deere.

      As for return, sure, advertising still works. Of course you can still rent someone else’s platform…but doesn’t it make more sense to build your own audience so you don’t have to advertise? That’s what smart brands are doing.

      • Linked Media Group, Inc.

        I stand by my comment Joe and you didn’t read it carefully. I don’t think advertising trumps content: savvy media buys, coupled with creative social media and short form (created) videos for the vast majority will deliver much better ROI for brands vs. standing up their own publishing platform.

        It’s a two screen world and traditional print media is dying a slow death because it can’t compete with digital and the consumers are not engaging with the content. That’s why there is a glut of talent available on the marketplace for B2B brands to hire.

        Creating a print publication requires a sustained commitment with significant resources. It may work for John Deere, GE and Qualcomm; but, it’s not going to work well for any brand under $50M in revenue. They are much better off creating content and publishing it via established and targeted portals that map to their user demographics.

        I don’t see ESPN, RedBull or Netflix as iconic content producers. On the contrary, AMC, PBS, HBO or Vice make their content pale in comparison. Let’s not confuse “entertainment” content with meaningful informative content.

        • Joe Pulizzi

          Fair enough on the first part…on the quality print magazine part, I think we do a pretty good job with our magazine, and we are under $50 million. There are hundreds of amazing non-profit magazines that have very small budgets. Not sure it’s the size, but as you say, the commitment and willingness to put in the processes that matter, right?

          I’d put House of Cards and Transparent up against anything on AMC. I’d put ESPN 30 for 30 up against any HBO doc.

          btw, thanks for commenting!

          • Linked Media Group, Inc.

            As a writer, blogger and strategist I see this all the time. It’s “easy” to throw stones at strategy others are conveying in the marketplace.

            I don’t portend to have your experience or expertise Joe and I think you are the go to thought leader in the content space and hope I didn’t sound too negative.

            I don’t disagree with the premise that a well established, sophisticated, audience savvy brand with significant resources can put out a quality print publication.

            In the world I live in in my work with SMB/SME brands they struggle with baseline content marketing issues:

          • Joe Pulizzi

            It’s all good. I just never see anything as black or white. Everything is gray. Plus, I believe the future of great media is in corporate media’s hands, so I’m hopeful that more organizations will “get it”. If they don’t, it’s not going to be pretty (but I do hope).

          • Leo

            Indeed. Thanks for the discussion guys. In my niche (tech products), writing great content got us readers and conversions, whereas advertising became meaningless as

            1) There weren’t any print/online media that served our niche faithfully. Most were a mix of news and paid reviews that damaged the journalistic integrity of the profession.

            2) Writing about tech products can be really beneficial and complimentary for our online store, as we see affiliate sign ups for related services via our articles. And like what you wrote on Epic Content Marketing, our articles then becomes an asset

            3) The hardest thing about producing great content, imho, is disciplining ourselves to write (if we can write well). From where I come from (Malaysia), not many people can write engaging stories. Most businessmen are good at price dumping. This is where with consistent, long term content marketing and the help of Co-Schedule (the best calendar program for WordPress), we hope to rival some top tech magazines in the region 🙂

    • James Dillon

      Thanks LMG, love your passion! It’s definitely a controversial topic. I agree wholeheartedly that content marketing is hard, but why shouldn’t we shoot for the stars?

      I think you’re right when you say that brands without an established inhouse storytelling capability will struggle to develop magazine-worthy content. So why not buy the magazine and utlize the skills of the experienced journalists and editors that come along with it?

      I really think the buy strategy can work particularly well for small businesses purchasing hyper targeted blogs or publications within their niche.

    • globalcopywrite

      I see small companies all over the place creating terrific, high-quality print magazines on par (or even better) than anything I can buy on a news stand. Two examples that immediately come to mind are The Right Place by property developer Mirvac and Soggybones – an online surf/skate/lifestyle company. Both are out of Australia.

      • Linked Media Group, Inc.

        As a marketer and avid consumer of print publications (WSJ, Esquire, Mens’s Journal, RollingStone, Time, Architectural Digest, San Francisco Chronicle, Outside and about five industry trade pubs) I take no pleasure in advocating brands not embracing print.

        Does an au contraire print strategy still work for brands? Yes (see: Net-a-porter), but, for better or worse, people all over the world are distracted and on smartphones or a device.

        Look around you, most are not holding up print publications. I don’t disagree entirely with the strategy. But the trend lines are not moving in the direction of print, whether we marketers like it or not.

      • James Dillon

        Really interesting examples as always Sarah. Soggybones are a particularly pertinent example for brands with a lower resource base. Wouldn’t the purchase of a surf blog or mag complement their content program nicely!

  • Will Blunt

    James Dillon… Your writing continues to inspire me. You’re not willing to fall into the trap of being just another blogger, with no personality and no imagination. Instead you are hear to tell us stories and engage us with metaphors.

    We can all learn a lot from the way you write.

    In terms of the content; you’ve certainly got me thinking. But no doubt there is nothing more rewarding and beneficial in the long-term than building your own audience from scratch.

    I’m keen to grow the pineapple myself.

    Thanks for the great piece of writing.

    Will B

    FYI – Just checked WikiHow, it’s way harder to grow a pineapple than just planting a few seeds!

    • James Dillon

      Haha, thanks so much Will, I definitely have no idea how to actually cultivate a pineapple crop. For all I know they grow on trees. Audiences certainly don’t.

      I couldn’t agree more – nothing better than crafting your own from scratch with good hard toil. Maybe it’s time we content marketing pro’s consider the buy in conjunction with the build?

      Why not supplement our own content marketing programs with a bought niche media entity? It brings more targeted subscribers, increased storytelling capacity and some more content creation experts to complement our owned media platform. Could be a fruitful endeavour…