New media titans are declaring – and awestruck traditional media outlets are echoing the cry – that brands must now not simply pay publishers but also become publishers themselves. One of said titans, John Battle of Federated Media, went so far in an Advertising Age column as to offer “All brands are publishers” as a Golden Rule for success in the new Age of Content (or conversational media, as his coinage would have it it). The marketing world seems to agree, as evidenced by major content initiatives such as General Electric’s ecomagination and Intel’s iQ, or conferences such as the International Content Marketing Summit, and Content Marketing World (please note: this author has no current association with any of the above).
The Insatiable Content Beast Could Eat Up All of Your Brand Credibility
But two recent incidents, ruminated upon in The New York Times by media commentator David Carr, raise the thorny issue of just where old-fashioned truth fits in the content-crazed new media mix. Carr’s concerns circle around “real” journalism, and the recent plagiarism charges leveled against (and admitted to by) multi-journalists Fareed Zakaria (of CNN, Time magazine and The Washington Post) and Jonah Lehrer (of Wired magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and others). But the concerns apply to the burgeoning fields of content marketing and “brand journalism,” too, and brands are wise to take pre-emptive note.
Carr’s article points to “the Web’s ferocious appetite for content” as the devil that tempted Lehrer to “feed the beast with retreads and half-baked work,” noting that “he plagiarized himself [versus Zakaria purloining text from others], rerunning parts of his books and previous writings for different publications.” It’s an interesting notion, plagiarizing oneself – in content marketing that’s known as repurposing: you take a white paper, for instance, and make a blog post, video, slideshow and more out of it. And while Carr labels Lehrer’s self-duplicative actions “an offense against his employers, not his readers,” overly iterative content marketers may well offend their readers/prospects, and so need to be more demanding of their content creation process.
Brand Journalism Needs to Meet a Higher Standard
In fact, brands that wish to transcend the cynicism that the over expansion of content marketing will inevitably bring now must serve a higher standard of truthfulness than does “professional” journalism (media overall is trusted by barely more than half of people worldwide, according to the leading global trust survey). To establish and maintain the level of trust that builds consumer-brand relationships, it is no longer enough to merely avoid fabricating or stealing content, as in the Zakaria example. Brands need to be able to answer “Yes!” to each of the following questions.
Three Key Questions About Content
1. Is your content true in the largest sense?
Traditional advertising, which pays to “push” messages in front of audiences, tends to be selectively truthful. Content and social media marketing, which seeks to “pull” consumers toward brands needs to be holistically truthful, observing not just the brand’s most appealing benefits but the actuality of the overall consumer context that the brand seeks to serve. In other words, brands need to acknowledge the good and the bad, the needs they can and cannot meet, and look to build credibility through transparency and openness, over time.
2. Is your content original?
Original means much more than “not plagiarized.” The question is really, Does your content offer original thinking, fresh perspectives, and a new synthesis of ideas? Does it produce an “Aha!” moment, if just to the extent of “Aha! So THAT’S how the damn little widget works!” A quick run through Copyscape will help determine if content is plagiarized; it takes a much larger investment to ensure that it is original in the best sense.
3. Is your brand’s content of the highest quality?
Quality conveys credibility. Is an article well researched and more than just competently written? Is a video well lit, with good audio, legible title work and decent resolution? In short, does it appear that someone has invested enough in the content for the intended audience to feel it is true and therefore worth their time? Style will not substitute for substance, but the lack of it can quickly undermine an otherwise well-done bit of communication.
Truth As A Core Service for Every Brand
The need for copious quantities of content at a reasonable cost will forever challenge marketers on the measures of quality, originality and truthfulness. However, if one subscribes to the definition of “a brand is a promise,” as many do, it is easy to see the bottom line importance of all three, especially truth. A brand must be built, day in and day out, as a promise to be trusted and relied upon. As Jonathan Baskin observes in his book Tell the Truth: Honesty Is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool, “Truth is an on-going service…”