By Davia Temin and Ian Anderson
Thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, and native advertising are all stops along the continuum of how ideas are expressed, and products are marketed, over the Internet.
But it is getting awfully hard for the public — and even some marketers — to tell the difference.
This is the topic of #2 in our series of “10 MORE Don’ts of Corporate Social Media.”
Last week, “Google Search: Reunion,” a mesmerizing 3-minute video from Google India, blazed across social media, gaining over 5 million hits in just a few days. Intensely moving, unique, and believable, it tells a story of two friends separated in youth by war and government partition, who found one another in old age – through the help of their grandchildren and Google. It brought most people who viewed it – and believed it – to tears.
One reason it is so very effective is that it feels real, and there is certainly nothing in the clip to announce that is anything but a true story. But of course it is an ad promoting Google in India and featuring actors, not real people. It blurs the line between truth and fiction, authenticity and acting on social media – masterfully.
And that is just a taste of what is to come.
Church and State
In traditional media, there has always been a bright line between journalism (unsponsored, objective reporting and analysis that purports to uncover the truth, tell true stories, and be dedicated to the “public good”) and advertising (sponsored messages that have a point of view and benefit an organization, its products, or services). In fact, the Association of Magazine Media used to monitor the line between “church” and “state” closely – making sure that readers always understood which was which.
But this line has gotten mightily blurred in the world of social media. And that is not necessarily a good thing for a credulous, but trust-averse, public.
Unbiased, non-commercial research, commentary, stories, recommendations and reporting still are accorded more value – and trust – than marketing messages. But that does assume the public can tell the difference.
Have the reviews of the book you’re interested in on Amazon been commissioned, or are they authentic? Have the news stories you are reading on a website been written by a reporter, or a sponsored “news aggregator” somewhere overseas? Is that photo that touches you so much real, or photo-shopped?
On social media, most participants are looking for authenticity, but swimming in a sea of ambiguity.
What does content really mean?
And so, how does this affect corporate social media? Content has been proclaimed the coin of the realm in social media, but is that content church, state, or somewhere in-between? How do your viewers react now, and how will that change in the future?
Is the content your company produces, and posts on social media, thought leadership, branded content, content marketing or native advertising? And what is the most effective for your corporate needs?
Perhaps some definitions (and they are not easy to come by) can help illuminate the differences among thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, native advertising, and straight online marketing:
Thought leadership is the platinum standard of content-based reputation enhancement. In its pure form, it is information, research, ideas, expert commentary, and opinion that exist for their own sake, not to prove a direct commercial point.
Thought leadership is indirect. It creates prestige for the organizations that sponsor it through association. Thought leadership tells potential clients and customers, “If we think this deeply, and with great knowledge and expertise, then you will surely want us on your team – we can add significant value to your efforts.”
Thought leadership is best for professional services firms, investment managers, consultants, colleges and universities, and any institution looking to build intellectual capital and create relationships because people find them intelligent, expert, and impressive. It is the most powerful kind of content, and examples include research from Deloitte, the Korn/Ferry Institute, McKinsey Quarterly, BCG Perspectives, and Stanford Business Magazine.
Thought leadership can also be “viral” in that it provides new and interesting insights that can spark industry change. It can be used to raise brand awareness through sharing articles, white papers, and other thought leadership content with a broad audience.
Branded content is less platinum-standard, but arguably more fun, and effective with larger audiences. According to Wikipedia, it’s a fusion of advertising and entertainment, “intended to be distributed as entertainment content, albeit with a highly branded quality.”
This content might be humorous, entertaining, or interesting. While it doesn’t create the same kind of lasting, game-changing intellectual impression that thought leadership aspires to, it can be innovative in other ways. Much of what we see in online marketing is branded content: from videos, to contests, to hybrid campaigns that involve many different elements.
Branded content is often a bit more subtle than straight advertising – sometimes the content doesn’t have any images of the product itself, but is still trying to sell you something, or sell you the brand. This is the case with many YouTube campaigns that produce highly entertaining videos for marketing purposes.
Content marketing is the broadest category of all, encompassing “any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers.” It includes everything from thought leadership to branded content, but is more direct in its commercial intent.
It is a broad type of marketing that includes the kind of “sponsored or promoted post” advertising found on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Content marketing is often the means by which you “push” the branded content or thought leadership you wish to promote, and try to get your followers to interact. This can come in the form of posts, tweets, and even videos (like the Old Spice Channel, for example).
Straight Online Marketing
Straight online marketing comes in the form of the most basic online advertisement. This is a step below ‘content marketing’ and includes the sidebar ads we see all the time, as well as banner ads, pop ups, advertisements before videos, and other kinds of online content that we usually consider “junk.” This kind of marketing can be successful when done very well – much like ads on billboards or commercials on television. However, the public is building up resistance to this kind of content.
Native advertising is a subset of branded content, and the most problematic: it is advertising that masquerades as independent editorial content.
For example, on the site Buzzfeed, articles that are sponsored sit side by side articles that are not, and they look almost the same. These are articles look as though they have been independently written, but were produced to market something. So, the Google Reunion video ad would qualify as native advertising.
As with Reunion, native advertising is often highly successful, with many “articles” gaining thousands of shares and millions of views. But much of the success may be a function of people not looking carefully to see that they are sharing product or brand promotions. Often, people will retweet BuzzFeed’s lists with only a glance at the article, so even if the content is labeled as from a “partner,” folks on social media might not be aware that they’re effectively sharing and advertisement.
In fact, the practice is beginning to capture the attention of regulators who “are concerned that some content could be considered deceptive to consumers.”
Coming home to roost:
The lines between all five of these kinds of content are not only blurry, but the public is noticing and beginning to rebel.
Consumers are getting more wary of “promoted tweets” and “promoted posts” on Twitter and Facebook, and are registering their complaints in the comments sections.
Facebook’s IPO was the point at which many social media sites realized that they would have to satisfy both marketers and users in order to keep their investment going.
And the imperative is continuing. With Twitter’s recent IPO, it is clear we’ll see more marketing innovation there as well. Instagram is adding advertising and Tumblr has also debuted promoted posts. And Contently has created a group of writers that create editorial content for brands – a pseudo-factory for native advertising.
But in a culture that is thin on trust, and sometimes demanding transparency, social media marketers are beginning to take more heat for blurring the lines between promotion and objective information. Regulators are beginning to catch up, too, and there are more regulations waiting in the pipeline.
Moving forward, there is a distinct possibility that once more social media sites introduce intrusive or misleading advertising, the public’s tolerance for advertising embedded in content will lessen, despite how clever much of it is. And the implications for corporate social media, across all forms of content advertising and traditional advertising, are yet to be fully understood.
But, it is a fast-moving place, social media, and the future may become a bit more challenging. This, we would see as a good thing. If those bright lines of distinction can re-emerge, not only will the public better understand the origin of the messages it consumes, and shares – but that content may be able to be appreciated for what it is, not for what it pretends to be.
Our suggestion: Make sure your content sponsorship is easily distinguishable. Social media isn’t just about keeping up with the trends, but leveraging them in a way that is intelligent, thoughtful, and in tune with each organization’s culture. This requires careful strategy and decisive action, and all leaders, organizations, and individuals can aid their brands by keeping up with the changing landscape.
In our next article, Don’t #3 “Don’t Waste Your Time(line): Maximizing Your Viral Potential For Thought Leadership,” we discuss new innovations – particularly those on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – that can help thought leaders (both individuals and organizations) reach their target audiences, and make their content not only transparent, but truly game-changing.
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