Holmes Report 22 Sep 2014 // 1:33PM GMT
Don't fear the rise of content marketing – Adrian Michaels says we have to get over the idea that corporate-paid editorial is by definition bad and dangerous. [caption id="attachment_2971" align="alignright" width="150"] Adrian Michaels[/caption] My former colleague Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson has caused a stir with his weekend Financial Times piece on the rise and rise of content marketing. Read it for yourself here and bear in mind that I am not an impartial observer since I ran a commercial newsroom at the Telegraph and have recently started a content marketing agency (FirstWord Media). If anyone would be proselytising for corporate-funded editorial, it's me. And I honestly have never used the word proselytising in an article before. I must have swallowed the marketing b.s. handbook already. Edge, as he is universally known, takes a really good look at the whole waterfront of paid content, "native advertising" and corporate production of journalism. The article is balanced and he doesn’t come out against content marketing as such. But he can't resist loading up the article with loaded adjectives and nouns, giving readers the clear impression that corporate-funded journalism is in many ways a cause for alarm, fear and loathing. Alarm, fear and loathing don't appear in the article, but invasion, blurred lines, chutzpah, profound implications, spoonfeeding, glossy (used pejoratively to imply oily and too slick), slick and spin do all appear. It's a litany of abuse against the only people that are committed to paying Edge and me to continue doing what we are doing for the next few years, while traditional media outlets are going to the wall amid endless rounds of redundancies and fundamental changes to their business models. I am in profound agreement with Edge over the need for transparency. He is absolutely right to raise a flag over corporate-funded journalism that intentionally or otherwise attempts to fool readers into thinking that it is impartial editorial. There is a basic problem with advertorial that is not transparent in this way, and companies make a mistake if they push this line. It's a silly mistake too, because readers increasingly don't care. Edge should have made more of the point (which he does make in passing) that readers are not dumb or easily fooled — they are increasingly agnostic about the provenance of what they read, provided it is worth reading. They know that GE is a massive industrial company, but instead of thinking this makes its views and journalism on various topics biased or not worthwhile, they might judge the quality of the work on its own merits. The FT, dare I suggest, publishes the odd piece of garbage and its readers pass over it quickly. If the FT published nothing but loaded garbage it would soon run out of readers. The same applies to corporate-funded material, which is why it needs to be properly researched and written to gain an audience. GE wants to be known as an intelligent sponsor of a conversation about the areas in which it is expert. It then funds experienced journalists to write and it hopes that readers come to see its websites as destinations for intelligent and thoughtful articles, just as they see the Financial Times as a place to come for intelligent business news. So two things are going on here: 1. Companies shouldn't be blurring lines on what they have funded. If the content is good it will be read on its own terms and will rise above the snobbery and fear of those who seek to label as evil all writing not funded by centuries' old media outlets. 2. Companies increasingly needn't bother to go through the hand wringing, soul-searching, keening and wailing around publishing their content inside other media outlets. They are learning, and here Edge covers the topic at length, that they can just say what they want to say and reach their audiences from their own platforms: websites, newsletters, blogs and social media platforms. Of course if they publish on their own, “owned”, sites, it immediately averts debate over whether they are fooling the readers of existing media sites with insidious and dastardly advertorial. But this is not the reason why they are "going round" traditional media and journalists – a process Edge imbues with sinister undertone to imply that, gah!, corporate words are no longer being filtered by journalists before they are set upon poor readers forever to corrupt their feeble minds. No, publishing on “owned” sites has a hard-edged business imperative: companies are learning that the internet has given them the opportunity to talk directly to their target audiences. They can do this without bothering with all that hopeless public relations and media outreach which Edge documents in such withering and extremely entertaining anecdote. Companies still fixated on getting harassed journalists to write two paragraphs on them as some sort of third-party validation are forgetting entirely what the purpose of PR is, which is to reach company target audiences and ultimately to sell more products and services. If they can do that without going through native advertising and/or PR in newspapers, then they will. The point is that taking this route might be driven by evolving marketing methods, but it absolutely requires quality journalism to make it work. Don't give me all that horror about company profit and the subversion of journalism, because that conveniently misplaces entirely my last point: Newspapers are businesses too. I could almost see from here the eyebrows that shot up when I said above that GE and the FT were trying to do the same thing with their content. Surely there is a difference? I concede that there is: that impartial work by journalists performs a crucial check and balance on the centres of power and money and is desirable. Moreover we are obviously not talking about hard newsgathering here, court reporting, wars and all the things that used to fill up 90 per cent or more of newspapers before they got sidetracked by colour magazines, motoring and property sections and everything else they invented with the sole aim only to house advertising. But there just is no such thing as impartial work. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is not employed to write about content marketing because he is cloaked in a taxpayer- or United Nations-funded mission to wield his trusty sword of information, but because his employer is building its brand as a purveyor of business news in order to sell subscriptions and advertising. As a piece of shareable content on the FT's own owned site the article has been a huge success. I am not suggesting that Edge is in any way not impartial, but you do need to remember that there are conflicts of interest everywhere. It is incumbent on everyone who writes content to be clear and transparent about who is paying for it. In the meantime, I do agree that lines are getting blurred between great journalism that is paid for by the traditional media and great content that is corporate-funded. This means that readers are getting more timely, more relevant and more entertaining journalism than ever before. It certainly doesn’t imply a race to the bottom and a decline in standards, and that is also the pay-off to Edge's timely article. Adrian Michaels was an editor, writer and correspondent for the Financial Times and the Telegraph for 21 years before founding the content marketing agency FirstWord Media this year.