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Branded content just another shade of fake news?

Remember blogging for business? Better still blogging by brands? A great deal of what we now call “content marketing” can be traced back to basic business blogging where a brand built audiences by attracting informed search to valuable, relevant content. It created a limited, but specialized and highly-engaged inbound market where relationships were built based on trust and shared interest.

Today we are buried in the broadest possible interpretation of “content” with little clue to the motivation behind its creation. Much of it is nothing more than thinly-veiled traditional market messaging delivered through a new channel.

Is it inbound? I don’t think so. Is it valuable and relevant? Probably not. Is it effective as marketing? In my opinion, not for long. Because, if the recipient sees through the intent without getting something out of it, or even if he/she does, the opposite of the desired effect will result.

Surely one missing element in what we used to call “advertorials” is the absence of a genuine, humanized brand voice. An uninvited pitch, no matter how cleverly constructed will fail in this genre without a storyteller and a listener. To create an environment where marketing doesn’t feel like a pitch but rather an experience, it needs to avoid selling and succeed at teaching.

In their book, Storyscaping, agency thought leaders Gaston Legorburu and Darren McColl make a case for us to “Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds.”  Do most marketers know how to? Is anyone in CM education even treading this ground?

Another side of the argument is the emergence and sophistication of what we now call “branded content.” Some of “branded content” is now created by previously independent news-oriented content providers. As institutions like, but not limited to, our large national newspapers and editorial websites lose adjacent ad revenue, they have entered the business of marketing to fill the financial void.  Here, newly created in-house departments of these institutions that previously acted as gatekeepers or filters for the truth are creating thinly-veiled marketing communications masquerading as news or research.

The best example that comes to mind of this type of content hybrid is surprisingly from the recent presidential election though. Here, “fake news” was part of the “branded content” of a candidate playing into consumer’s confirmation bias. As touched on in my last post, well-executed brands can act as filters making their content preferable to many of those inbound content consumers and blocking out the rest, including facts.

Still another way to view this landscape is through the longstanding acknowledgment that advertisers no longer need publishers or broadcasters to channel their messaging because they are themselves that. The rub begins when a less than artfully conceived bit of “branded content” isn’t perfectly timed or placed. There the effects are detrimental and train the audience into detachment over engagement.

Carefully crafted “hooks” play upon our fear of loss over our quest for positive outcomes.  And some of “branded content” may take liberties with the facts. Is it fake news? You decide.  As I see it the answer depends on the context of the content delivery or discovery and that of the individual consuming it. Either way, we who seek to build brands and relationships within “content marketing” need to make some decisions about what we and our brands stand for beyond our own rhetoric.

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