Marketers must take responsibility for race-to-the bottom content marketing

Is branded content heading the same way as sensationalized news?

Control. That’s what it’s all about for brands – control of their story, how it’s told and who hears it.

Chief executives are apoplectic when they lose that control: when a journalist doesn’t write or say exactly what they want, when there are other opinions, views or ‘alternate facts’ intruding upon their reality.

Brands often utilize marketing professionals to negotiate with the press in an attempt to influence the story. The problem is that good, reputable journalists are professionals, trained to be fair and balanced instead of promotional, and the resulting coverage can sometimes be less than flattering. The marketing professionals are then harangued, flogged and sometimes fired for letting a story be written so factually. And the process starts over.

But after decades of this behavior, brands have found an easier way: “If they aren’t going to write the story, by God we’ll write it ourselves!”

Nowadays, with our ability to produce, publish and disseminate content quickly, companies understand that they can be de facto content creators themselves and have begun operating as their own form of media. And from there began the big bang of content – a sudden explosion of material from brands that coincided with the technology and social media necessary to pump it out.

For a while, this worked well – a democratization of news, a supplement to the traditional media. It then began to work too well; brands began to amplify and monetize the content, using it as a sales tool, which necessitated more and more material to feed the machine. Now, brands have lost the forest for the trees, obsessing over individual pieces of content instead of what’s really important – their narrative.

In the early 20th Century, newspapers knew that sensationalism worked, and therefore created increasingly salacious and scintillating headlines. History is repeating itself, and we’re seeing brands (from reputable retailers to celebrities to the commander-in-chief) resort to the same sensationalism of tabloid journalism just to stand out and get attention, resulting in a race to the bottom for content in terms of quality, honesty and trust.

We’re just now seeing signs of the inherent dangers of this reality, with bad actors purposefully manipulating content. So, what can be done? It’s time for brand marketers to be the change they want to see in the world, and there are small but necessary steps we can take to regain control of the digital dumping grounds that is the internet.

Education

When clients come to agencies asking for “content”, let’s try to take a step back to discuss what they are really talking about and what they really need. While whitepapers are all the rage, will their audience really consume a highly-academic, footnoted document? Does a brand really need three different newsletters? Who is asking for this material?

It’s sometimes uncomfortable to push back on clients, but try to take a beat when these requests come in and educate clients about the full range of options (including audio and video) available to accomplish their goals. That way, the content you produce will be unique and usable, instead of just filler.

Eradication

Our only wish for the year ahead should be that number-laden, listicle headlines will finally die. They are demeaning and lack creativity. Also, let’s kill all the blogs. Seriously. Instead, brand marketers should invest in producing polished thought leadership that will result in libraries of substantive material.

Evolution

How long before our current winter of discontent thaws? Barring any major regulatory oversight of the internet or social media (which would have its own implications), we’ll likely have to suffer through more egregious breaches of public trust (such as the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal) before we start self-policing our content more. But evolution is possible, if we want it. It all starts with brand marketers now, setting the tone for more quality and less quantity.

And we must press on, because companies will always need to find a way to develop meaningful messages to engage their audiences. The same way newspapers needed to find reputable owners not obsessed with sales at any cost, brands now need to find reputable marketers not obsessed with content at any cost.

Writers turned marketers have come full circle and must now turn writers again – all in the eternal pursuit of control.

Sean Carney is content director at Brownstein Group.

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