By Dick Martin
Phineas T. Barnum was the second millionaire in American history and the first—though certainly not the last—to build his wealth entirely on hokum.
Barnum knew exactly what he was up to. Just five days before he died, he confided in his diary, “I am indebted to the press of the United States for almost every dollar which I possess.” Were he alive today, he'd be flabbergasted by the fertile soil for his brand of nonsense.
He would recognize today's supermarket, TV, and online tabloids as the progeny of the papers he courted. But truth to tell, he might not be as successful as his nineteenth-century self. Barnum's genius was in capturing the attention of a population starved for entertainment. People today are drowning in amusement, and their attention spans are only as long as the thumbs hovering over their TV remotes and smartphones.
Unfortunately, many companies are using communications and marketing strategies straight out of Barnum's playbook. They may have a broader concept of media than the penny press of his day—about a quarter of their marketing budgets go to digital media—but they're still plying the same old tricks: advertising and publicity. Both put a premium on intrusiveness, which today's consumers find as appealing as sharp elbow jabs, especially in the sanctity of their online sanctuaries.
According to one study, we're exposed to nearly two thousand online ads per month. No wonder two-thirds of us feel under bombardment. And no wonder click rates have declined from 2 percent in 1996 to a barely perceptible 0.1 percent today. Consumers are increasingly blind to online ads. Banners and pop-ups barely register. The only messages that get through are tailored to people's interests or are directly relevant to what they're doing when they see them.
Google built an empire by tying ads to relevant search results, and Barnum would have been an eager customer. But he would have looked for more: How to reach all those people who don't know they want information on bearded ladies or Fiji mermaids? Figuring that out requires a leap from the intrusive world of advertising and publicity to the more service-oriented world of editorial content. If content is king, with the right strategy, smart marketers can be the power behind a thousand thrones.
It's a strategy with a surfeit of names—branded content, native content, content marketing, and brand journalism are just a few—but it's not such a new idea. Around the time Barnum was shilling his “educational curiosities,” the Michelin brothers were publishing a guide to the environs of Paris for the city's first motorists. They reasoned that the best way to get people into automobiles was to help them navigate the few roads suitable for their vehicles. What they invented was more than a travel guide. It was a new idea in marketing.
They assumed the traditional role of journalist—researching, curating, reporting, and publishing information that fills a real consumer need, all under the name of their brand. And because they were scrupulous to avoid even perceived conflicts or appearing self-serving in any way, they won people's trust—to the point that, by the time they had distributed 35,000 copies of their guide, they were able to begin charging for it.
Brand Journalism is one of the ways smart marketers rise above the clutter of Internet advertising. Instead of pushing ad messages to increasingly indifferent and prickly Web users, they pull consumers to their expertise at the precise moment of their heightened interest. As a marketer, the key is to figure out where people's interests and your competencies overlap.
Brand Journalism is meant to help customers, rather than to sell products. It's built on the premise that if you give your readers real value, they will learn to trust your brand, making them more likely to do business with you when they're in the market. That puts Brand Journalism firmly within the worldview of your company's public-relations department. If your PR people know their job, they know how a newsroom works. They understand news hooks as well as sales hooks. The know-how to craft a story that will catch the interests of specific communities. They don't have a “publish and move on” attitude. They understand that a story is just a conversation-starter, the first move in a long series of social-media interactions that ripple through cyberspace. They're agile enough to create new content across media and to keep it fresh with every new development. Most importantly, their experience with the media and diverse communities makes them more sensitive to issues such as transparency and authenticity.
American Express's Open Forum website follows in the grand tradition of the brothers Michelin, giving businesspeople valuable information through original content, guest writers, and an active community of fellow entrepreneurs. Johnson & Johnson's BabyCenter does the same for moms and dads. Neither is overtly promotional.
Some mainstream publishers consider websites that allow advertisers and consumers to connect without their help a direct hit on their already declining revenue, but others are responding by giving marketers a trusted platform for their content.
Some early experiments simply integrated the advertiser's content into the run of a publication, labeling it “sponsored” in type the size of the last line on an ophthalmologist's eye chart. The most notorious example—a special report on Scientology, written by the Church of Scientology and presented as a regular story in an online issue of The Atlantic—kicked up such a storm of protest that the magazine had to withdraw it, apologize, and rethink its branded-content strategy.
Others have been better at labeling. The Huffington Post sprinkles “sponsor generated posts” among its own sensationalized postings. BuzzFeed labels brand content as “presented by a featured partner.” Even Capitol Hill's paper of record, Roll Call, runs a blog on defense policy that is “sponsored” by Boeing and contains “sponsor content” amidst the staff's own stories.
But Forbes Media's BrandVoice may signal the direction of the future. It gives marketers access to the magazine's own publishing tools to create nonpromotional content that appears with its print or online news environment. Cadillac was the first to use the print program, producing a two-column story that ran adjacent to contextually relevant content. Not surprisingly, technology brands such as SAP, Dell, and Oracle were the first to publish in Forbes's online edition.
The brands pay for their content to run next to stories written by the magazine's journalists, while an editor ensures it isn't overtly promotional. Whatever companies supply is clearly labeled as part of the BrandVoice program. Online, a “What's this?” hyperlink takes curious readers to a full explanation. In the print magazine, brand content is listed on the contents page; online, it's promoted throughout the website and treated the same as the magazine's own content. Its readership is tracked the same way as anything written by Forbes writers; in fact, brand content has made its way into the website's most popular postings. A piece about the iPhone, written—and paid for—by data-storage company NetApp, was briefly the most read story on the whole site.
Of course, brand content attracts reader comments just like Forbes's original content, both within the site and elsewhere in social media. At first, that's tough for marketers to swallow, but when they see it as an opportunity to engage interested readers even more deeply, little lightbulbs go off over their heads. Considering that as many as 25 million people read BrandVoice content every month, those little lightbulbs constitute a virtual spotlight on Brand Journalism.
Lew Dvorkin, chief product officer of Forbes Media and BrandVoice's progenitor, may be reflecting more than fatherly pride when he says brand content will “shake up 100 years of journalism.” It could also shake up one hundred years of marketing, advertising, and public relations. And that's no hokum.
New York Times executive says sponsored content generates as much (or more) readership as editorial content.
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