The industry can learn about quality, and maintaining readers’ loyalty, from the arrival of the Guardian and New York Times
The New York Times has run the first native ads, for Dell, on its website. Photograph: Randy Duchaine/Alamy
The recent, dramatic arrival of tanks – in the form of some of the world’s biggest news organisations, including of course the Guardian – on thecontent marketing industry’s lawn should be one of the most exciting and positive trends for anyone in in this fast-growing industry.
It’s exciting because the most successful content, in terms of engaging its audience, is from a digital publisher mindset: content that is designed first and foremost to enrich its audience’s lives. It’s exciting, too, because it will encourage brands to adopt that same mentality: putting their audience first, rather than their commercial aims.
The arrival also of the New York Times and the Washington Post is to be welcomed because it brings with it the high editorial standards that have created and preserved some of the most loved content products in existence.
It’s the adoption of such standards that will help the industry to set a new bar for content marketing; to help it realise that content can be produced by a brand to the same standards by which publishers have maintained the love and loyalty of their readers over decades.
This is something that is urgently needed if we’re to avoid the clouds looming over the exuberant party that is the content marketing industry today. From these clouds is raining down content produced without love, without real purpose but merely to satisfy the aims of the companies producing it; content that tries to hoodwink people into believing its editorial rather than the blatant, self-serving advertising it is.
I’ve been involved in the industry’s initial self-regulatory efforts to head off this threat and have been relieved and impressed by how seriously companies are taking it. The entrance of the world’s publishing giants firmly into this space can only spur these efforts.
Arguably, of course, digital publishers have always been content marketing companies. Brands have always played a role as advertisers in, and therefore supporters of, the content they produce. However, recent content marketing division launches have taken this to a new level.
The first native ads, for Dell, appeared on the New York Times’ website last month. At the start of this month, the Washington Post’s content marketing offering, BrandConnect, adopted the same long-form template used for regular editorial features, with PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade body, first to sign up.
Guardian Labs, launched at the start of the year, has more than 130 people dedicated to producing quality content that just happens to be funded by brands. They’re going to find a willing audience, of course. The research continues to pour out to prove marketers’ insatiable appetite for content marketing. Econsultancy, for instance, brought out its Marketing Budgets Report for 2014 recently, which found 74% of brands planning to increase spend this year.
Research that our own agency recently did found that most brands now have a dedicated content marketing budget (63%) and dedicated content marketing roles (61%).
The rationale behind this investment is simply that it works. IPG Media Lab released a study showing that native ad content, only the latest buzzy variant of content marketing, is viewed for the same amount of time as editorial content.
As content marketing continues to grow, though, will it keep working? Will the river of content produced by brands simply become a flood that pollutes people’s lives?
The only way to make sure it doesn’t is for every brand even thinking of creating content to take a step back and ask what it is their audience wants and how what it produces is going to enrich their lives.
Of course the underlying goal can be nakedly commercial. None of the big publishing groups launching into content marketing is doing it for altruistic reasons. All, however, are aware that their audience is sacred and that they betray its trust at their peril. As a brand, your audience, your customers, are sacred too and the content you produce needs to reflect that.
Brands are too often told to become publishers online. The lessons they can learn from watching how publishers become content marketers will probably be their most valuable yet on how they do this.