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).

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More Info on Do Not Track

I saw this today, and in the spirit of socially-sharing news, I think you should take a look too. USA Today ran a good article from Byron Acohido and Jon Swartz on the implications of the Do Not Track movement and what it could mean for the online advertising business.

The key point is to note is that, for brands and online marketers, the benefit of tracking is knowing who to target with what messaging. And for users, it’s being reached with content and ads that are relevant to your interests. I’ll debate with whoever wants to debate about the value in the concept of serving relevant info to those who demonstrate patterns or take certain actions. Hopefully the Do Not Track movement is balanced by common sense and isn’t over-regulated to water down any aspect of targeting.

Certainly I’d rather receive info that’s most relevant to me — as long as they don’t misuse my information. Does simply sharing my info constitute misuse? We can debate that too.

Interesting Effort: ESPN Audibles

Sometimes it’s just lose-lose, and that’s all it is. You try new stuff to try to improve and be different, and people find something to ding you on anyway.

Marketers always search for that Holy Grail of integration, where the message sings the same across all channels and the customer experience is stellar no matter where the customer finds you.

In pursuit of those lovely things, brands certainly look for ways to facilitate interaction and dialogue to make the experience customer compelling. Enter an appreciable effort in that regard that deserves a good, long look: ESPN Audibles.

It’s a new football talk show on ESPN where — much like a quarterback calling an audible play at the line of scrimmage — fans can change the topic of conversation by posting a question via Twitter or Facebook. Talk about interaction. Who wouldn’t be interested to see their question change conversation among experts on national TV?

I think this is one of the most tangible examples to date of integrating a traditional channel with social media. We all know sports fans are fanatics — hell, they drop billions each year on fantasy sports. So it’s not a stretch to expect a large throng of social-savvy fans to show up on Twitter and Facebook to tweets questions during the show. And for the broadcast lovers, what better way to draw them into social than empowering them to influence their preferred medium?

While Audibles has its share of critics — even for the panel’s choice of socks — it’s not just another contest or discount offer that marries social into the picture. It’s a solid effort to integrate social and traditional channels using content as the backbone. And it provides the audience with real-time control over the content to some degree. That’s a pretty enhanced experience.

And for those football fans out there, it’s an interesting mix of some of ESPN’s most opinionated analysts, including Trent Dilfer, Keyshawn Johnson, Steve Young, and Herm Edwards. Check it out.

My Fun Awards Program Assignment

Recently I had the honor of being a judge in the American Business Media’s Sales Promotion Awards. As Chair of the ABM’s Media Marketing Committee, I’m proud to say that my committtee helps the ABM frame and conduct this awards program — so I do have somewhat of an advantage when it comes time to select the judges.

I want to thank Kevin Arsham, Partner at MediaCom, for also taking time to participate as a judge in the awards program. Kevin has been a willing and consistent supporter and participant in my committee’s activities, and we’re very grateful.

Watch the video below as Kevin and I walk through the top-performing entries, as well as some general points for B2B media marketers to consider when developing promotional materials and media kits.

If you have any questions about the awards program or interest in joining my committee, leave me a comment and we’ll discuss.

Cascading Questions?

It was a good week wasn’t it? Got alot of work done and accomplished alot, but always alot left to do, right? Looking forward to the weekend?

I started with a few questions because many questions popped up for me today, all day. I read some articles and heard some comments that made me think, and it resulted in a series of cascading questions about marketing, marketers and our jobs. Make sense? No, you say? Then here, let me give you the question that started it all:

  • Why do some marketers totally disregard Twitter?

    I answered that question with a question, which was also an answer…and so on and so on. Enjoy.

  • Do you not want to hear what customers are saying?
  • Isn’t listening to customers part of our jobs as marketers?
  • Hell, isn’t understanding new media channels a big part of our jobs, too?
  • Isn’t there something — anything — we can learn just by listening to customer conversation?
  • Even if you think Twitter is crazy, why wouldn’t you jump in and at least understand what it’s all about, especially if it’s part of your job?
  • Do you disregard other media and tactics without understanding them fully, too?
  • Are you doing your job by doing that?
  • Technology and marketing evolve fast nowadays, aren’t we supposed to learn and evolve along with it?
  • Even if most of Twitter is “pointless babble,” shouldn’t you be able to find a creative way to mix dialogue with tasteful marketing?
  • Would you hire a marketer who doesn’t learn and evolve, stay up-to-date with technology, and get better at their job?
  • If you’re the supervisor of a marketer who doesn’t evolve, why are you employing them?
  • Are you not evolving because your organization doesn’t evolve?
  • Even if that was the case, why wouldn’t you still want to learn and be a better, more marketable marketer?
  • Don’t you want a strong personal Brand Y-O-U?
  • If you’re not on Twitter or other social media where customer conversate, do they notice?
  • Do they wonder why you’re not there?
  • Would you know if they did?
  • What are you going to do about it?

