Brands Produce Content — Whether You Like It Or Not

It’s been a while since an article really riled me up. I’ve been wondering when something would come along to stir up some angst.

Enter this ridiculous article on branded content written by Jonathan Salem Baskin for Ad Age’s CMO Strategy newsletter.

I’ll preface it by saying that Mr. Baskin is a global branding expert and has written some solid pieces for Ad Age that I like. Yet on this particular topic, he is way off base. It’s like hiring Charlie Sheen to teach a class on stability — it doesn’t make sense (now Mr. Baskin and I are tied at one apiece for in-article Sheen references).

Despite the fact that brands have been producing solid, credible content for years (which I’ve been writing in this blog about for years) — and that experienced journalists are leaving reputable media to cross over and create content for brands – it’s Baskin’s assertion that, by default, branded content is untrue. Apparently, that means all those reputable editors flocking to the brand side check all their credibility and integrity at the door. Apparently that means no brand can tell a story that’s credible, inform customers about truthful market aspects in a creative way, or create factual market context that a product or service fits into – without it being inherently untrue.

That’s ridiculous.

Take a good, long look at his statements about branded content below.

Branding is created by people who are speaking on behalf of the business operations that pay for their efforts. Brands are lenses, so the stuff you create is biased by purposed and practice, which isn’t a crime but certainly isn’t synonymous with news or truth…It’s people talking for the brand, and there’s no mechanism within your published content that makes it true.

Aaaahhhh, but there is. The same “open communities” he mentions in the same very article are the ultimate purveyors of truth. First-hand experience, real-time feedback, customers sharing product information, and access to people who represent brands has never been easier. I argue that never, ever before has it been easier to identify and distinguish truth from untruth – contrary to the very point Baskin makes when he says:

Open online communities are to truth what the Wild West was to justice.

Again, a ridiculous assertion. Sure, opinions and untruth are easier to find online than a fifth of vodka in Charlie Sheen’s nightstand (now I’m ahead 2 to 1). Yet guess what? So is truth. As a consumer of information, one always has to apply a personal filter to distinguish qualified source from unqualified, valid opinion from meaningless rant, veiled advertising from valuable insights. The same way social media and online communities have granted a megaphone to bias and untruth, they’ve also empowered a new era of reality and truth to spring forward from the first-hand perspective of people living it. We now have access to more people who know the truth on any topic better than anyone.

In many cases, Mr. Baskin, that is more valuable than any journalist writing about it. Like it or not.

Also like it or not is the fact that many people do want to talk “with” brands. They want to consume information and judge for themselves what’s true and untrue. Not everyone wants a journalist or blogger to sift through the facts and tell them what’s true. Are you trying to tell me that Tony Hsieh isn’t credible because he represents a brand? Or Richard Branson? Or my friend Tim Andrews at ASI, who transformed a company and a whole industry partially by telling truths and granting access that hadn’t been done before. These are executives who tell stories, share information, provide opinions, and grant access for customers to talk “with” them. Should everything they say inherently be labeled as untrue simply because they represent brands?

One more time I add, ridiculous.

There may not be a mechanism within published content that makes it true, yet there’s no mechanism that makes it untrue either. That’s a decision that customers and their communities can charge ahead make on their own now.

Yet brands still have a valid, credible place and a part in the discussion (when conducted credibly and correctly, of course).

Bad Marketing & Service Examples, March 2011 Edition

Well, it’s safe to say that no matter what the economy is like, what sales are like, or what the performance of your campaign is like, there’s always room to do better.

For some, there’s more room than others.

Enter my two examples from today on some really poor practices in marketing and customer service. Let’s take a good, long look at what NOT to do for a moment. As I said in a recent post, the economic rebound and business growth has some companies at a point where their capability to deliver effective customer service is lacking, and it ends up hurting their future.

ManagementJobs.net
The first entry is a horrendous email from someplace called managementjobs.net. Now, you wouldn’t think the email below is actually from them. The From line is from a “jobsalertnow.com” domain, while the physical address in the email lists CareerPlannerNow in Columbus, OH. Good luck trying to find either one of those.

