The overlapping worlds of brand communications, advertising and public relations are engaged in a head‑scratching, chest‑pounding, eye‑rolling re‑examination of how organizations should be marketed. The shock-and-awe of it all was on full display this week at the Council of Public Relations Firms "2013 Critical Issues Forum" with the attention-getting theme "Content Frenzy" and a fire hose of comments from experts.
In olden days (about 15 years ago), life was much simpler for marketers and PR folks. You had earned media (newspapers, magazines, TV/radio stories), paid media (commercials and paid placement) and direct media (point‑of‑sale, direct marketing mailers, perhaps email – if you were really cutting edge).
Just over a decade later, traditional print and broadcast media have shrunk and lost influence. Advertising that manages to leak into homes can be zapped by a DVR’s fast forward button. People have developed a habit – oh, hell, call it what it is – an addiction, of spending their free time online enveloped in Internet connection speeds that once were available only to the folks who designed and controlled nuclear weapons.
Internet addicted consumers don't want ads (one‑way: buy my stuff). They want CONTENT (two‑way: entertain me, maybe slip in a little information, let me share my reaction).
The question is who creates that content? (Images, video, lists, guides, games, infographics, contests, white papers, "faux news," etc.). This is where the "frenzy" part comes in because everyone – PR agencies, ad agencies, social media agencies, digital agencies, corporate marketers and even news organizations – thinks it should be them. It's a dogfight over a lot of money at a time when money for traditional marketing looks about as predictable as the national budget for Greece.
Here are a few interesting examples, trends and issues that arose in the in Content Frenzy discussion:
- Video is king: This should not come as a surprise. I worked for 25 years as a storyteller on television newscasts, including a decade side‑by‑side with newspaper reporters. It has always been clear that a good picture is worth 1,000 words, and a good video is worth even more. All that has changed is that professional-looking videos can now be shot, edited and shared – almost for free – by people who don't need to have access to a TV station. As Harvard Business Review Editor‑in‑Chief Adi Ignatius said at the Forum, "Everyone is a thought leader now."
- Transparency is a concern: So‑called "native content" is often used to promote companies. Put simply, the content is molded to fit the place it appears; a tweet for Twitter, a post on a Facebook page, a video on YouTube, etc. But if it doesn't "feel" corporate and isn't labeled as corporate, is it unethical? This has been an age‑old debate in traditional print journalism, when written content that "looks" like news but has been paid for by a company is published alongside actual news content. For a current example, see the debate over native news published by the lifestyle magazine Monocle.
- I want content, but I really want an ad: Early reports from the front suggest that marketers and their agencies often have trouble restraining themselves from making too many product mentions, repeatedly referencing brand names, etc. As Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer of Forbes Media, put it at the Forum, "How much authenticity is there gonna be versus how much message is there gonna be?"
- How do journalism and "content marketing" relate to each other?: In the hunt for new revenue, News Corp's SVP and Deputy Head of Strategy Raju Narisetti agrees that news organizations are now also diving into the business of helping companies create content to market their brands. But even with transparency, this raises troubling questions. Ideally, journalists and news organizations are neutral arbiters of information. Brands, by contrast, are advocates looking to market a product or service. It may be a slippery slope combining those business models using the same journalists and editorial space.
As the discussion evolved, there were two voices loudly urging caution. Jeff Jarvis, author and creator of the popular blog BuzzMachine, told public relations practitioners, "Do not follow us over the cliff" in the frenzy over content creation. Jarvis argues that companies should be focusing on individuals, not on audiences, and should offer customized communications that build relationships.
Digital strategist Amy Webb agreed, urging companies to make better use of the massive amounts of data they are already collecting on customers. She told attendees, "There's already a glut in content. Think about how to reach each and every consumer in an individual way."
I've spent half my working life as a journalist, and the other half helping organizations create trust in the way they act and communicate. It's clear to me that "content," both citizen generated and organizationally generated, is well on its way to usurping journalist‑created content in volume and influence. What hasn't changed is that people do not want to be lied to, misled or manipulated. To the contrary, they are still looking for resources to trust.
Content creators would be wise to remember that amid the frenzy.