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.”
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.”