Since realising ten years ago that the thing I’d been doing was now called content marketing, a tiny little voice has been pestering me.
I didn’t stop to listen to the tiny voice because I knew by its tone that this wasn’t something I wanted to hear. (In eighth grade, the same voice warned me that Tory Dietel just wasn’t that into me. In 1986 it said I probably wasn’t cut out for account management).
But as I practiced and preached the art, science and blood sport that is content marketing, the voice was always there, saying the same thing. (In music, they call the effect ostinato because it’s so damn stubborn).
Then, a month ago, I wrote a post called Native Advertising: Trust for Sale – a rant against the trend that is dissolving the walls between editorial and advertising. And as I got all righteous about the media selling its collective soul so cheaply, that little ostinato motif just got louder and louder.
So, finally, I wheeled around in my Aeron (it’s literally how I roll) and yelled at the little fucker, “What?!! What do you want?!!”
The dog perked up. The cat half-opened one eye.
And the little voice said:
“Content marketing is no different. Content marketing is built on a lie. And the lie is that all this wonderful content is just there to help. When the truth is that it isn’t just there to help; it’s there to sell.”
I said it. (Turns out the annoying voice is me.)
There’s no real difference between content marketing and native advertising. Or advertising advertising. Or quasi-editorial posing as journalism. Or journalism.
Underneath all the helpfulness and altruism and Baer-hugs, what we’ve all been really doing is making… advertorials.
Pause to shower.
The Rapid Rationalisation Response kicks in
Whenever I finally stop and listen to the little bastard voice, it drops a mini-bomb into my world (“But… Tory laughs at my jokes!”).
And the instant that happens, my Truth Antibodies kick in to fight off the new insight with everything I’ve got.
It’s called the Rapid Rationalisation Response. It’s designed to take all necessary and heroic measures to preserve my self-image at all costs. And mine is (of necessity) really, really highly developed.
If the tiny voice is right, my career has pretty much been built on a lie. And I’m no better than the guys who sell Anti-Aging Creams or Miracle Ab Machines or… (Dear Lord Please Forbid): Fox Fucking News. (I hereby make that their new official name, never again to be less-than-fully unfurled).
If the tiny voice is right, Joe Pulizzi is the anti-christ, Robert Rose his hairy bride and William Shatner their over-indulged (and, let’s face it, -paid) spawn.
If the tiny voice is right, Joe Chernov is Gordon Gecko with sleeve tats and Ann Handley is the Wicked Witch of the West – she just moved East, ditched the pointy hat, bought a lovely smile and took very expensive charm lessons.
If the tiny voice is right, Michael Brenner is a smart cyborg set on ‘generous’ and Jay Baer is Ayn Rand reincarnated, washed twice on the ‘Nice’ cycle and soaked in rare Tequila.
So, okay: it can’t be right. Right?
Cue cavalry music and multi-hoofbeat sound effect: The RRR Force has arrived.
Why content marketing really isn’t a lie and you can stop showering.
Here’s a premise: all communication is manipulation.
If you want your spouse to pass the salt, you don’t say, “Pass the goddamn salt you lazy, selfish pillock.”
It would be… ineffective. Maybe even counter-productive.
You say, “Please pass the salt.” and maybe throw in a ‘honey’ (so it doesn’t come off as a comment on the cooking).
There is nothing that we ever say that is not an – admittedly often misguided – expression of self-interest.
We say stuff to get people to do the stuff we want them to do or think the stuff we want them to think (which is just a key stage on the path to doing the stuff we want them to do). There is no other reason to speak.
And once we’ve accepted this unflattering fact, we can admit something even more unflattering – but somehow liberating – that everyone is always selling.
It’s what humans do.
Time to recalibrate
So if Charles Darwin was on a panel at, say, Content Marketing World, sometime between 8 and 11 September in Cleveland Ohio, he would say something like, “The only way to judge a communication is by the degree to which it makes the speaker more or less fit to procreate.” (Charmer, our Chuck).
In the marketing ecosystem otherwise known as ‘Life’, we can replace ‘procreate’ with ‘sell’.
So one of the surest ways to undermine the effectiveness of our communications is not to be caught manipulating (that’s all we do anyway) but to be caught unfairly manipulating.
As beings for whom social skills are survival skills, we’ve all evolved highly-tuned, super-sensitive lie detectors.
We don’t mind being sold to. We expect that. We just hate being lied to.
So instead of asking if native advertising or content marketing or ‘brand journalism’ is manipulative (duh), we should ask questions like, ‘Do I trust this communication and this communicator?”.
Answering yes does not mean you will accept everything they say as fact. It just means you will give them a chance to convince you. But without that underlying trust, they don’t even get a nano-sliver of your attention.
Two things that kill trust.
There are two things that make us withdraw our trust from someone:
1) They’re outright lying – They’re con men saying untrue things to dupe us into giving them something we would never give them if we knew the truth.
Like Bernie Madoff or the guy who said Iraq was behind 9/11 and has WMD so it’s not just okay, it’s our duty to go and level it.
2) They’re hiding their agenda – They’re pretending to have our interest at heart when they quite clearly don’t.
The only problem? Between lying and telling the truth – or between hiding and exposing one’s agenda – there are a lot more than fifty shades of grey. There are fifty thousand.
In a world of native advertising and content marketing and advertorials and Fox Fucking News (hey, it works as a sentence, too), the lines are getting very, very blurred. Not by accident: by intention.
Short-sighted marketers and publishers want the lines to be blurred. So they can fool people into consuming marketing messages.
In the short term, they may succeed. But in the long term, they can’t. Because once you’ve lost someone’s trust, you’re not going to get it back.
So here’s the thing:
As marketers with a long view, it’s not just our job to stay on the bright side of the Intergrity/Evil spectrum, it’s our job to be seen to be on the bright side of that spectrum.
We don’t just have to have integrity, we now have to expose our integrity. To differentiate us from those who don’t have it (the short-termists who are rushing to profit from all the new line-blurring tactics).
The other T word.
So if Trust is the currency of commerce. Here’s another T-word that needs to move to the heart of our discipline:
Native Advertising is a lie when it lies — and when it’s made to look and feel like editorial. When the ‘Sponsored Content’ tags get smaller, then lighter, then disappear altogether.
Content Marketing is a lie when it lies — and when it pretends it isn’t ultimately trying to sell you something. (An unwise and un-necessary strategy).
Journalism is a lie when it lies – or pretends it answers to no one and nothing but the Truth.
So as a content marketer, when you produce that top-of-funnel stuff that’s supposed to be all about helping?
Don’t just admit that it’s just the earliest stage of selling. Highlight it. Celebrate it. Expose it.
Selling isn’t the dirty thing. Hiding your agenda is.
The little voice
So has my highly-evolved Rapid Rationalisation Response succeeded in defending my self-image against the annoying accusation of the little voice?
For now, yes. I really don’t think content marketing needs to be a lie or to hide its agenda in order to succeed. In fact, I’m totally convinced of the opposite: that it can’t succeed (long term) if it uses these tactics.
Do I still feel superior to the native advertising brigade? Not as smugly. Most of us are trying to find our own lines and acceptable shades of grey.
Native advertising, sponsored tweets, and the slowly dissolving line between paid and organic Google results are new frontiers. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be exploring them. But I am pleading with fellow marketers to be careful.
This thing can still work for us all if we do it with integrity and transparency.
Let’s try that as our default setting.
Photo: Zoë (16) clearly thinking that illustrating my post with a PhotoBooth selfie is a BAD idea.