First let’s talk about how awful the email is. No context, no identification, no reason to click. I could go on, but it’s not even needed, you can see for yourself. Who’s gonna click on that email?

Really impactful, right? Um, wrong.

Well, I clicked, just for fun and for the purposes of this post — which, mind you, probably dooms me to a life of spam from these shady folks. You arrive at this lovely fly-by-night website called managementjobs.net. Seriously, is anyone using this site to search for a job? Do they really get enough traffic using shady email marketing tactics? Anyway, they have a blog — which is amazing. Are you going to take advice from someone who has to dupe you to actually get you to their website?

Finally, when you hit the opt-out screen, this is what you see below.

Here's when you get scared, as you ask "Who the hell are these people?"

Enough said about these folks. No clue what they’re doing. Actually they’re probably intentionally spamming people at best, and potentially pursuing much more criminal activities at worst. Not the way you want to market anything to your customers in any way.

Foursquare
The next entry comes from my lovely friends at Foursquare, who are about as responsive to customers as the chair you’re sitting in or the desk you’re leaning on. Actually, worse — because the chair will lean back, turn and do other things you ask it to, and the desk actually works as advertised.

The folks over at Foursquare — you know, that darling of media and market value — have a little issue being responsive to customers. As in NEVER responding to anyone. That is why I was surprised to get the email below in reply to one of my several performance issues with their performance-challenged-yet-popular app. I’m thought to myself “maybe they turned over a new leaf” when I saw the email appear in my inbox.

Well, we aren’t really that lucky just yet. The email itself leaves alot to be desired. Alot of fluffy copy and irrelevant links, no direct answer to anything resembling my question.

Heavy on irrelevant copy, light on relevant answers

Howver, let’s talk about the bigger picture here. When you scroll to the bottom of the email, you can see the original date that I submitted my initial question.

Thanks for the response, 11 months later!

Yes, that is correct — 11 months after the fact, Foursquare blessed me with a response. What adds to the hilarity in that is this subsequent dialogue:

  • Me: Ssssooooo, lemme get this straight. You’re replying to one of my support emails…..a YEAR later? Well, 11 months, technically. Are you serious?
  • Foursquare: I know it’s been a long time, but we thought it was better to respond late than never to respond at all! 🙂

At least they used a smiley face. Yet, kinda sad that they think waiting 11 months to respond to customers is funny. Also sad that a prominent brand has to be on my bad examples list.

Needless to say, what both of these companies do is not the way to treat your customers. In 2011, please make it a point to charge ahead with better customer service and marketing than these examples illustrate.

If you don’t, be aware that your customers are empowered with an arsenal of social tools, just like this blog. And they will take their story to their social networks.

It just doesn’t pay to be shady or be careless in responding to your customers any more.

Brands Use Content as a Marketing Tool

But you already know that brands use content as a marketing tool, because I’ve been talking about it since April 2009.

Kudos to David Carr and the New York Times for finally arriving to the party.

Carr just wrote this excellent article in the Times about luxury brands publishing content and downright getting into the media business. And it’s true, brands are creating content and using it to drive engagement across a variety of vertical markets, both B2C and B2B. They’re shifting dollars of out publishing ad spend to do it, and they’re delivering content in the form of print magazines, digital mags, blogs, content-rich websites, and more. Plus, they get better tangible metrics than publishers offer, because they drive traffic to their own content, URLs and places where they can track and analyze deeper.

Yet Carr’s article comes almost a full two years after I wrote a series of blog posts that described how marketers have a role in the future of content (the other two posts in the series are here and here…the second one even takes a journalist to task for not seeing the shift).

I think the mainstream media are finally starting to notice since, as Carr’s article highlights, some high-level journalists and content experts are making the leap to direct content on the brand side.

Andrea Linett, the former creative director of Lucky, has gone on to become eBay’s fashion creative director, while Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founding editor of Town and Country Travel for Hearst, is now the chief executive at the travel site Indagare. And many journalists who were pushed aside as publishing withered are now finding that brands in search of an audience are still interested in what they do.”

