Beware Content Marketing Mischief

By Steve McKee

I had to chuckle when I saw the recent headline in The Economist regarding the war in Gaza: “Will the ceasefire hold?” I chuckled not because of the subject matter – nothing could be more serious – but because this was a weekly magazine posing a question about a ceasefire that has turned into multiple ceasefires, some of which last no more than minutes.

It’s a perfect example of the changing media landscape. I find myself only scanning the headlines in the main news section of The Wall Street Journal, not because the news isn’t of interest to me, but because by the time it’s in the paper it’s no longer news. I still value the Journal for its curation of business and marketing stories, as well as for its analysis of world events that helps me reflect on the issues of the day. But “news” and “paper” are becoming as oxymoronic as “news” and “magazine.”

The fact that historically trusted sources of news are no longer sources of news may be bad for them, but it’s not bad for consumers. In fact, if people can get their news in a form and manner that better fits their lifestyle, that’s a good thing. What’s not so good is that the sources from which they get that news might not be so trustworthy. Many, in fact, aren’t.  That poses a challenge for those of us who are engaged in content marketing.

There’s no doubt that the worlds of advertising, journalism and entertainment are converging. While this may be chilling to concerned citizens, it’s inevitable, and that presents both an opportunity and an obligation to marketers. The opportunity is to communicate in new, interesting and more relevant ways to our target audiences. The obligation is to elevate our game to a whole new level of trustworthiness. That doesn't mean not trying to sell something; it means doing so in trustworthy (read: worthy of trust) fashion.

There’s some truth to the joke that the difference between an advertiser and a journalist is that the advertiser is at least honest about his attempt to manipulate you. To be fair, few advertisers try to manipulate people, at least in the pejorative sense of the word. But no journalist has even been truly objective, if for no other reason that they can't help but report the news through the perspective of their own worldview. As advertising increasingly takes on the form and manner of journalism, the temptation to don a disguise is strong. We must be careful not to put on faux objectivity or operate under false pretenses.

We can and should provide helpful and valuable information as well as genuinely entertaining and even enriching content, in whatever form is best suited to our goals. And we have no obligation to disclaim our attempt to sell something. But it’s never been easier to hide our true intentions, and if the content we create appears to be something it’s not, well, not a lot of good can come from that.

If only there was a clear, bright line demarcating firmly ethical content marketing ground on which we could safely stand. It’s not that simple, and each case requires thoughtful consideration. The good news is that consumers are adept at smelling a rat, and when something appears manipulative or doesn’t add up they tend to recoil, or at least hold back. In that sense, the market is (as always) a good governor of behavior. Those who succeed long term in content marketing will do so by cultivating a finely tuned sense of propriety.

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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