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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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.

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.

The New Four P’s of Marketing — Part 3

So, we’ve looked at Proof and Presence and why they’re the lead tandem in the New Four P’s of Marketing.

Now let’s look at what you need once you have Proof and Presence: some Persuasion.

  • Persuasion — What good is Presence if you don’t use it wisely? If you don’t use it to demonstrate your Proof to potential customers? That’s what Persuasion involves: using your Presence effectively to deliver your Proof and persuade customers to, well, become your customers.
    How do you persuade? Well, I’m not suggesting you do anything that’s not genuine, as the word persuasion is sometimes viewed. What I mean is you need to develop market knowledge and a customer-first mentality, and leverage it to be an expert and give customers a reason to trust and do business with you.
    What kind of knowledge? Data and statistics about your market and about your customers. Unique experience or perspective. Customer needs and how to address them. Hell, even just having an opinion is market knowledge and worth something in terms of mental capital with customers. Even a forum or community on your site can be knowledge, even if it doesn’t come from you — if you bring customers together to discuss things and share thoughts, you’re the driving force behind their connection. You’re an expert.
    How do you leverage it? A variety of ways. Start a blog, and use it to craft an authoritative perspective. That’s Persuasion at its best, when your organization’s leaders — and even its front line people — share their expertise with customers via social media. That’s real enagagement. You can start an enewsletter, develop white papers, open Twitter accouunts, build a unique content area of your website. It may seem like irrelevant effort if it’s work that doesn’t focus on your products or company. But it’s not. You have to make a case for customers to trust you. You have to persuade them why you’re relevant, why you’re the best choice. Showing them Proof and having a Presence isn’t enough — you must deliver content and perspective that makes the case.
    Aggregating and sharing this knowledge is the Persuasion that helps you keep customers that your Presence found for you.
  • Next post discusses the final new P: Price.

The Future of Content, Part 3

I feel refreshed today.

No, it’s not because I got to the pool today after along day on the road at a conference. 😉

It’s because, for all the journalists who don’t get it, like I mentioned in my last post, there’s one who takes a good, long look and sees it like it is. And by “like it is,” I mean “the customer now dictates what constitutes content.”

The Twitter phenomenon epitimizes the kinds of technology-enabled shifts seen in the ways consumers communicate and seek information over the past few years.

And yet again, I emphasize that the opportunity is there for marketers — we have as big a role in the future of content as journalists do. Bring people together with the content they want, and you are their trusted source. It’s news they want? Tweet from a show floor (like I’ve been doing all day at this conference), an event, a concert, a press conference. Expert analysis? Create a path to experts — a CEO blog, a unique Twitter solution like ExecTweets, or a mashup of content. Personal viewpoints or reality reporting? Build a community where people can identify and network, like Facebook or Sermo in the healthcare space. The list goes on.

The beauty of Twitter is its simplicity. Of course, that’s also what some dislike about it. But that simplicity, in all it’s brevity, makes for one whole boatload of content when you add up a few hundred followers, whether it’s your sister, five cousins and grandma or it’s Ashton Kutcher, Kathy Ireland and Sanjay Gupta. When you charge ahead with your particular solution, it may end up being as simple as Twitter or it may be much more complex.

Just make sure it delivers the content your customers want and you’re golden.

The Future of Content, Part 2

In a recent post, I discussed how marketers have a role in the future of content. Sitting here on yet another JetBlue flight, I came across two articles that highlight this position even further.

I’m reading an issue of Medical Marketing & Media — it’s actually a recent issue for a change, typically I’m catching up on magazines two or three months later. The first article touches on the launch of FacetoFace Health, an online community that lets patients find other patients based on similar conditions or medications. Many times, this is exactly the kind of content people want — not second-hand knowledge pieced together through interviews and research. Interviews that people can now do first-hand via Facebook, Twitter and other social networking communities. And research, mind you, that people can do themselves online via robust tools like Wikipedia. The FacetoFace site, like many social media sites, provides first-hand interaction with people based on experience, interests, likeness or non-likeness, or anything else. Your agenda…not someone else’s. It’s a real-time, ever-changing window into a give-and-take world of content. If you’re a marketer, talk to your customers, find out what they need to know or who they want to know, and build a community that delivers it. Welcome to the future of content.

