Exposed: the great lie of content marketing

Doug Kessler denying what he does is native advertising

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.”

There.

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. 

Once we’ve accepted this unflattering fact about our species, it’s a lot easier to step down off the High Horse of Self-Righteousness (body of Trigger, voice of Mr Ed, face of Bill O’Reilly).

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.

Like Coke funding an ‘obesity education program’. Or the Guardian ‘covering’ the native advertising phenomenon.

Blurred lines

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:

Transparency.
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.

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Photo: Zoë (16) clearly thinking that illustrating my post with a PhotoBooth selfie is a BAD idea.

Comments

That’s a way to wake everyone up who feels a bit tired after the clocks changing!

That little voice has certainly stirred an emotion which I guess is the all important thing for what we stand for and what we represent.

Great piece of writing.

Lies. Lies. All of it, I say.

No, good one Doug. Heard Bart Schultz, a marketing shrink speaking at Conversion Conference, deliver the ultimately transparent truth in marketing… We aim to separate people from their money.

Lots of voices in your head lately. I give you permission to hawk shit and feel just fine about it. Was that helpful? (If you help someone, you gain a customer/friend for life.)

Excellent post. Honesty and trust are huge, which makes being transparent the only logical result. Loved this line: “Selling isn’t the dirty thing. Hiding your agenda is.”

Thanks so much for listening to that voice, and sharing it with us!

Someday, my hope is to be as good a writer as this…. I think my favorite bit is simply the quotes around the word “covering” when you say “covering the native advertising phenomenon”… I quite literally almost spat out my coffee as I was (unfortunately) taking a sip at just that moment..

Just wonderful Doug….

~rr

I am going to frame this.

Brilliantly written post Doug, and unsettling too. It’s taken me a day to mull over your points here, on Mother’s Day too! You’ve made me think.

Your plea for integrity and transparency is a valid and important one for our industry but in some ways I think you’re worrying too much. Today’s buyers are incredibly canny. We KNOW that companies are trying to sell us something when we are offered free content. And if the content matters enough in its own right, we don’t care! We’ll consume it for its intrinsic value; act (buy) if we choose to do so, if it’s right for us there and then; or store up that feeling of good will and trust. The only way it will work is if we do it with integrity and transparency.
Effective content marketing is a long term game. It’s hard to keep up pretence year after year after year. If a company’s heart isn’t in it that lack of integrity will quickly show.

Or maybe that’s just my RRR kicking in!

Keep it coming Doug. You shake us all up. Hope to see you in Bristol soon.

Sonja

All:

Thanks for the comments!
It’s great to hear fellow content marketers are thinking about the same things.

@Sonja: I do agree today’s buyers are canny (especially in B2B). And I don’t think anyone will have any illusions about an eBook with a big fat logo on the front.

But it’s precisely because buyers are so canny that publishers and marketers are so eager to blur the lines and hide the marketing agenda.

The threat is greater in consumer marketing but it’s real for B2B too. Publishers are struggling with the old ad model. They’ll try anything to stay alive (as I would) – but I’m amazed at how quickly they threw their crown jewels (reader trust) away.

OMG – how much I wanted to disagree with you. But I can’t. You nailed it, and did it with style. And I’m still laughing at the visualization of Joe P as the antichrist 🙂

Dammit, Doug. You had me for a minute there. What a great, entertaining-as-always post. I love this –> “I really don’t think content marketing needs to be a lie or to hide its agenda in order to succeed. ”

I also love this –> “Baer-hugs”

Thanks Ardath and Andrew! You guys are the target audience…

What a well-written piece. I’m glad I discovered you today!

Loved this post – an entertaining, counter-pompous wake-up call. Nice social analysis, too!

Nice post!

When I hear concern about the lines between journalism and marketing blurring, my first thought is: hasn’t it always been easy to do both of those things immorally if you so choose? A relationship to marketing doesn’t make journalism more corrupt or unworthy of trust, or vice versa.

There’s always been the opportunity in both fields for sleaziness. How moral and trustworthy a business is has less to do whether it’s a newspaper or a marketing agency, and everything to do with the integrity of the people running it and the decisions they make.

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