Does Brand Journalism Suffer from Integrity Issues?

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Branded content has a problem these days. While AdAge calls brand journalism a modern imperative, it may becoming the next frontier of bad PR. For every great effort like GE Reports, lesser efforts produce nothing more than spammy dressed up blogs.

As Rich Becker noted, the move to circumvent journalists often becomes a top down messaging exercise as opposed to a means of improving relationships between customers and brands. Can companies resist the opportunity to serve up endless messaging and sales pitches with their content? Can they maintain editorial integrity?

It’s a tough question. As we know while relationships are important, ROI is the literally the bottom line for all marketers, including corporate communicators. It takes a long-term view to build “top of funnel content” that genuinely serves people while creating nurture paths that empower lead generation and sales. Frankly, it also takes some sense of how to create good content that doesn’t feel like a constant pitch.

Nurturing and usefulness are overall communications problem, not just the domain of brand journalism. Consider how little people like spammy email.

Brand journalism more than anything feels like a term that marketers and PR pros use to sell internal stakeholders on the nostalgic angle of content with integrity. “Brand journalism” forces brands to think outside of the message, in theory. It’s almost an acknowledgement that messaging kills them.

What Brands Can Learn from Pubs

Most brand journalism efforts point to style as a means to create content that serves readers rather than messaging. Some hire former journalists, too. If they are successful in maintaining a Chinese Wall between the content and heavy salesmanship, then yes, it is likely that the articles, podcasts and videos will strengthen relationships.

But there is more to learn. When you consider publications, they do more than just write stories. Yes, they sell advertising, but they also market their own deeper content experiences. They market advertorials, special sections like their 40 under 40 lists (which are sponsored), and events.

Inevitably, these deeper and often revenue-related initiatives blend in like seamless content. When you design your brand journalism effort, do so in a manner that helps you nurture.

PR-driven content can work towards relationships while the site design itself generates leads. Protect the content, but create space to place ads. Develop deeper quality content initiatives that require people to identify themselves, and as you go deeper into the sales cycle continue to impress customers with strong content.

The point is keep the content and the site design separated from marketing to maintain integrity.

Perhaps the best brand in this corner of the world, Red Bull (See image above) actually features other brands’ advertisements on their site. How crazy is that? I love it. The adidas ad makes Red Bull’s site even more relevant.

How Design Impacts Integrity

Journalistic integrity varies with these content sites. Design can move from full branded efforts like Cisco’s The Network to well-veiled magazines. With design comes a message about intent.

IBM has a great blog called Smarter Planet. It is well-written and has great focus, but it is also very corporate looking, and is clearly an IBM vehicle.

In other cases they can become more thinly disguised sites that appear to be a magazine, but still serve the company’s needs. Microsoft’s Stories is a great example. It is reminiscent of a branded magazine from the days of print.

There are semi-branded efforts that act more like true journals. Adobe’s (See image above) has its own URL and masthead, but has ads and Adobe branding. The site has a clear editorial mission and focus beyond the corporation.

What do you think about branded journalism and editorial integrity?

About Geoff Livingston

Geoff is president and founder of Tenacity5 Media, a digital marketing agency that provides content marketing and social media services. A former journalist, Geoff continues to write, and has authored five books. Follow him @geoffliving.

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