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DANiEL WiLLiS, blog


There is a not-so-new type of journalism that is also great PR going around and it is known by the names of sponsored content, brand content, and native content among others.

It is lucrative for both the creator and the brands associated with it, but is it ethical? Does it further blur the line between news and advertising on social platforms in a way it never did in traditional news sources?

On CBC’s, The Current, a lively debate was held about Content Marketing. Here is the gist of it from my notes.

Online, consumers are learning to ignore the sales pitch. Revenue from banner advertising is falling and marketers are getting eyeballs with branded content that sometimes poses as legitimate news. It’s not just Lifestyle pieces or the “8 ways to use string” articles that people love to share - sometimes “legitimate” news organizations are being caught up, passing off clearly biased and branded content as journalism.

No doubt you have seen “advertorials” in the daily news paper. Usually they are clearly marked off by bounding boxes and font changes that separate them from the “real” news.

On the web it is different. The form is different as is the availability. On the web the idea is to write a story that looks like all the other stories, send it out through social media, wrapping your ads around it hoping that it gets shared and drives people to your branded page.

It’s not just a boring commercial you can ignore. The marketers are doing their job when readers don’t know (and don’t care) where the content comes from, but they must provide valuable content in their own right in order to grow an audience over time..

Federal regulations maintain that items must be marked as sponsored ads when that is the case, yet to keep up with the need for content, brands are hiring professional journalist to write for them.

If I sell cars and I know that my customers also like homes, I might hire a journalist to visit the home show and write about it as any journalist would. The article might not even mention my dealership.

When I push that out through social media and it gets shared among my market segment, I am getting customers and potential customers to visit my pages, to associate me with other lifestyle pleasures and have created opportunities to capture their attention on my sales message.

It is lucrative more than banner ads. It is lucrative if people are sharing it.

Does it matter if the St. Catharines Standard or Buckner’s Sports writes about free ice time for a local charity?

Not if they are essentially the same story, it doesn’t. If it is good content who cares?

Forbes Magazine does it; Vanity Fair does it ,using fashion spreads that are branded; and the Blue Jays have So long as you know who is doing it, should MLB soft peddle on doping issues, the effect is the same - What matters is the alignment between brand users and content they’d like to consume. It makes the brand more interesting - makes customers think more about this “cool” brand.

Branded content is not new but there are pitfalls if you do it incorrectly. Especially for traditional news services.

Make clear who is behind the piece. Don’t be too subtle about this. Laudatory content that evades every contrary opinion will be exposed as "uncool" advertising in a heartbeat. Credibility goes out the window at a time when it was credibility you were seeking. Advertising needs news to look credible. Tension exists because brands want seamless integration and consumers will hack you to death when you fail.

The correct creative effort indicates you are clearly encountering some marketing as you are being informed and entertained. And we are OK with that. We are clear eyed about this intention to blur.

Stories that won’t get much coverage are bleeders; wrecks and other assorted tragedies...although there is likely a small appetite for that somewhere.

Civic Leaders will not likely be covered but opinion pieces might be. Lifestyle writing is easy to make in a branded context. Editorial for accountants or law firms or government regulators are more difficult but can be presented in an editorial calendar so long as is mixed with brand content in the same issue.

Think of a capital market launch review. Published in a social media context it opens the item up to comment and drives metrics at the same time it informs. Open debate and counting likes is the nature of social media.

Original watchdog type of content is going down in our society. You can compare branded articles with other types of content so long as you realize that they have a different focal point. There has always been disintegration between ads and news. Readers want both coupons and news in their publications. Over time both earn an audience because of the value of the content.

There is a need for content and online people get to experience it on a social platform. Writers are ok with the environment and many new grads will never write for the Walrus. But isn't that why journalism schools teach PR after all?

In print and on the web, the use of infographics are proliferating as the mediums converge. The rule of thumb for multi-media is to use about 30% of your on-screen real estate for textual information. Websites follow this rule when laid out in a three column format using a center column for textual content and flanking columns for navigation on the one hand and associated content on the other. Breaking up text with dominant graphics is a common style followed by advertizers as well as page layout artists.

The infographic is an example of these principles pushed to a logical conclusion. Want to show the relationship between chalk and cheese? Use an infographic. Want to illustrate the effect of a butterfly flapping its wings in China on the weather patterns along the coast of Prince Edward Island. Use an infographic.

Nevermind the complexity of linguistic morphology as a method of imprinting the cliché or the development of chaos theory through Hienrich Boll's Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, an infographic will provide a pretty combination of circles and arrows that conveys information and eats up all that troublesome space in your publication.

The thing is that the infographic appears to stand in for knowlegde similar to the way that a Dick and Jane book stands in for reading comprehension. That is to say that as a primer, the infographic serves as a jumping off point for a deeper, more thoughtful investigation of the material at hand and never as an end in itself.

Like a book of lists, the infographic is interesting in as much as it elicits a, "huh, really?" response form the reader and not much else.

Use an Infographic to show your ability to parse knowledge to a digestible format and to balance your layout by all means, but do not use it as a substitute for presenting deeper meaning or working out complex ideas. You may get the eyes onthe page that you desire, but if the readers want to only see Dick run and you are advertizing "Speedy Autolocomotion in the Visible Spectrum", you may have to do the hard work and write a technical document to be reviewed by that elusive consumer of purposeful reading.

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