Content marketing has always had a squishy relationship with journalism: not quite BFFs, but certainly running in the same circles. And then came the onslaught of fake news. Pundits and politicians readily sling the term to discredit their opponents’ arguments, and friends and family members invoke it to win Twitter debates.
All this spin leaves people deeply skeptical. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reported the lowest-ever measure of trust across the once-mighty institutions of media, government, business and NGOs. With customers more likely than ever to distrust the marketing part of content marketing, big brands need to offer information people feel they can trust. It must be beyond reproach — backed by credible sourcing and legit research. Or else.
“We’re headed toward a world where people are going to be a lot more aware of the sources of the information they’re getting,” says Michael Hickins, director of strategic communications at tech giant Oracle and a former editor at The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal.
For brands, this means doubling down on authenticity — or risk pushing people away. They have to show they’re reliable to connect with their customers. And that relationship shouldn’t be rushed, warns Hickins.
Trust and content credibility
Content marketers — even those aiming for thought leadership grandeur — are constantly balancing facts with their message. And that may require a new rigor to content marketing’s relationship with sourcing and reporting — moving far beyond plopping the company president in front of a teleprompter for a video or having a board member write some dead-on-message blog post.
To tap into the trust people have for independent third-party sources, brands must take a more journalistic approach to marketing, according to Sherri Chien-Niclas, who served as director of enterprise content strategy and storytelling at Symantec until 2017. “Journalists are trained in getting the facts and understanding what is actually going to be relevant to the viewer or the audience,” she says. “They’re really focusing on what’s important and making sure they’re bringing out the truth versus just making something up.”
Looking to create more meaningful, trusted content, Symantec hired Emmy Award-winning news reporter Sue Kwon to build out its content strategy and storytelling team all the way back in 2013. The group’s content is still promoting the company’s internet security expertise, but it’s focusing on news trends, independent research and customer concerns. And that gives Symantec cred with its base.
“You’re going to become more in touch with your customer with a journalistic approach,” Chien-Niclas says. Spotting an opportunity, mainstream media outlets have been more than happy to lend the sheen of journalistic cred to their friends in marketing. Forbes’ BrandVoice, New York Times’ T Brand Studio and Time Inc.’s The Foundry all offer a full array of branded content.
Brand journalism that inspires credibility
Native content, or paid media that integrates naturally with the user experience of news sites, can help organizations “co-mingle their brand with very well-respected brands in the news area,” Hickins describes. But with public trust of the media on shaky ground, a loose association with news outlets might not be enough. Marketers, especially in financial services, have to work harder to produce authoritative content that wins trust.
“There’s a lot of noise in the marketplace. And it’s generated a lot of skepticism when legitimate companies try to talk to people about their financial needs,” says Paul Tyler, former chief marketing officer at Phoenix Life Insurance Co. People researching investment strategies want facts that will inform their decision-making process — not just a blatant push to a company’s financial advisers. By showcasing their unique expertise and skillfully connecting it to their audience’s real lives, financial services companies have an opportunity to stand out from the competition, Tyler says.
Plus, increasing financial literacy has a potential payoff down the line, particularly for complex products like multiyear guaranteed annuities. “They work almost the same as a CD, but they provide usually higher interest rates than CDs,” Tyler adds. “Why don’t people buy more of those? Probably because they just don’t understand them. In an instance like that, journalistic content marketing is probably an exceptionally effective mechanism.”
As an added benefit, objective and educational content creates less risk for companies, especially those in regulated industries. It produces a more powerful message and requires less compliance review than product-focused content. “If I speak to you about what happens to your family if you’re not around, what type of a legacy do you want to leave, that’s a relatively easy message to get through compliance,” Tyler says. “When we start to talk about rate or return guaranteed, it gets very, very complicated. And I’m not sure it’s the most effective marketing, particularly in our space.”
“From a native-content producer standpoint, your stakeholders want you to drive people into the trust part of the funnel pretty quickly,” Hickins says. “But it’s kind of like old-fashioned dating. You have to slow down a little bit.”
How to curate content with care
Symantec, for example, draws from the findings of its annual Internet Security Threat Report to create more frequent touch points with its customers. In the past, the company simply published a PDF of the report online, and that was that. But now the marketing team identifies major themes, slicing them into various formats to be disseminated on multiple channels to reach more consumers. “That changed the report into content that could be promoted throughout the year, rather than just this one time,” she says.
Curating content from trusted sources is another way for companies to serve up relevant, current information. Along with traditional news outlets, sector-specific pubs offer a first filter for time-strapped marketing teams. Sifting through news for stories to post on social media with added context is a cost-effective way for a brand to build credibility — but pulling from outside content hubs can also introduce a reputation risk. If a team member is duped into posting dubious news, the brand could take a hit — or at least lose time to back-pedaling and apologies.
Effective curation starts with understanding what the target audience wants, what they don’t already get and how to deliver it to them effectively. Organizations have to save people time and provide value if they want to fill the trust vacuum, Hickins says. But to offer true value, content marketers must scrupulously vet third-party content, adding context and expertise along the way. “Even though there are so many publishers in so many fields, content is still pretty poor,” he says. “So there’s an opportunity to provide quality content.”
Stopping fake news distribution
Loaded arguments over fake news are forcing brands to take a closer look at where they advertise online. The brands called out for running ads on irreputable sites blamed programmatic advertising, or automated ad placement, for the oversight. In response, some companies are renewing focus on creating premium content carefully placed on owned properties, rather than repurposing ads or old content to put the majority of their money on cost per click.
It also means paying more attention to how content is distributed, including the social media blitz now considered de rigueur for most brands. Spurred by the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, more than 75% of Americans consider social networking sites and search engines to be responsible for combatting the spread of misinformation, according to the Pew Research Center, yet 73% are not confident in them doing so. Looking to make amends, Facebook, Google and Twitter have changed their platforms to address the issue. Facebook has made it easier to report fake news and is working with third-party factchecking organizations to flag questionable content. Google added “misrepresentative content” to its list of criteria that will get publishers kicked off Google AdSense. And content on Twitter that’s flagged misleading gets a “false claim” label.
“It would be wise for people to look into this kind of factchecking, to make sure the low price of getting eyeballs and clicks from sensationalism isn’t inadvertently pushing them down the wrong path,” says Kathleen Schaub, former vice president of CMO Advisory Service at IDC, a tech research firm in San Mateo, California.
Good governance and close monitoring of ad metrics can help marketing teams identify reputation risks in their distribution networks. But Schaub says many marketing departments at B2B companies are often too small to allow for the level of attention required to avoid risks. Advances in areas like artificial intelligence and machine learning open up the opportunity to provide companies with more tools and information to appropriately target their ads. These technologies will not only allow brands to serve up content when and where it will be most effective, but they may also help guard against inadvertently putting content in undesirable places.
“Artificial intelligence, when combined with programmatic advertising has enormous potential,” she says. “But it’s going to take another step or two here before companies can be sure that, if you spend a dollar, you actually got that dollar delivered to the right people at the right time at the right place.”
The shifting media landscape comes with new rules and formats. But there’s still a place for old-school journalism as brands look to win over consumers left jaded by fake news. “Done right, native content can lead a resurgence of true journalism,” Hickins says. “But now is the time to commit to that because too much bad native content or too much self-serving native content will destroy its credibility in the minds of most people very quickly, and it’s hard to regain that trust.”
Fake news and alternative facts are, no doubt, dragging down public trust. Consider this a content marketer’s call to arms: Independent analysis, in-depth reporting and a sometimes-unnerving commitment to full transparency have officially displaced the froth of content marketing days past. Are you ready to get real?