Let’s be honest: Content created by brands is not the same as content created by an independent media company or even by an independent individual.
Content created by brands comes loaded with a whole set of burdens that must be overcome–the presumption of bias or self-interest, a history of pitching products or services, a world view that puts the brand in the center of the universe (and excludes competitors completely), a reluctance to take risk, and often an amateurism that undermines even the best intentions.
It’s no wonder that as more brands take up content as a marketing tactic, readers are confused. A spate of studies from various sources has shown that show the weakness: Readers don’t know what to trust. While 86 percent of business executives said they are interested in “branded content,” according to a recent survey by Quartz, a different study, by Contently, said 54 percent of Internet users don’t trust “sponsored content”–and those who do only trust it if they already trust the publication running the content or the brand itself.
The confusion has a real impact on how effective brands can be in their content-led communications efforts. In yet another study, this one conducted by Forrester in conjunction with the Business Marketing Association and the Online Marketing Institute, just about half of marketers said their content marketing efforts are not creating value.
Our own study, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit in association with marketing communications agency Peppercomm, shows a significant disconnect between what business executives want from branded content (substance, utility) and what marketing professionals are providing (marketing), often because marketers do not know how to judge the success of their programs. We will be releasing the details of our study shortly. Watch this space.
And yet the amount of branded content continues to grow as both brands and media companies look to it as an alternative to advertising.
What’s a brand to do?
First, understand that while anybody can use the tools and resources of publishing, brands are not publishers. In the eyes of the readers, the bar is actually higher. Readers come to publishers with the assumption that content will reflect a certain level of quality and independence. Not so for brands. They have to rise above the built-in biases that readers bring to branded content–and this means rising above the brand’s own structural and cultural biases, too.
With that challenge in mind, slow down. Before diving in to your next content-led program, spend some time educating your senior leadership in order to set expectations about what a successful program looks like–and how it fits into a larger marcom program. If content marketing is about stepping out of the sales funnel to help prospects, then success is more about engagement over a long period of time and less about direct conversion metrics. Does management understand your content goals enough to judge the program on the right measures?
On an executional level, creating content that will be truly valued likely means thinking about resources differently–hiring people who don’t have traditional marketing backgrounds, and working with outside help who can bring a different perspective and skill set to the task. With the right resources in place, do the hard work of thinking about the reader. Know who the content is for and think about how you can distinctly be of help. Tell your readers something they don’t know, simplify a complex idea, connect the dots between ideas that are already out there, provide context to emerging trends, and be meaningful.
Most important, acknowledge your own place in the marketplace of ideas. Yes, there are important parameters to keep in mind, but brands have a legitimate role in the publishing ecosystem. You have an insight into the readers’ work lives that media companies lack. Do for your readers what nobody else can do.