Op-Ed: Content marketing is not about manipulation, but about integrity

Posted Nov 10, 2013 by Michael Krebs
With digital content marketing executions among news organizations increasing, there has been a parallel increase in concern in some editorial corners that content strategies amount to consumer manipulation. Those corners are in the wrong.
New York Times Building
New York Times Building
Michael Krebs
The Financial Times newspaper was launched in 1888, and its American rival, the Wall Street Journal began printing in 1889. These newspapers were very much born out of the fact that there was a distinct need for qualified financial news reporting after the boom years of the U.S. railroad expansion from the 1830s to the 1860s. Prior to the FT and the WSJ, unscrupulous and manipulative private concerns had been printing reams of "newspapers" to tout specific investment opportunities to the general public worldwide.
The deceptive practices of the predatory railroad boom publishers were a form of godless advertorial meant to steer a population of readers who were eager to profit from the promise of the new American infrastructure. And it is this memory that some present-day editors project on the varied content marketing solutions sweeping the digital media landscape currently.
Any decent content strategy team should fully agree with these concerns. Content marketing is not advertorial, and manipulation is never the intention of a branded content execution.
Consider another historical perspective on this question of advertorial-as-manipulation versus content-marketing-as-public-service in a 2012 blog post by Scott Aughtmon. George Washington Carver employed content strategies to educate the south on the agricultural technologies that he had brought to the market. Carver's content work offered a social service, an advocacy that at its core was designed to help a financially destitute people better themselves.
Content marketing is about product or service association with information. The information is crafted with the needs and interests of a given audience in mind. Advertorial, on the other hand, is material designed to describe a specific product or service — without primary regard for the needs and interests of the audience.
For example, a Cheerios content marketing program might feature a number of videos, articles, and info-graphics that explore heart health; the science of cardiovascular systems; the impact of aerobics on the heart; and other health and science editorial designed to inform or entertain a given audience. However, a Cheerios advertorial execution would deliver content that might walk us through the manufacturing process of a Cheerio; that might discuss why it has its distinctive shape; that might address the compression of ingredients or the specific nutrients embodied within the pieces of cereal, etc. If Cheerios were to take a manipulative tact, like the railroad approaches described above, they would use advertorial methods to attempt to directly bridge the gap between the heart health and the product.
This manipulation question is an important one, as it is damaging to public trust. Consider for a moment a disturbing example of editorial manipulation in the context of the public trust — a development reported on this week. Here we have a trusted news source, The New York Times, endorsing a secret program that the public is unable to review and that, in fact, the Times' editorial staff is unable to access. In this open breach of the public trust, The New York Times is supporting an active White House position blindly — trusting the government without even a nod at balance. This is sloppy and unacceptable.
Labeled materials — stamped under "sponsored content," "branded content," and hosts of other monikers — are held to the editorial standards that the commercial community has long respected. If the editorial community fails the public trust, it lowers the standard for the content strategies employed by the commercial side of the coin. In this scenario, one can see the need for the bar being raised and not lowered.
There are a lot of people talking about content marketing and writing about content marketing, and some are more knowledgeable than others. But the ones who are executing correctly are doing so through the prism of information integrity and the benefits of information integrity that are cast upon the audience.