Will content marketing ever be considered journalism?
Pop quiz: what magazine has the highest circulation in the United States?
People? Time? Sports Illustrated? Good Housekeeping?
The answer, by an enormous margin, is AARP The Magazine.
It has a monthly circulation of 23 million, being distributed to AARP’s senior citizen membership. That’s seven million more than the above-mentioned magazines combined.
That scale alone makes it noteworthy, but it’s also surprisingly good. Its editor-in-chief is Robert Love, an award-winning former managing editor of Rolling Stone and professor at Columbia University, and a sampling of the magazine’s recent articles include an exclusive interview with Bob Dylan, a fascinating feature about the health effects of losing our sense of touch as we age and an investigative piece on internet dating scams.
“I think this is the great story that’s underneath the noses of all of the media reporters,” Love has said. “This is a very rare success story in publishing in the 21st century.”
He’s absolutely right that it’s a great story, but it’s becoming far less rare.
Red Bull launched a top-notch print and digital magazine nearly a decade ago, and it is now sold on newsstands in four languages across eight countries. GE has a media hub with articles that regularly attract hundreds of thousands of readers and rise to the top of Reddit. United Airlines has a literary journal featuring writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Doerr. Autodesk’s Redshift, Casper’s Van Winkle’s and Snapchat’s Real Life publish some of the most unique and interesting content online.
Notice a trend? None of these companies are part of “The Media” as we normally think of it. They’re part of a sea change occurring in publishing and broadcasting as all kinds of organizations are starting to produce their own editorial content. These nouveau éditeurs are using publications as a way to promote themselves and the things they care about, an approach that’s come to be called content marketing.
This should be exciting news for creators of all kinds. There are more companies getting into the media business than ever before, in many cases hiring professional journalists to do fantastic work. Suddenly, enormous sums of money previously tied up in advertising are being directed toward original reporting and storytelling. It may prove to be the most significant development in media this century.
So then, why are media reporters ignoring this story? Furthermore, why is it that journalism professors don’t tell their students about it? Why are even marketers stating that content marketing shouldn’t be given the same respect as journalism?
Part of it’s ignorance and arrogance among journalists. Part of it’s a lack of imagination and ambition among marketers. But neither group should be happy with this situation, because we may be witnessing an incredible opportunity in which what’s best for marketing might also be best for journalism.
HONESTY IS THE BEST STRATEGY
So, first thing’s first: why in the world would mattress companies and soft drink manufacturers be interested in becoming publishers in the first place? What’s in it for them?
Essentially, market forces have incentivized businesses to find new ways to attract attention and earn admiration. Advertising has become so prolific and annoying, and people have become so jaded about sales messages, that marketers are seeking any unique edge they can find, and creating editorial content is the latest answer. The idea of content marketing isn’t new, but it’s become far more popular, especially as technology has made it easy for anyone to become a publisher.
In a way, it’s kind of common sense. Instead of always paying to interrupt people from getting what they want — the traditional advertising approach — why not just create the thing they want? Instead of renting someone else’s audience’s attention, why not build your own audience?
At the same time, it embraces a principle that should be near and dear to writers’ hearts: show, don’t tell. Instead of creating ads to tell people who they are and what they care about, companies are creating articles to show who they are and what they care about.
That explains why Lowe’s and Home Depot have blogs full of DIY ideas and instructions. If people are googling questions, businesses would love to be the ones who provide the answers. If P&G Everyday has a great article about organizing your house, it stands to reason that you’ll be more likely to buy Procter & Gamble products in order to do so, regardless of whether the articles mention their products.
At a loftier level, companies want their brands to stand for more than simply the products and services they offer. So, Sherwin-Williams has a magazine about “the connection between color and cutting edge design,” while Dollar Shave Club has a magazine covering “sex, relationships, health, money and culture from a male point of view.” These aren’t catalogs of products — they are branding tools, so when you see Sherwin-Williams you think “stylish,” and when you see Dollar Shave Club you think “cool.”
There are plenty of other good reasons to do content marketing, but, frankly, the better question is why more companies don’t do this. It’s infinitely more logical than other ways companies try to promote themselves. What seems like a more straightforward way to get customers to like your company: create articles and videos that solve needs and entertain people, or spend millions of dollars to create abstract symbols and make up words?
That said, it still might not be obvious why they would create journalistic content. What’s the incentive to create honest editorial product, as opposed to advertorial material filled with subliminal sales pitches?
