Get real: A guide to credible content marketing

Fake news has real repercussions for content marketing—and they go way beyond how annoying your Facebook feed has become.

BY Tegan Jones

Content marketing has always had a squishy relationship with journalism, not quite BFFs, but certainly part of the inner circle. And then came the onslaught of fake news. Pundits and politicians—including the leader of the free world—readily sling the term to discredit their opponents’ arguments. Friends and family members invoke it to win Facebook debates. The situation gets even more surreal with the rich world of satirical content, including one imaginative website dedicated to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s wildly successful fake presidency.

All this spin is leaving people deeply skeptical—turning the established power structure on its head. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reported the largest-ever decline in trust across the once-mighty institutions of media, government, business and NGOs. Media took the biggest dive, dropping from 48 percent in 2016 to 43 percent in 2017. Even The New York Times felt compelled to take out an ad blitz, including a TV spot during the Oscars with the tag, “The Truth Is Hard.” “The idea is to be a part of that discussion about what does it mean to find the truth,” New York Times branding exec David Rubin told CNN. “What does that mean in a world of ‘fake news’?”

For big brands, it probably starts with deciding what truth they want to tell. With customers more likely than ever to distrust the marketing part of content marketing, companies need to offer information people feel they can trust. It must be beyond reproach—backed by credible sourcing and legit research. Or else. “We’re headed toward a world where people are going to be a lot more aware of the sources of the information they’re getting,” says Michael Hickins, director of strategic communications at tech giant Oracle in New York and a former editor at The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal.

Brands better double-down on authenticity—or risk pushing people away. They have to show they’re reliable to connect with their customers. And that relationship shouldn’t be rushed, says Hickins.

“From a native-content producer standpoint, your stakeholders want you to drive people into the trust part of the funnel pretty quickly,” he says “But it’s kind of like old-fashioned dating. You have to slow down a little bit.”

Trust me

Content marketers—even those aiming for thought leadership grandeur—are constantly balancing facts and the message they’re trying to get out there. And that may require a new rigor to content marketing’s relationship with sourcing and reporting—moving far beyond plopping the company president in front of a teleprompter for a video or having a board member write some dead-on-message blog post. Because although trust in media is on a downward spiral, Edelman’s barometer shows it’s even worse for members of the C-suite gang, who often take a starring role in content marketing. The report shows just over one-third of people trust CEOs and boards of directors, while 60 percent trust their peers, academics and technical experts. This is not the time for larding up on corporate voices—look beyond the brand bubble.

To tap into the trust people have for independent third-party sources, brands must take a more journalistic approach to marketing, says Sherri Chien-Niclas. Until March, she served as director of enterprise content strategy and storytelling at Symantec, an IT security marketer in Mountain View, California.

“Journalists are trained in getting the facts and understanding what is actually going to be relevant to the viewer or the audience,” she says. “They’re really focusing on what’s important and making sure they’re bringing out the truth versus just making something up.”

Looking to create more meaningful, trusted content, Symantec hired Emmy award-winning news reporter Sue Kwon to build out its content strategy and storytelling team all the way back in 2013. The group’s content is still promoting the company’s internet security expertise, but it’s focusing on news trends, independent research and customer concerns. And that gives Symantec cred with its base.

“You’re going to become more in touch with your customer with a journalistic approach,” Chien-Niclas says. Spotting an opportunity, mainstream media outlets have been more than happy to lend the sheen of journalistic cred to their friends in marketing. Forbes’ BrandVoice, New York Times’ T Brand Studio and Time Inc.’s The Foundry all offer a full array of branded content.

Native content, or paid media that integrates naturally with the user experience of news sites, can help organizations “co-mingle their brand with very well respected brands in the news area,” Hickins says. But with public trust of the media on shaky ground, a loose association with news outlets might not be enough. Marketers, especially in financial services, are going to have to work harder to produce authoritative content that wins trust in the current climate.

“There’s a lot of noise in the marketplace. And it’s generated a lot of skepticism when legitimate companies try to talk to people about their financial needs,” says Paul Tyler, chief marketing officer, Phoenix Life Insurance Co., New York. People researching investment strategies want facts that will inform their decision-making process—not just a blatant push to a company’s financial advisers. By showcasing their unique expertise and skillfully connecting it to their audience’s real lives, financial services companies have an opportunity to stand out from the competition, Tyler says. Plus, increasing financial literacy has a potential pay off down the line, particularly for complex products like multiyear guaranteed annuities.

“They work almost the same as a CD, but they provide usually higher interest rates than CDs,” he says. “Why don’t people buy more of those? Probably because they just don’t understand them. In an instance like that, journalistic content marketing is probably an exceptionally effective mechanism.” As an added benefit, objective and educational content creates less risk for companies, especially those in regulated industries. It produces a more powerful message and requires less compliance review than product-focused content, Tyler says.