    Charge ahead and answer the last question.

  • 7 Things To Do in the Next 7 Days — Part Two

    Hopefully you’ve been able to make some progress on the first three to-do’s posted not too long ago. Or, at the very least, you plan to start on them now, then come back to these four after. Anyway, here you go — four more things you need to do for the latter part of the next seven days, for all the reasons discussed here.

    4. Open a Twitter account and watch the conversation.
    Ok, I know for a fact alot of people think Twitter is just plain crazy. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I just don’t get it.” However, if you’re anti-Twitter, you’re anti-customer. You’re anti-being-informed. You’re…anti-marketing.

    Let me explain. Love it or hate it, customer conversation occurs on Twitter every day. Check that…every minute. And you don’t want to be part of that?

    If you’re not on Twitter already, you need to open an account right now, on Day 4. Don’t like the concept? Fine, don’t even participate then, just watch the conversation. You read stuff to stay up-to-speed right? The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or now the five blogs you’ve already lined up, per my earlier post. Isn’t a huge group of potential customers talking amonst each other valuable too? So start the account and watch the conversation. Follow hashtags relevant to your business, products or customers, and see what’s being said. There is powerful dialogue going on and powerful sharing of thoughts, gripes, praise and ideas that you need to know about. Here’s a good WSJ tune-up article, and a video below.

    You need to do this — what you learn from the dialogue impacts your marketing strategy AND your knowledge of customer needs. Guaranteed.

    5. Find information about Google Wave and read it start to finish.
    Part of our jobs as marketers goes beyond just using what tool are available today, like Twitter. We need to stay aware of what’s coming next, so we understand what can help us be more effective, help make our messaging more impactful, and get us closer to our customers. Enter Google Wave.

    Google Wave is positioned to be a ridiculously cool new communication tool. Incredibly powerful, and alot of promise for empowering web-based conversation on a whole new level between people and among groups. Here’s an excellent article to start with, and another article that’s a preview for developers on the Official Google Blog. Mashable also has a nicely detailed article.

    After those, find a few more and read those too. As marketers, when this launches, we need to be ready to use it. It’s customer dialogue on steroids. The world of social media moves at a speed unseen before, and we need to move just as fast. What’s next after Wave, what will be the next cool tool that helps us be more effective? Do your homework and you tell me.

    6. Look at your current marketing spend — are you over-invested in a particular area? Fix it.
    I’m not a big advocate of change for the sake of change. Yet even though the lion’s share of your customers or sales may come from one place (and by place, I mean channel or medium), you need to fix your budget and strategy if you’re spending too many of your dollars in that one place.

    Being over-invested right now likely means you’re sending too much direct mail, running too many print ads, or most importantly sending too much email. You need balance — more than ever, customers have different habits, different preferences. Don’t discount channels until you’ve tested. “It’s always worked the way it is” is not a valid enough reason anymore to avoid trying and testing different channels or different messaging. Mail less, test some creative. Hell, try sending LESS email for a few months that has more relevant messaging. You may be pleasantly surprised.

    7. Stop planning “monologue” marketing campaigns and create campaigns based on “dialogue” instead.
    My friend Alex Krawchick said this a few weeks back, and it stuck with me. His actual quote was:

    I’ve had it. If I see one more “industry thought leader” pontificate about how to “…use Twitter to increase awareness of your business…”, I’m seriously going to lose it. You s are completely missing the point. Twitter (and FB… and LinkedIn) was built as a tool for dialogue. The days of the marketing and advertising ‘monologue’ are over. Move on. Or just shut up already. Either way, smarten up.

    I don’t think I need to add to that much. Well said. If you have a Twitter account, blog or other social media endeavor, use it for what it’s meant for, not as a megaphone for a one-sided message.

    So there you go. Seven things to do in the next week that can make a great impact. Charge ahead.