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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Earn Clout with Social Influencers

Do you current acquisition campaigns include social influencers? They should.

Social media is lauded for its high engagement value, yet many marketers are struggling with how to measure it, never mind how to use it to move the needle on sales. Hell, many marketers and companies have yet to commit the time or the resources to leverage SoMe effectively for engagement — despite the benefits.

That’s why I love the great examples out there like this article on how the Sacramento Kings used Klout to tap into the power of social influencers. There are tons of articles out there that discuss all the reasons you have to use social — this blog alone offers up a bunch. Yet this article touches on the true viral power of brands tapping into social influencers who are capable of shaping behavior across their whole social networks.

Nothing like other people doing your job for you.

Think this approach has merits? Take a good, long look at it’s application on the micro-local level, where community-based doctors, restaurants and other local business could reach out to prominent local influencers — perhaps members of social programs, sports leagues or PTA boards. Give them a good experience or an offer, and the word spreads fast and drives local business as soon as those influencers tell their social networks about it via Facebook, Twitter or other means.

Think of it’s application to healthcare, where innovative academic centers and community practices could reach out to prominent patient advocates and community leaders. Work with those influencers to create events in the facilities and practices or host Twitter chats, and the social impact spreads to core consumers of healthcare services in those networks. Recent studies show a “graying” of social networks due to the huge number of older Americans flocking to them, and one of their most popular online activities is searching for and sharing healthcare information. One of my blog posts for Oncology Times discuss this phenomenon. So the opportunity is definitely there to make an impact among healthcare consumers with the right outreach to social influencers.

How do you identify and reach social influencers? Well, you can work with experts like Klout, or you can set up an effective social listening station of your own and begin to closely monitor and filter the conversation in your markets or areas of interest. Many tools out there set up those powerful filters that can be as granular as you need, and you can build your own dashboard to analyze and rank influencers. Radian6 and Alterian are two of the better products available, and the cost is not significant.

Need another example? During an online demo of Radian6, I tweeted about it. Less than 10 minutes later, I had a tweet back from Alterian acknowledging my interest in social listening software, with an offer to access information about their product. Now here I sit, virally spreading that experience and education. It’s a whole different and more meaningful way to influence customer behavior.

We’ll discuss more about social listening in an upcoming post, yet in the meantime I recommend you charge ahead and become more familiar with it starting right now.

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.

What’s Your Approach to Social Already?

You’ve had ample time to learn all about social media.

Surely by now, you’ve read articles from experts, tested the waters, followed conversations, found customers, began dialogue, produced content, set up outposts on Facebook and the other places where your customers congregate, integrated social with your other channels, and set up a social listening station for your brand/company. You’re a social authority now.

Right?

Unfortunately — and unbelievably — the answer is still “Wrong!” for many marketers. More importantly, many who have make the foray into social media aren’t doing it right. I go back to the great point made in one of my earlier posts about the ways to approach social media:

Social media is like a cocktail party. Do u shout “BUY MY PRODUCT”? Ask for business cards? Or just meet people and talk?”

If I could only count how many times I get cheesy emails through LinkedIn offering nothing but a pitch, or shallow @ replies on Twitter with a salesy comment and a link. Even when used as a “sales tool” social media is no less consultative than face-to-face selling — does the ease of typing and sending email diminish my own interest as a customer in finding the right solution?!?!

Even in this salesy slide deck on using LinkedIn as a sales tool, the salient point is that you have to invest time in building a meaningful network based on knowledge and trust, not used-car-salesman-quality emails and tweets.

Please, marketers — if you haven’t yet gotten up to speed with social and how to leverage it, take the time to read a few articles, talk to some experts, and integrate it into your strategy and with your other channels.

My next post will explain exactly how.

Twitter Partnership Lays a Blueprint

Talk about an inspiring partnership.

A while back I wrote a post on forging partnerships and the benefits that allies working together can leverage for a marketing campaign or a business. I’m sitting here in the Production Room of a studio in Boston, preparing for a live webcast today, and noticed on my RSS feed an article about a new Twitter feed and website developed by a partnership of Twitter, Microsoft and Federated Media.

Twitter Inc. and ad network Federated Media on Monday unveiled what might be a new way for the popular microblogging service to make money.

They launched an “ExecTweets” page built by Federated Media and sponsored by Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) that collects Twitter postings, known as tweets, by prominent corporate executives.

Despite the typical rants and raves of users any time a brand or corporate entity tries to leverage a mainstream social media community like Facebook or Twitter, this kind of partnership provides value. Other than digesting one these executives’ corporate blogs, this may be the next-best way to get into their heads. Possibly even in a more personal, less-jargon-filled way (wait, I’m a marketer…jargon is good!). It could be a bueprint for companies that want to leverage Twitter in a powerful, contextual way.

Again, I advise you to take a good, long look at potential partnerships, and think differently about how to accomplish goals that look unreachable by working with others.

Time to Get Cozy With Online Video, Part 2

When you take a good, long look at the following data, you may doubt the headline of the article.

Yet even though people who click on online video ad formats tend to be younger and lower income, accoring to a new iPerceptions study, there still holds promise for marketers.

One, this measures online video as an advertising tool, not a marketing tool (if you don’t know the difference, call your college and tell them you’re coming back). So you still need to look for ways to incorporate online video into an exciting, buzz-generating strategy that engages, educates and/or stimulates cutomers.

Two, online video scored higher than “popular” (among marketers, it seems) interactive and interstitial ad units. I know the big brands like to drop flashy interstitials all over the page (and they have their purpose), yet the study results show that video units entice more clicks.

Lastly, this clearly reflects the acceptance of online video by younger customers. So not only does it validate video if they’re your target now, surely as the younger crowd morphs into the older crowd they take their media preferences with them.

So learn more about and embrace online video — then charge ahead and start using it.

Your Brand’s Face on Facebook

Make sure you give it the right makeup, or you won’t have a date to the dance.

Surely Facebook is still one of the hottest topics among marketers, as brands strive to engage the Facebook masses. Take a good, long look at this helpful article from Forrester on Facebook marketing options. It lays out some basics you need to know before you charge ahead and build a message for your brand on the site.

Definitely put careful thought into your message before throwing up a Facebook page or buying ads on the site. How is your brand relevant, what’s your value proposition? Think of how to deliver your ultimate message to this skeptical, ad-abhoring community — where will it be interactive, how will you reward interaction, where can you use 2.0 to enhance the interaction/discussion.