“If I speak to you about what happens to your family if you’re not around, what type of a legacy do you want to leave, that’s a relatively easy message to get through compliance,” he says. “When we start to talk about rate or return guaranteed, it gets very, very complicated. And I’m not sure it’s the most effective marketing, particularly in our space.”

“You’re going to become more in touch with your customer with a journalistic approach.”

Sherri Chien-Niclas

Curate with care

With so much unreliable information being spewed out, some brands are opting to conduct original research. While this can be spendy, the resulting data and analysis can pave the way to influencer status—deservedly so, Chien-Niclas says.

Symantec, for example, draws from the findings of its annual Internet Security Threat Report to create more frequent touch points with its customers. In the past, the company simply published a PDF of the report online, and that was that. But now the marketing team identifies major themes in the report, slicing information to be a variety of formats to be published or amplified at different times on multiple channels to reach more consumers. “That changed the report into content that could be promoted throughout the year, rather than just this one time,” she says.

Curating content from trusted sources is another way for companies to serve up relevant, current information. Along with traditional news outlets, sector-specific pubs offer a first filter for time-strapped marketing teams. Sifting through news for stories to post on social media with added context is a cost-effective way for a brand to build credibility—but pulling from outside content hubs can also introduce a reputation risk. If a team member is duped into posting dubious news, the brand could take a hit—or at least lose time to back-pedaling and apologies.

Effective curation starts with understanding what the target audience wants, what they don’t already get and how to deliver it to them effectively. Organizations have to save people time and provide value if they want to fill the trust vacuum, Hickins says. But to offer true value, content marketers must scrupulously vet third-party content, adding context and expertise along the way. “Even though there are so many publishers in so many fields, content is still pretty poor,” he says. “So there’s an opportunity to provide quality content.”

Get real secondary

The great distribution debate

Today’s loaded arguments over fake news are forcing brands to take a closer look at where they advertise online. Kellogg, Allstate and Warby Parker were called out for running ads on Breitbart, a site that many view as home sweet home for fake news. The brands blamed programmatic advertising, or automated ad placement, for the oversight. In response, some companies are putting a renewed focus on creating premium content carefully placed on owned properties, rather than repurposing ads or old content to put the majority of their money on cost per click.

It also means paying more attention to how content is distributed, including the social media blitz now considered de rigueur for most brands. More than 70 percent of Americans hold social networking sites and search engines somewhat responsible for combatting the spread of fake news stories, according to the Pew Research Center. And only 15 percent of the United States has a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in social networking sites including Facebook, according to December survey by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

Looking to make amends, Facebook and Google are changing their platforms to address the issue. Facebook, one of the largest distributors of news online, has made it easier for users to report fake news and is working with third-party factchecking organizations to flag questionable content. Soon, when users try to share a disputed story, they’ll see a pop-up that warns them the content may be inaccurate. Facebook also banned fake-news peddlers from advertising to its audience network in November, and Google added “misrepresentative content” to its list of criteria that will get publishers kicked off Google AdSense.

“Done right, native content can lead a resurgence of true journalism.”

Michael Hickins
Oracle

“It would be wise for people to look into this kind of factchecking, to make sure the low price of getting eyeballs and clicks from sensationalism isn’t inadvertently pushing them down the wrong path,” says Kathleen Schaub, vice president, CMO Advisory Service, IDC, a tech research firm in San Mateo, California.

Good governance and close monitoring of ad metrics can help marketing teams identify reputation risks in their distribution networks. But Schaub says many marketing departments at B2B companies are often too small to allow for the level of attention required to avoid risks. Advances in areas like artificial intelligence and machine learning open up the opportunity to provide companies with more tools and information to appropriately target their ads. These technologies will not only allow brands to serve up content when and where it will be most effective, but they may also help guard against inadvertently putting content in undesirable places.

“Artificial intelligence, when combined with programmatic advertising has enormous potential,” she says. “But it’s going to take another step or two here before companies can be sure that, if you spend a dollar, you actually got that dollar delivered to the right people at the right time at the right place.”

The shifting media landscape comes with new rules and formats. But there’s still a place for old-school journalism as brands look to win over consumers left jaded by fake news. “Done right, native content can lead a resurgence of true journalism,” Hickins says. “But now is the time to commit to that because too much bad native content or too much self-serving native content will destroy its credibility in the minds of most people very quickly, and it’s hard to regain that trust.”

Fake news and alternative facts are no doubt dragging down public trust. Consider this a content marketer’s call to arms: Independent analysis, in-depth reporting and a sometimes unnerving commitment to full transparency have officially displaced the froth of content marketing days past. Are you ready to get real?

published: June 20, 2017

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