Well now that the Times says it, it must be true, right? So take a good, long look at what kind of content your customers consume, and charge ahead in terms of providing it to them in a way that creates engagement with your brands and products. I’m not saying you have to hire editors and build a media empire under your roof — but hired experts are clearly an effective way to do it. You also have other ways to create and provide content, like social media, whitepapers and even Twitter.

Once you make the leap to content provide and educator, you gain trust and credibility, and you gain an incredible amount of context that you can use to market your products/brands.

New Year, New News

A very Happy New Year to all my readers and friends, and to all the marketers out there who fought through another holiday season and are all geared up and amped for a new year with new strategies.

And, hopefully, new budgets! 😉

On the note of taking a good, long look at things that are new, I’m happy to say that in 2011 I’ll be writing blog posts for a very esteemed healthcare publication, Oncology Times. My content there focuses on marketing, branding and social media yet is geared more specifically for the cancer care crowd — physicians and front-line oncology professionals, as well as marketers and non-marketers in community and academic settings. Yet you’re invited to check it out and potentially pull out some relevant morals.

I’ll also translate salient points back into more generic marketing-speak, if applicable, and post them back here with any relevant morals easily identifiable.

My first post for Oncology Times kicks off a three-part series of posts on the necessity for oncology professionals to embrace social media. After spending the better part of the last three years involved in social media and oncology, I know it’s an area that’s fully engaged each and every day with rich social conversation that impacts the delivery of healthcare.

Here’s to a 2011 filled with new things, good things, and a whole lot of success. Do your homework, and charge ahead into the year with a determined and focused energy.

Is This the Browser of the Future?

Sometimes it’s the little things.

In this case, the little thing may turn out to be a big thing. It’s been fun to take a good, long look at and play around with Rockmelt, the new browser that integrates a variety of social elements to make browsing a true social experience. At first playfully called the “Facebook browser,” it’s built on Chromium, has Facebook integration, and certainly has an interesting feature set.

Now, instead of having a variety of windows, tabs and programs open, you can have full access to major social media sites as part of your one browser window. At various points around the window there are toolbars and icons that provide rollover and/or one-click access to your information streams from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other places. You can also perform the standard set of functions like share, retweet, like, etc. There’s also a search bar for access to dynamic type-to-search results and a navbar listing your most important friends on the left, with mini-window access to detailed info, wall commenting, etc.

It is definitely a highly social experience, yet I expect a slow adoption rate. There are still a ton of folks who just want to search for things, do research and read online — without the omnipresent stream of information from the socialsphere. I think that eventually the overall ease of monitoring your socialsphere at the same time you’re doing whatever you do online will be something that’s inevitably hard to refuse for most. It’s certainly gotten mixed reviews, but I think Rockmelt has something here, even if it takes time to grow in adoption.

For marketers, it means not necessarily having access to fans and followers in the confines of your fan page or a Twitter client. Your fans or followers may now see your updates and offers in a small window in a nanosecond.

All the more reason to make your social strategy built upon solid content, so you have engagement and your customers find value that lets you stand out from the crowd.

What do you think about Rockmelt — fab or flop?

When to Fold ‘Em

A marketer’s daily life is filled with the pursuit of success. Our mission is to make things happen — drive sales, move product, generate leads, and a million other things.

Never do we like to admit defeat.

Yet sometimes that’s exactly what needs to happen in order to achieve success.

Too many times, marketers keep doing the same failing tactics for one reason or another. Put off redesigning your website due to budget or time. Keep your same mix of spending and tactics because new channels are “too risky.” Launch the same old email campaigns because you’re not sure what the best practices are. And as we emerge from the economic doldrums, the resistance to change will only grow as nobody wants to lose any revenue by trying something different.

Yet sticking with the same tried and true tactics only leads to false hope. Now is the time to admit defeat — what worked before won’t work in today’s world. So throw out those old strategies, and test and test some more to find the new best answers, whether it’s channel, medium, or message. Take the time to explore alternatives, try something new, and revamp what’s been stagnant. Research a blog, do something social, revisit your email strategy…hell, if you’re still heavily invested in direct mail, try a new format or shift spending to another channel, like PPC.

That’s the only way to emerge as a leader when your customers are ready for action.