Consider these common marketing goals and how they can be better achieved through higher-quality, more-objective content:
- Awareness: Entertaining or informative articles that don’t push products and services are more likely to be shared, ultimately exposing more people to the brands behind them.
- Trust: Honest, smart content builds a perception that the brand behind it is trustworthy, or at least less likely to bullshit you than a competitor.
- Demand: Compelling ideas about a topic that doesn’t get much dedicated coverage elsewhere makes people more interested in products and services in that space.
- Differentiation: Intelligent content can help make a company stand out in a crowded, heterogeneous field by proving expertise.
- Discoverability: Genuinely helpful articles are more likely to rank higher in search results.
- Retention: Enjoyable, useful content can help keep members and customers loyal.
In other words, many of the attributes that make for good journalism also make for good marketing.
Is it still possible that content marketers could craft content that looks trustworthy without it genuinely being so, deceiving people through careful omissions and subtle hints that push their agenda? Sure, but before we assume that possibility to be a disqualifier, we should take another look at whether traditional news organizations are truly any more immune from that threat.
BUSINESS MODEL ISN’T DESTINY
Most journalists have convinced themselves that there’s something special about the structure of their organizations that enables them to be uniquely independent. It’s taken for granted that a non-media corporation would only favor its own goods and services, whereas a true news organization only favors the public good. This is inherent to traditional journalism outlets, they say, and is why content marketing can never truly be journalism.
We only need to scratch the surface of modern American journalism history to expose this myth.
For instance, the modern mass market newspaper business model was entirely invented as a ploy to sell advertising. The first papers, especially the New York Sun, were exclusively filled with salacious crime stories and completely fake news just to get eyeballs on ads, as author Tim Wu details in “The Attention Merchants.” Here’s how Wu describes the thought process of Charles Day, the founder of the Sun:
“What Day was contemplating was a break with the traditional strategy for making profit: selling at a price higher than the cost of production. He would instead rely on a different but historically significant business model: reselling the attention of his audience, or advertising. What Day understood — more firmly, more clearly than anyone before him — was that while his readers may have thought themselves his customers, they were in fact his product.“
That was in 1833. The concept of ethical reporting only evolved decades later, but not because there was something special about news organizations that promoted this behavior.
“By most any of the many accounts of the history of objectivity in journalism, objective reporting began more as a commercial imperative than as a standard of responsible reporting,” Theodore Glasser, the former director of the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University, writes in the Society of Professional Journalists magazine.
Glasser offers one of these many accounts, explaining that the imperative was efficiency. It was actually just easier and more consistent to distribute facts than try to craft a creative narrative for each story. Portraying this as a model of professional competence was simply good marketing by publishers.
This was after the Sun and several other New York City papers formed The Associated Press, primarily to split the cost of covering foreign news. Having a consistent, clear style meant reporters’ work was more uniform, making them like workers on an assembly line. The idea that this is the ideal way to serve readers was formed retroactively, Glasser explains, but generations of editors and reporters have since taken it as gospel.
And while the style of writing changed, the strategy Day invented certainly didn’t. Much later, during the supposed golden age of journalism in the late 20th century, news organizations still added new sections, like gardening and automobiles, purely to sell advertising around.
Is there a meaningful difference between reporters writing for a newspaper’s real estate section so that people will look at real estate listings, and a real estate agency creating a blog in order to attract people to their website so that people will look at real estate listings? Journalists haven’t seemed to care if their work serves as a lure to accomplish some other business goal, although that’s precisely what content marketing hopes to accomplish.
None of these points are intended to discredit journalists. They’re simply to show that there’s nothing ethically pure about the traditional news business model that allows it produce great journalism. It was a choice, and it’s now something professional journalists view very seriously.
It therefore shouldn’t be so absurd to imagine that content marketing can similarly evolve to also produce great journalism. The commercial imperatives are in place, and there’s nothing stopping companies from separating their business concerns from their editorial production. If that editorial product is honestly produced, and it just so happens to serve business goals, that is no different than the traditional media model. If enough companies do this, it could similarly evolve to be the generally accepted best practice.
However, that’s only possible if content marketers want it to be.
CONTENT MARKETERS CAN’T BE CONTENTED
There’s no lack of great content marketing examples. The Content Marketing Institute held its 6th annual Content Marketing World conference in September 2016, where it handed out 76 awards for the best content marketing of the year.
