Content marketing, the family’s new favourite child, is raising a lot of excitement in the industry, as well as a lot of questions. I’ll try to answer some of the obvious, and some of the less obvious ones in this article. What you will learn includes why is content marketing controversial, what do comedy show hosts think about it, how to create your content to be one of the good guys and why the article’s title doesn’t include number 50 (or any other).
John Oliver is an English-American comedian-slash-journalist hosting a show Last Week Tonight. As an avid watcher I was thrilled to realise one of his segments was devoted to a topic within my professional field – marketing, namely native advertising. And it wasn’t just any segment – it was the main and title segment of the whole episode. I was less thrilled when it turned out the goal was really to drive across the point of how horrible it is for pretty much all humanity. See for yourselves:
It’s witty, hilarious but also (mostly) very accurate. I cannot disagree, that some of the claims by marketers and media organisations, those cited by Oliver as well as many others, are quite disturbing. The independence of editorial content is the holy grail of press in any media since the dawn of time and it is a serious mistake to speak about in a dismissive manners as if it was a relic of the past. A mistake that shows lack of understanding for the industry you work in. And while at it, let’s also acknowledge the considerable danger to the overall value of the Internet as a source of unbiased information.
I guess, as a part of the marketing business (hence automatically an apologist?) I could dispute some points of the material. I could talk about the viewers’ intelligence so easily dismissed by Oliver. I could point out, that already most of the free content is free thanks to ads, and with decreasing effectiveness of those, content marketing could basically be the last chance for keeping most of the Internet’s resources free (I’m serious here, creating high quality content is rather costly and surprisingly almost none of your favourite online sources of it do it pro bono).
I could even discuss the intricacies of the distinction between native advertising and content marketing.
I could write about those, and a few more, but I will not (any more than I already did, anyway). This would be too easy, too shallow, and just plain wrong to dismiss this complaint on a few technicalities, as some do. Instead I believe all of us in the advertising industry (marketers and agencies both) should recognise that as a very real problem, which it indeed is.
THE GOOD, THE BAD (AND THE UGLY)
Let me digress a little and talk about schools. There’s long been a debate about private schools going on in many countries including United States and Poland. There have been many arguments used by both sides but in the end the conclusion we are left with is: it’s a great idea, if the law governing the system is written well and if the schools are run in a right way (i.e. with students’ wellbeing as highest priority). At the same time it’s a terrible idea if the industry is unregulated and the schools primarily look to maximise (short term) profit. Why am I writing about this? Because we are in the same situation with content marketing.
The question you are probably thinking of now is – how not to fall to the dark side? LinkedIn’s David Hahn put it very simply. “The mantra should change from ‘Always Be Closing’ to ‘Always Be Helping’” – he said. But if a single commandment approach is not enough for you, there is a number of content marketing codes of ethics out there, one of the most prominent ones to be found here.
Oh, and apart form ethics, that everyone is so focused on, there is also the good old common sense. If you already made sure your content cannot be described as unethical, common sense will help you avoid falling into laughable category. Since, as I readily admit, even this article can be qualified as content marketing by some of the broader definitions, I had to think about this danger as well. Least I could do to avoid it, is not to include number 50 in the title. Or any other, for that matter. Think about “17 ways to make your content better”. We all consciously realise it’s ridiculous, but it’s terrifying how common such approach still is…
In short: don’t insult your readers. Nobody, regardless of actual IQ, likes being treated like a moron. And you are, after all, investing in content marketing to make the readers like your content and your brand.
THE UNIVERSAL DIFFERENTIATOR
So, as we established, content marketing can be done properly, in a responsible way, that doesn’t hurt readers’ trust and the overall (already often disputed) value of Internet as a source of information, but instead brings valuable content relevant and truly helpful for the users. Or it can be a direct opposite of that. And both types are common over the World Wide Web.
One could then hope for a solution to this problem. One, that would differentiate the good and the bad content marketing. Additionally one that would reward the good kind and punish the bad, so that it is efficiently discouraged. If there only was such a thing… Oh, wait, there is. It’s called free market.
And it works the same way as with the aforementioned private schools. The consumers are always going to vote with their wallets for the brands that respect them, their time, needs and wants – be it by delivering top-tier schooling or valuable content. Similarly they are always going punish those, who overlook those needs, and punish it severely. Oliver’s segment I have quoted is nothing compared to the harm a well-aimed meme can do to your brand. And if you think this Internet-age natural selection mechanism is wishful thinking you have to consider the possibility, that (thankfully) you have probably never fathered a really bad content marketing piece.
THE BOTTOM LINE
What can we all learn from this? First of all – times are changing. Content marketing is not a novelty in marketers’ arsenal – it has gone mainstream. Perhaps a bit too much. And this means that eyes of the world are on us, and given the sensitive nature of this tool, they are watching closely. Therefore it’s more important than ever to refresh your familiarity with the code of ethics. As David Hahn said, “The future of content marketing is in your hands”. One thing I hope I have managed to convince you of, is that making white-hat content is not just good for the readers and the Internet as a medium.
It’s good for you, too.