While sitting at a panel discussion about branded content at New York University recently, it occurred to me that all brands that create content should do one particular thing on their web sites: post a statement about their content philosophy.
The panel and the audience talked a lot about issues like trust and authenticity. Some practices in branded content — like placing stories that look like journalism but are really marketing — are threatening trust in any kind of content. If the public can’t tell journalism from marketing, they’ll wonder if anything they’re reading is true. Regulators are looking at this issue, too — but the real danger for brands is less from regulators than from public attitudes.
The panel was a living representation of why the public is having a hard time knowing which content is coming at them with what purpose. It featured a top communication executive from Prudential, at top communications executive from Verizon Wireless, and a New York Times reporter. All of them play a role in producing content, and you might find any of that content in a Google search or a Buzzfeed list.
Each of the panelists detailed his or her approach to content, and all were different. The Times tries to produce impartial, objective content. Prudential creates content aimed at helping people and professionals understand financial choices, and while it’s not really pushing Prudential products, the content comes from a Prudential point of view. Verizon Wireless creates content aimed at stimulating the wireless market and the use of mobile stuff.
Other companies have different ideas. I do some writing for Cisco’s site The Network, and a lot of other veteran journalists do, too. The Network tries to produce impartial, objective content about technology, and generally asks its writers to avoid writing about Cisco.
So, really, how is a reader to know what’s going on with any piece of content? One way would be to tell them. Be transparent.
All of these companies producing content should take the time to think through what they’re trying to do and why they’re doing it — a philosophy. They should write it down as simply as possible — no more than a few sentences. Post it on the home site, and make sure every story produced contains a link back to that posting so that if a reader encounters the content on Buzzfeed, there’s a way to click and find out who produced the content and why.
Companies that are trying to fool people into thinking that marketing is objective content won’t like that idea. It gives them away. But companies like Verizon Wireless, Prudential and Cisco should like the idea because it helps build trust. It’s OK to have a point of view or a purpose to your content — as long as the audience knows what it is. That’s authenticity. And people appreciate it.