I’m frequently struck by the value-laden words some journalists still use to talk about branded content. I don’t think they mean to sound like they’ve already made their minds up—or, more likely, never changed them—but it doesn’t take a psychologist to intuit their unresolved doubts about the validity of this form of media.
This was clear a couple of weeks ago when I spoke on a panel focused on branded content as a new revenue stream for associations. While I didn’t expect the moderator to be a branded content evangelist, I was surprised at the somewhat uphill battle I felt I faced when I took to the podium to make my case. The brief I found I was given was: show me that branded content is something I shouldn’t distance myself from.
As it happened, he did me a favor, since it sharpened my game and probably made for a more effective presentation, given that most of the people in the room—mostly editors—shared his skepticism. I clearly wasn’t preaching to a choir, a fact that was underscored by the questions I faced at the end of my presentation, but my answers seem to have worked. Reading the faces of the crowd afterwards, I felt like I was starting to break through.
Then this week I received an email newsletter from a public relations firm that works primarily for law firms—an industry my company has served through content creation for more than a dozen years. The lead article, by a former journalist turned “content strategist,” purported to tell readers everything they needed to know about native advertising.
Though the writer claimed to be keeping an open mind, again, his words showed his true colors. “[Advertorials] couch whatever promotional message they see fit in a thinly transparent guise of news,” he wrote, while “[native ads] create ‘buzz’ by posing as interesting content…camouflaged in a way to be more appealing to a specific audience.” Worrying that readers would “suspect that a brand is trying to ‘dupe’” them, he suggested that hosting native ads can be “incredibly damaging to the publication” carrying them. What he saw as a blurring of lines between editorial and advertising, he wrote, makes him “a little queasy,” leading us down “a road rife with trouble.”
While the author acknowledged that “publications are continually working on schemes [my emphasis] to ensure readers are aware that what they are reading is sponsored content,” it seemed clear that the writer sincerely doubted these “schemes” were good enough. His advice to law firms was to proceed with extreme caution. They should use branded content not because it’s a good form of marketing—that “remains to be seen,” he wrote—but because “it’s not going away.”
I, too, am a former journalist and, as such, have done my time as a staunch advocate of maintaining the church-and-state wall. But, perhaps because I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid for a long time, I also see the ways branded content is presented not to fool consumers, but to inform them, to entertain them, to share knowledge with them that can benefit both readers and advertisers.
Yes, care must be taken on all sides. Brands need to keep the readers’ needs in mind, as much as their own. Publications need to make sure that branded content is clearly labeled. And consumers need to understand where the lines are drawn.
Increasingly, to my eye, that’s exactly what’s being done. It’s evident in well-labeled print advertorials, which may be more subtle in their sales message than before, but are also far more valuable in terms of the information they convey. It’s evident in native ads, also clearly labeled, also information rich. And it’s evident just about everywhere that branded content is found. Readers understand what they’re getting. Brands understand what they need to provide. Publishers understand their role in the equation.
Is there still a need for vigilance? Of course. But skepticism about this discipline strikes me as old school. The jury isn’t out. The verdict is in. Branded content is working—and for all the right reasons.