by Garth von Buchholz
Here’s a great article in Forbes magazine about how content marketing, social advertising and thought leadership are transforming traditional media…saying it will “shake up 100 years of journalism.” (A personal note: When I was a journalist, a grandiose claim like that would make an editor cry out in pain, but this is the age of hyperbole, isn’t it?)
While I agree with the writer’s observations about these transformations, the whole notion of writing content to influence and manipulate readers is not a 21st century digital age phenomenon. Anyone who’s worked in print media knows about “advertorial” — a form of writing scorned by real journalists, that kind of writing was a hybrid of advertising copy and editorial style that is still in every newspaper today, and many magazines, too.
Advertorial, at its essence, tries to fool readers into believing it is unbiased copy when in fact it was written by a hack copywriter and the space it fills is paid by an advertiser or sponsor. Even when a publication sets it apart from pure editorial copy and uses a different layout style and font to distinguish it from the editorial (and adds a discalimer in small print saying it is paid advertising), advertorial tries to lull the reader into a kind of non-defensive psychological state where they will be receptive to the message, even if they know it is not real editorial.
That why journalists hate advertorial and usually don’t write it, even when offered a solid fee for it—it’s considered crass, commercial copywriting not worthy of their skills. And readers often don’t take it seriously because they know that they’re being manipulated. Now for every example such as Mobil Oil’s social content, which worked splendidly, there are probably hundreds of other examples of social content that had no effect or had a negative effect.
So here’s the moral lesson about content marketing. The Internet is still in its youth, and people are still willing to take content at face value even if it’s being written as a kind of digital advertorial to sell them on an idea, a product or service. But as content marketing increases on the Internet, people will become ever more suspicious and cynical about any kind of content that seems to have a hidden agenda. Even if the content creator didn’t pay for the space.
If you’re a blogger who is tempted to write some copy because a company wants you to do content marketing for them, be careful you don’t lose the credibility and trust of your readers. And if you’re a corporate writer tasked with creating social content to promote your company, think about what your approach will be and make it strategic. Be honest about why your content is being created and published, and make sure you offer something of value in your content, whether it is insights, ideas, entertainment or other soft benefits. If you’re a senior marketing executive, monitor social marketing trends regularly and don’t simply firehose new marketing content into the social networks or you might suffer a severe viral backlash once people catch on to what you’re doing.