That being said, it shouldn’t offend anyone to also say that the CMI awards are a far cry from the Pulitzers or the National Magazine Awards. Most of the CMI award-winners would be merely OK by the standards of magazines like Bloomberg Businessweek or Wired. And many marketers are perfectly happy with that. They do not aspire to be called journalists, and instead see content marketing as a separate calling altogether.
In fact, here’s how some marketers responded when CMI asked the question, “What are the biggest differences between content marketing and journalism?”
A1 Journalism has an expectation of objectivity, while content marketing has the brand's interest at heart. #cmworld
— Erika Heald | Freelance Chief Content Officer (@SFerika) July 5, 2016
— Duke Greenhill (@brandtherapy) July 5, 2016
All these statements may be accurate in describing the current reality of most content marketing. But is this the way it should be?
As argued above, producing journalistic content is a logical strategy for achieving multiple marketing goals at once. It follows that falling short of journalism standards will fall short of those goals. Trying to be somewhere between advertising and journalism may leave most content marketers in a constant state of limbo, always mildly interesting and somewhat effective. They may always be confronted with slightly incredulous audiences and internal strife over whether the whole thing is “bollocks” or “shit.” They may always be saddled with the true difference between journalism and content marketing being this:
– storytelling. If good it's journalism and if bad it's content marketing
— Sangram Vajre (@sangramvajre) July 5, 2016
Surely some marketers see the value in producing genuinely journalistic content. Surely some businesses see how serving the public good and serving their interests aren’t mutually exclusive. Surely many journalists like AARP’s Robert Love want the respect their publications deserve. How can all this be done?
The first step is to stop pussyfooting around the issue of objectivity. Content marketers need to make a clear statement to audiences about what their organizations stand for, laying all their biases out on the table. If there is an issue that they won’t talk about because it presents an obvious conflict, they should simply say so, not sheepishly shut down the publication when someone calls them out for it. As the Pulitzer judges put it, “The best journalism is transparent about its sources and methods.”
If they want to go even further, they could hire an ombudsman, a dedicated person to point out the issues a content marketing publication might be ignoring, or potential conflicts that weren’t acknowledged. It’s not unfathomable — just look at ESPN’s public editor, who keeps a careful eye on the organization’s potential conflicts as it both broadcasts and covers sports.
Ideally, the whole industry itself should embrace a set of ethical standards for content marketing. Without one, marketers will continue to haphazardly launch projects with varying levels of disclosure, creating an ebbing tide of credibility that lowers all ships.
Embracing objectivity will definitely result in some embarrassments, like when TOMS commissioned academics to study the impact of their shoe donations and they concluded that the results “were not transformative.” Many companies, if not the large majority, are too thin-skinned and short-sighted to suffer that type of criticism. But that should only make the braver, mission-driven companies stand out as genuinely trustworthy. Besides, companies routinely experience self-inflicted embarrassment for far less noble reasons.
There’s one other change that may need to occur, but it presents a paradox. For content marketing to be truly successful, it must cease to be marketing.
That’s because the term content marketing is both a gift and a curse. By giving the concept a name it gives people something to rally around. It also makes it easier to sell to executives, because it puts journalistic concepts into business terms. Conversely, it limits credibility at a larger scale, because marketing carries an inescapable connotation of manipulation.
Jay Acunzo was more direct in his own brilliant blog post on the subject: “Basically, they need to stop thinking like marketers and realize that most of the world truly hates all things marketing. So even if they have the best of intentions, the world would react in a negative way. They need to have empathy and acknowledge that feeling right away.”
It’s more than semantics, though. Content marketers don’t think at all like journalists. As much as journalists are clueless about their own business, at least they know how to do thorough research, tell compelling stories and stand up for truth. Marketers mainly use authenticity and storytelling as buzzwords, and spend most of their time doing other things, like analyzing the ideal length of a headline for getting clicks. Acunzo was more pointed in this regard, too:
“We seek things like ideal word counts for blog posts to rank on search, rather than ideal ways to tell the story. We hunt for tiny results above some already tiny click-through and conversion rates. We suck up small bites from others’ dinners by curating content without adding original value. We are, on no uncertain terms, creative bottom feeders, through no faults of our own. We do marketing. That’s what this has always been.”
So how could it be done differently? If we don’t call it content marketing, what do we call it?