The other article is written by a PhD and entitled “Healthcare journalism needs a recovery plan.” My impression (no evidence whether it’s accurate since I’m on a plane and can’t research it) is that this person isn’t an active participant in social media, and thereby not destined to be an active part of the future of content. A few pearls of wisdom from the article center on a new survey of healthcare journalists. 65% say the quality of health coverage is fair or poor, 48% think health journalism is heading in the wrong direction, 43% say training opportunities have declined. Really? The training opportunities have declined? When whole new communities like FacetoFace spring up overnight? Are they thinking about social media as an opportunity to get “trained” every day on meeting customer wants? Obviously not.

I can see why they feel journalism is headed in the wrong direction — because customers are now in control of content and where they get it. As I said in my earlier post, they want different types of content from different types of content providers. Time and again it sounds like journalists don’t see that journalism, in it’s traditional form, isn’t as tethered to the future of content as it once was. But the opportunity is there to them to take a good, long look and evolve and be part of it, just like it does for marketers.

Because comments like this one in the article sure aren’t the way to charge ahead into the future of content:

I’m going to hope that we’ll see demand for health and science reporting increase as we continue to shake off some of the anti-intellectualism that has bogged us down.

HUH? I guess I’m not an intellectual, because unlike those who think journalism is just going to bounce back, I’m with all the other marketers who are helping building solutions to meet customer demands in the future of content.

Wake up and maybe we’ll see you there.

Marketing has a Role in the Future of Content

This post is proof that a small spark can lead to a roaring flame.

I began the day reading a column from former colleague Ray Schultz, one of the best marketing journalists of the last several decades. Hours later I’m on a plane, some thoughts still kindling from reading the column, and a raging blaze emerged. Cue up the iPhone with mobile WordPress, and here we go.

The topic of Ray’s column is the future of publishing. To those who haven’t noticed, that particular future is not looking bright right now, with flagship entities like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and countless magazines (both B2B and B2C) bleeding jobs and flat out disappearing. Not to mention advertisers slashing budgets unmercifully (for good reason). The column also speculates about the future of journalism — undoubtedly tied to the future of publishing with a heavy chain. Clearly jobs in journalism, especially in the print world, are not a good spot to be in right now.

After thinking about this for a little while, this key thought became obvious: it’s not at all about the future of publishing, or the future of journalism. It’s about the future of content.

Sure, as a business or industry or career field, you can speculate about publishing and journalism all day. Yet neither is necessarily connected at all to the future of content. People can get content in many ways without publishing or journalism involved. Many people don’t even want content from journalists at all. They want content from people just like themselves — or people not like them at all. They want content from people right in the moment — in the euphoria of victory, throes of defeat, fear of chaos, or other states of happiness or misfortune. They want dialogue, engagement and interaction — the hallmarks of social media — and not from an unreachable person behind a printed page. The future of content is give-take. It’s Twitter, it’s YouTube, it’s Facebook, it’s blogs, buzz and beyond. It’s still some printed media too. It’s whatever customers and consumers want, however they want it.

And so presents the opportunity for marketers to take a good, long look at how and where we can fill a much-needed role in the future of content. We can build communities of people (or, if you read Seth Godin, tribes) arguably faster and better than any publisher can, because we know our customers well (or at least, we’re all supposed to, right?). And customers want content. They want to talk to other customers. Happy customers want to share their experiences. Angry customers want a voice, too — and brands want an opportunity to win them back. Many people, customers or not, just want objective information. And don’t give me that “marketers can’t be objective” schpiel — time and again that’s been proven wrong, especially when it’s the community driving the content.. And journalists can be just as biased as anyone, you have to apply the same filters you’d apply when evaluating any information source.

So charge ahead and provide the types of content people want about your brands, or more importantly, about your market and about each other. Build communities of knowledge, and you’re building content. And your an active part of its future.