Brands and Media Can Create a New Information Experience
The first article comes from the editorial pages of the Times; the second comes from its content marketing studio and is promoted through native advertising.
The comparison is, perhaps, unfair, given how lightweight this particular piece of Times editorial is. (What is it about Brooklyn that brings out the worst in the Times?) But in the wake of recent shouting about the wall between church and state in journalism being torn down, I'm not above taking a cheap shot.
My larger point: Quality rules-and quality can come from either side of the wall. In fact, the phenomenon to pay attention to is not that quality is being drained out of the church side, but rather that it's finally being built into the state side. The insight driving the rise of content marketing is that quality in the form of authenticity, transparency, and rigor is what drives connections. And that is raising the level of quality of content everywhere.
Or it will, over time. Plenty of poorly thought-out and poorly executed content marketing initiatives exist; brands are still learning what is effective and how to develop them. But they will get better at it as content creation becomes more ingrained in the corporate culture, and as they see how quality content rises above the rest.
We see it already in the brands that are truly trying to serve their audiences through content. Our own experience at The Economist Group working with GE over the past year-and-a-half on the "Look ahead" project together has taught us the power of a new kind of media-brand partnership. Together we are creating a distinctive information experience for our audience by bringing our collective capabilities to the task. Neither of us could do it on our own.
Still, there's a difference between content marketing-content that is sponsored by a brand-and native advertising-sponsored content that is camouflaged to blend in with the pure editorial offerings of a publication. Native advertising seems to be an attempt to blur the distinction in order to fool the reader. The argument is that the reader is smart enough to know the difference, but if that's true, then why the blurring? For the click, of course.
Media companies would be better off ensuring the quality of their clients' content rather than developing cheap techniques to trick their readers into reading it. And brands and their media planners would be well-served to think about the success of a content program differently than they would a banner campaign.
The click misses the point of sponsored content. The click is why digital advertising is giving way to sponsored content in the first place. It's not about getting anybody to click; it's about getting the right people to engage. And that comes from creating a high-quality, content-driven experience, like the Times did for Netflix with its piece on women in prisons.
(By the way, that piece on women in prison helps to fund such truly outstanding editorial work as this exploration of the life of a homeless child.)
The best media companies hold their sponsored content to a high standard based on what they understand about their audiences; the worst focus on fooling their audiences into clicking.
Native advertising is just one symptom of an industry still struggling to find its way. But the core value that media companies bring to the mix must be the trust they have built with their audiences. Sell that out for a click, and media companies will have little to offer either their audiences or their sponsors.
Marketers have a tremendous opportunity to shape how they work with media companies. Together we can develop new models of collaboration to create content that provides real value for the audience, for the brand, and for the publisher. But to do so means moving beyond the click mentality. There's no better time for marketers to partner with media companies; use the moment to create a new relationship that holds you both to the highest possible standards.
Your audience will reward you.
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