Maybe it’s time to stop reinforcing the impression of an artificial division by calling one journalism and another content marketing, or calling one publishing and another “brand publishing.” Maybe we need to put the organizations themselves on a spectrum, showing that they’re different not by kind, but only the degree to which media is at the core of their enterprise. Here’s one way we could define them:
- Media-centered: Organizations centered around producing media. Their core competency is media production, which they then seek to monetize in various ways. Examples include Buzzfeed, CNN, Forbes and The Washington Post.
- Media-supported: Organizations whose core business is strongly complemented by media production. Their core competency is in something other than media production, but they dedicate significant resources to creating media in order to bolster their business or support their mission. Examples include AARP, Marriott, SAP and Whole Foods.
If we talk about what’s happening in these terms, it becomes clearer what’s changing. In a way, non-media companies are simply diversifying, not because media necessarily provides a new revenue stream, but because it provides support for their other operations.
This is also useful in illustrating that the trend goes both ways. While there are certainly plenty of non-media companies becoming media-supported, many media-centered companies are diversifying as well by getting into non-media activities. Does anyone believe that the The Atlantic and The New York Times become less legitimate because they’ve launched their own marketing and consulting agencies? This sort of diversification is necessary, and media-supported may ultimately become the more popular and sustainable model.
That said, media-centered organizations certainly won’t go away. Media-supported companies will be far more likely to produce niche-driven outlets, whereas media-centered organizations will be more likely to value general interest news coverage. It’s also easier to see how media-supported companies could honestly produce lifestyle content, whereas hard news is a different challenge. It certainly helps if the publication’s topic is a step removed from the core business, which is why Red Bull covering extreme sports is one thing, while TASER covering policing issues would be something else entirely.
In theory, though, there’s no reason that media-supported organizations shouldn’t be able to produce the same content as media-centered organizations. In either case, there are incentives for both kinds of companies to be outstanding or awful, and it really comes down to decisions made by the people behind them.
Currently, media-centered organizations have the edge in both pedigree and talent, but media-supported organizations are steadily catching up.
CREATING THE REASSOCIATED PRESS
There is a steady stream of people leaving traditional journalism roles for editorial positions at media-supported companies, and while we can’t really know exactly how many, we know it’s an increasingly popular career path.
This should be considered a win all around for journalists, who are finding solid new careers. And yet, maybe the best summary of this trend by any traditional journalist is a 2014 piece in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled, “Should journalism worry about content marketing?”
Writer Michael Meyer is more fair about marketers’ skill and aspiration than most journalists are willing to be, and is also uncommonly honest about questioning some of journalists’ key assumptions and biases when it comes to their own work. But, as the title indicates, the entire framing of the piece is that this is a problem to be grappled with. It lists all the familiar objections, primarily that there’s no way for content marketing to be truly independent.
“As content marketers grow more sophisticated, they will continue to adopt the trappings of journalism if not the journalistic mission, creating a world in which more and more content looks and feels the same but in fact isn’t,” he writes.
He’s technically right. The rise of media-supported enterprises will certainly bring more content that looks journalistic but isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a similar increase in high-quality, journalistic content generated by media-supported companies, too. There’s no reason to solely portray it as a negative trend.
Instead, all kinds of new possibilities open up. Rather than worrying about declining revenues and increasing layoffs at media-centered companies, there’s the possibility that multi-billion dollar budgets become available for reporting and storytelling. New beats can be explored as companies seek to create more consistent conversation around the niche topics important to them, which media-centered companies have ignored because they don’t generate enough ad revenue. Also, the fact that subject matter experts can be involved in the content creation might seem like letting the fox watch the hen house, but it could also lead to more in-depth information because you don’t have to rely on a non-expert translating the details.
Should journalists worry about content marketing? No. They should embrace it.
Media reporters should follow these developments and become engaged in the discussion, calling out the shady publications and praising the honest ones. Journalism professors should inform their students so more talented writers and creators have a chance to lend their skills to these burgeoning media outlets. If we simply assume media-supported companies can’t produce journalism, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we’ll miss a major opportunity at a potentially promising new journalism business model.
Content marketers also need to embrace journalism. They need to aspire to the type of transparency and responsibility that are standards of mainstream reporting, promoting ethics as much as marketing metrics. Media-supported companies should hire more editors and reporters so they can focus on content quality as much as conversion tracking. If they only view content marketing as just another way to get clicks and generate leads, they’ll miss a major opportunity to truly get customers to like and trust them.
Ultimately, no one fully benefits by having two conversations about reporting and storytelling in completely different bubbles, with reporters and content marketers sticking to their own cliques. We need to grow and support a new, more diverse community of editorial content creators — a reassociated press, if you will.
