During Content Marketing World, Keynoter Mindy Kaling joked about the “Etiquette Bitch” speech from her character on “The Office.” Kaling said etiquette would’ve prevented anyone from uttering the word “bitch.” Her character’s reasoning was that she was struggling with coming up with a brand identity.
Content marketing is generally practiced by brands that already have firm identities, but their use of content marketing has its own cognitive dissonance. Is it doing good or doing evil? Do its creators know? Its inherent struggle is based on monetization, in more ways than one. And is judging its value based on how quick audiences convert good or bad?
Content marketing lives at the top of brands’ sales funnels — or in the less revered part of sales cycles. Content creators often end up shortchanged in last-click attribution models, says even Nilla Ali, VP of Strategic Partnerships, BuzzFeed. And her Thursday keynote presentation was about shopping content — which is as close to a blatant “buy now” version of content marketing as a flat-out ad. But even BuzzFeed’s shopping stories may not get last-click attribution.
So, before marketers fix attribution models to offer content marketing more sales credit, let’s take a look at various forms of content. We can debate later if they’re all considered content marketing — because, as a journalist, I can tell you media critics can’t even agree on what content is devoid of calls to action; and, therefore, whether even objective journalism can be considered marketing. And that’s been true for decades — far before content marketing entered the zeitgeist. Even within last week’s conference, there seemed to be polar opposite views on what type of content marketing was kosher.
While the FTC ensures influencers make clear what’s sponsored and what’s not, there are plenty of gray areas. After all, remember when SEO experts didn’t consider keyword stuffing evil? So content marketing best practices are evolving, even among its experts.
So should content marketing inform or sell? Can its function live somewhere in between? During his keynote kicking off Content Marketing World 2019 in Cleveland on Tuesday, Joe Pulizzi — founder of the Content Marketing Institute — urged content marketers to avoid blatantly selling in content marketing. A conference keynoter, Ali, showed how content that recommends what consumers can buy and provides avenues for them to purchase the products can yield impressive results. So where should content marketing live?
Here's a small comparison:
For content creators like me, there’s the Journalism Code of Ethics. And that code says we have to remain objective. Objectivity means we’re not trying to sell anything. We’re trying to inform our audience, without telling them what they should do.
This type of content lives at the very top of a sales attribution model, because it’s often simply informing B2B and B2C audiences that products and services exist. But media critics will be quick to tell you that there’s inherent bias in this content, too, through presenting basic facts in ways that, say, exclude other facts. For instance, informing readers of two or even 200 products means the writer isn’t mentioning other products.
This content should be devoid of selling.
Brands may ask, for instance, The Washington Post to create custom content for them. Annie Granatstein, who heads up The Washington Post’s in-house creative agency, WP BrandStudio, spoke on Wednesday about how the newspaper does so.
WaPo custom content runs the gamut from mentioning client brands as infrequently as possible to quite often, depending on what the client wants. Though WP BrandStudio advisors do suggest the marketers agree to the low-frequency mentions, because readers tend to bow out of content that seems overly salesy.
“You want to be the expert, not the hero,” she tells marketers.
Clients tend to listen to the advice, because — as Granatstein pointed out on Wednesday — ”we reach one in three Americans.”
“Advertisers are coming to us to reach every kind of person in every kind of way,” she says.
Most eyes are on the straight journalism that WaPo publishes, so Granatstein’s team starts from there when a client approaches the WP BrandStudio. The team takes a look at the best-performing content in the subject area the marketer would like to address and explores the white space.
“We’ll always first come up with the story before the tactic,” she says, saying content creators “let the story dictate that.”
Because WaPo is “very rich in first-party data,” the WP BrandStudio has three personas outlined: influencer, business, and consumer audiences.
Influencers may seem obvious, but it’s important to note that WaPo isn’t paying this audience — these are readers who are influential in a “Davos” sense. “This is the heart of the Washington Post audience,” Granatstein says.
The business audience is filled with future-seekers and the consumer audience is really all of us, she says. The WP BrandStudio works to reach the consumer audience on a personal, rather than a professional and current events, level. They're not experts, so they’re looking for inspiration, Granatstein says.
This type of content is toward the top of the funnel, but is more salesy than not.
This where cognitive dissonance rises to the top. While many influencers may think they’re not being influenced by marketers, being paid for their content means that they are. So the FTC says these endorsements need to be marked as such on social media and beyond.
It's possible, though, that this type of content marketing will grow in importance if, as Pulizzi predicts, other types of content marketing will see “the social end times” in one to three years and no longer have their previous reach on platforms from Facebook to Reddit. He thinks e-newsletter content will rise in prominence, like “we’re back to 1999.”
Influencer content is almost always salesy and can be the last click.
This content often lives on a brand site, and is often the closest content marketing to the conversion.
This content, though — like custom content — represents a range. Content may be salesy, or it may be more like the Cleveland Clinic content — educational and tip-oriented, but with the goal of converting readers to patients.
What do you think? There are many more types of content marketing. Do you think marketers have a clear idea of what content marketing is and what the ethics surrounding it should be? Or is it similar to the “Etiquette Bitch,” with goals at odds with each other?
— Kelsey Hensley Black (@kayhens) September 5, 2019