If you had any doubt that “brand journalism” was here to stay, a panel of top marketers and agency executives said it is now a permanent fixture of their marketing media mix, mainly because it works. The big question, they said, wasn’t whether to do it, but how, when, where and by whom, as well as some nettlesome ethical issues that still need to be resolved. Interestingly, it was a PR executive -- Edelman’s Steve Rubel -- who raised the greatest ethical concerns, especially “transparency.”
Rubel, who is regarded as one of the pioneers of “earned” media -- the practice of tapping social media users to spread a marketer's message -- said the rapid rise of “native” content marketing formats was being driven by a number of economic factors, especially the pressure of traditional journalists to develop new revenue models in order to stay in business. That point was underscored by the venue of the event, the Forbes Gallery, and its hosts, Forbes President-CEO Mike Perlis and MediaLink President-COO Wenda Harris Millard.
Forbes has been a pioneer and a leader in the field of “native” content marketing -- content that looks and feels like unbiased editorial content, but is created by or on behalf of a brand. MediaLink, an influential marketing consultancy has also been a strong advocate of native content marketing, helping big marketers and agencies to structure the way they manage it. So much so that when Edelman’s Rubel tried to suggest the industry drop the word “native,” he turned to check with MediaLink’s Millard in the audience, who shook her head, leading Rubel to say, “Wenda says we have to live with it.”
Terminology aside, the marketers, agency execs and hosts agreed that the practice of brand journalism is here to stay, mainly because it works so well. To make that point, the panel was preceded by a presentation of the topline findings of a new study conducted by Interpublic’s Media Lab and Forbes showing that native works better than conventional display advertising formats in terms of key advertising metrics, such as advertising recall and purchase intent.
For the brand marketers speaking on the panel -- GE Executive Director of Global Brand Marketing Linda Boff and Goldman Sachs Managing Director of Brand Marketing and Digital Strategy Amanda Rubin -- it is simply a new way for them to get stories about their brands distributed. The biggest issue, they said, was figuring out how to “scale” that process efficiently.
Mark Himmelsbach, COO of IPG Mediabrands Publishing, said scaling the distribution of native content often creates a paradox for marketers and agencies, because they have to pay for both the creation of content and the distribution.
“We create content and are forced to buy advertising to drive people to it,” he explained.
In truth, advertisers and agencies only utilize part of their “paid” media budget to distribute such content, because they also distribute it freely via social media users themselves. Moreover, GE’s Boff noted that much of the native content marketers create is “remarkably” inexpensive. She cited one example of that required nothing more than a “suitcase, a little bit of milk and a Q-tip” to produce.
She also cited some breakthrough content GE has been leveraging via Twitter’s six-second Vine video platform as another good example, but said the challenge for a global marketer like GE is figuring out how to replcacte and distribute the content in other international markets.
On the ethical front, Edelman’s Rubel said the main issues has to do with transparency, and the fact that many native executions don’t adhere to long-standing industry rules to disclose when content is created by a marketer. Although he said most reputable brands and publishers do that, there have been notable cases where big publishers and brands have not.
Interestingly, the subject of “church and state” -- a journalistic guideline for ensuring that advertising interests are not allowed to influence editorial content unless explicitly labeled as “advertorials” or “custom content” -- never came up.
But Rubel said the unspoken rules need to ensure that the industry continue to strive for what he called a “triple play” that benefits three stakeholders: brands, consumers and publishers.
He also implied that those rules increasingly are getting murkier, especially as new middleman technology providers are developing platforms to automate content marketing in ways that sometimes takes human judgement calls out of the process.
Asked whether they were concerned about potential unintended consequence of the “rise of brand journalism,” that it could undermine non-brand journalism by blurring the distinction among consumers, all of the panelists agreed it was a potential problem, but weren’t necessarily sure what to do about it.
On the bright side, they pointed out that digital marketing moguls are becoming benefactors of traditional journalism, citing Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post as an example.
“I’m very optimistic about it,” said GE’s Boff. “I think it’s great that there’s that kind of investment being made in traditional journalism.”