If we do, content marketing could definitely be considered journalism one day. In fact, it might change both journalism and marketing for the better. That’s a story we can’t continue to ignore.
For further reading and perspective, here’s a list of the sources hyperlinked above, in the order they appeared:
- Wikipedia page listing circulations of top U.S. magazines. Note that there are actually four content marketing publications in the top 10.
- Mr. Magazine’s interview with Robert Love.
- Content Marketing Institute interview with Cameron Conaway, a freelance journalist and professor turned content marketer. When asked, “To what extent do you think universities are preparing journalists for the potential of working on the brand side?” he said, “Not at all.”
- Mediashift article arguing that content marketing should never be called journalism because that devalues the term journalism. Agree with the analysis, but, again, the conclusion could equally be that content marketers need to step up their game, not give up altogether.
- One of Bob “The Ad Contrarian” Hoffman’s many content marketing takedowns. He’s absolutely right to criticize the immense amount of dreck produced that’s called content, and the nonsense that makes up most marketing discussion. However, the fact that so many organizations do something so poorly is more a criticism of their strategy and execution than the approach itself.
- CMI article correcting misreporting by the Wall Street Journal about content marketing. The folks at CMI have pretty much lead the way in defining the term, and they constantly see it misdefined. Conflating it with native advertising is far too common.
- Infographic on history of content marketing.
- My article on CMI about why it’s common sense that content marketing can’t just be advertising and sales messaging.
- CMI article detailing 10 other reasons content marketing makes sense.
- Quora answer to question “Which is the world’s most expensive logo ever?”
- Wired’s story about the absurd saga of Uber’s rebrand.
- New Yorker piece about the absurd saga of creating a brand name.
- Moz article on the importance of high-quality content in search engine optimization.
- Theodore Glasser’s excellent essay arguing against journalistic objectivity. This piece was already long without getting into this, but he presents a compelling case that objectivity just avoids responsible reporting.
- Link to Tim Wu’s book, “The Attention Merchants,” a must-read.
- Richard Gingras’s talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the true history of modern American journalism.
- Mark Ritson’s takedown of content marketing. I love Ritson’s no-nonsense approach, and he’s pretty much right in all his points, but overly broad in his conclusion. It’s really a takedown of bad content marketing, not content marketing as a whole. You could equally write the same thing about how ineffective advertising is and conclude that advertising is bollocks.
- Another Ad Contrarian takedown of content marketing, affectionately titled “Let’s call content shit.”
- The Verge story about Verizon’s short-lived content marketing publication, Surgarstring, which shut down after criticism of it not covering issues such as net neutrality.
- Pulitzer guidelines. Bold prediction: a media-supported organization will win a Pulitzer someday for explanatory journalism.
- ESPN’s Public Editor, a good reference for what a media-supported company’s ombudsman might look like. Side note: Jim Brady, the current ESPN ombudsman, is CEO of Billy Penn, which is arguably a media-supported organization.
- Poynter overview for journalists on content marketing and native advertising.
- Economist story on researchers finding that TOMS has not been as transformative as they have hoped.
- Jay Acunzo’s brilliant piece on how if a brand bought a publication like Grantland, all the writers would leave because it would create the perception of bias, and what can be done to fix that attitude.
- Another Reassociated Press post, referencing how clueless journalists have been about their own business model.
- Contently article about publishers becoming marketing agencies.
- Cameron Conaway’s post on the fusion of content marketing and journalism.
- The Reassociated Press running list of journalists taking editorial positions at media-supported companies.
- Another Reassociated Press post on the difficulty of defining careers as marketers become journalists, and vice versa.
- Moz and Fractl research on the growth of content marketing careers.
- Michael Meyer’s fantastic CJR piece on content marketing. While I disagree with the tone he concludes with, it’s a fantastic and fair piece. The headline of this article is meant as a counter to his.
And here’s a list of the media-supported company publications and stories hyperlinked above:
- The Red Bulletin, by Red Bull
- GE Reports
- Rhapsody, by United Airlines
- Redshift, by Autodesk
- Van Winkle’s, by Casper
- Real Life, by Snapchat
- Lowe’s Creative Ideas
- Home Depot blog
- P&G Everyday
- Stir, by Sherwin Williams
- MEL, by Dollar Shave Club
- Marriott Traveler
- Digitalist Magazine, by SAP
- Whole Story, by Whole Foods Market