We've seen the exhortations -- brands should build a richer affinity with their customers by providing "content," whatever that is, rather than "traditional advertising," whatever that is. This shift pits ad agencies, PR firms and marketing service companies against publishers as marketing shifts from promoting capabilities and products to something closer to story-telling. In a weird role reversal, agencies are building up the editorial skills of publishers so they can partner with their clients on content creation while publishers are morphing into marketing companies, building and buying integrated marketing agencies to complement their publishing operations.
Meanwhile, consumers are taking on both roles themselves. With every status update, tweet and blog post, consumers look more like publishers; and with every "like," RT and brand-name shout out, they are magically transforming their content into the thing formerly known as advertising.
What a mess.
In the face of this chaos, the issue of credibility gets more and more confusing. With so much noise, so much choice, so many voices and so much ambiguity around who is actually at the source of the information that we all are creating and consuming, how do we know whom to trust?
The market is starting to sort this out. While the Internet has facilitated an explosion of information choice, it also serves as an extremely efficient marketplace of ideas. The combination of search and social raises the most credible sources and exposes the least. No perspective stands unanswered; no argument goes without rebuttal. And, whether explicitly or implicitly, the exchange conveys badges of credibility upon us all.
Still, this is not entirely a power to the people moment; just how wise the crowd depends entirely on how well we know and value those in the crowd. Even within our own networks, the question of who to trust is not entirely clear. As we have widened our social circles, editorial credibility within that circle has become suspect and we turn back to established sources. A recent study by the global PR firm Edelman shows that newspapers and other established media properties are still highly trusted. Yet we know that the dynamic has changed. Consumers aren't looking for a centralized authority. Rather, they are looking for validation. The trusted media property is just the first of a series of stops. The question is how can the brand itself be a credible part of the journey?
The opportunity is taking shape. That same Edelman study shows a decline in trust of "a person like myself," and an increase in trust of credentialed experts. This may be a response to our social networks growing beyond the limits of real friendship, a trend that creates an opening for brands to become part of the conversation.
Consumers are looking for places to put their trust. They are not looking for a single source to get all the answers; they actually require several. If a brand doesn't have a trusted relationship with its audience, creating content is no different than creating advertising. That trust comes from multiple voices in multiple channels participating over a long period of time. It requires a thoughtful and coordinated approach, but not a monolithic one, and can create a chorus of trust.
Brands should position themselves as a hub -- an essential entrée to a community of thought that includes experts, advisors and vetted content. By seizing the role of convener, a brand can facilitate networking, co-creation of knowledge, and two-way learning and truly become a trusted thought partner.
The biggest challenge facing a brand is not creating content; it's creating a knowledge culture that it is comfortable sharing in the chaotic and uncontrollable marketplace of ideas. Those who do will find their own ideas get better, their customer relationships grow more honest and dynamic, and their position as a trusted source becomes secure. And that is a position from which all communications -- content, advertising, and marketing -- will be able to cut through the media mess.