Trust Me: Content Marketing is Risky Business
Maybe you saw John Oliver's recent take down of native advertising. If not, it is well-worth 11 minutes if only for his incisive wit. And, even if you aren't planning on using native ads in your marketing mix, the piece is thought-provoking for content marketers of any type.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, native advertising is the digital cousin of the age-old advertorial. It is when a media outlet publishes content written by a marketer or advertiser that is intended to mimic the content around it in quality and tone. For example, Oliver says you might see, "11 Sea Creatures that Deserve to Die, Sponsored by BP," on Buzzfeed.
The intention, from Oliver's perspective, is to dupe the reader into thinking it is "real" content, though it is in fact content that serves the purpose of the advertiser. When we surveyed our OPA members about native advertising last year (and found that nearly all of them are already including native ads on their sites or had plans to), duping the customer couldn't have been further from their objectives.
Think about it: Winning your customer's trust is challenging, but essential. It takes time and effort. Like all valuable relationships, it is not something to be trifled with for short-term gain. Believe me, most media companies--like most other businesses--must take customer relationships seriously if they hope to survive.
The fact is that the line between media and marketer is becoming blurred. We are all in the content business, and we must all work hard to provide quality content that entertains and informs in a meaningful way. If we fail to do so, not only will we not succeed in attracting new readers and customers, we risk alienating them. And remember that today's customer won't sit silently stewing on a perceived transgression. They will comment and tweet for all the world to see.
One of the most difficult components of native advertising--despite Oliver's assertion that a fundamental component is impenetrable camouflage--is transparency. Our research revealed that clear labeling is an essential component of successful native advertising endeavors. Yet Oliver cites a statistic that less than half of visitors to a news site could tell that they were reading native advertising. Clearly, particularly in digital contexts, labeling remains an issue. And media companies are going have to continue to work to ensure that their readers can easily tell the difference so that they don't jeopardize their customer relationships. Transparency is essential for any type of organization engaging in content marketing.
The good news is that if your content marketing already sits within the context of your site or social media channels, your readers will already be clear on who the source is and can likely infer your motives. That said, maintaining trust takes more than doing a forthright sales pitch.
Think about it: Relationships are about give as well as take. You need to be thinking about their needs, not just yours. This applies to your products and services--and it certainly applies to your marketing. We've all seen the marketing pitches that are completely centered on what a company does and how great its products are while completely ignoring the customer's needs that should have provided the entire foundation for these products in the first place.
When you think of the customer first, about the problems they face, the concerns they have, or the things that are important to them, you will naturally gravitate toward the kind of content that they need. And not only should you avoid any efforts to dupe your customers, you should find yourself in a position to proclaim that the content is from you--loud and proud.
If you are providing value to your readers/customers, it will feel natural to say, "This is how we think about the problem," or, "We've done research that might help" or, "These are the things we value, and that we know you value too."
That's because trust stems from transparency and our content must be an investment in these fundamental components of successful customer relationships.
Michelle Manafy is the editorial director of the Online Publishers Association (OPA), an organization representing the leading digital media companies.