I wrote earlier this year about the move towards sponsored content, also known branded journalism or content marketing. Whatever you call it, it’s a powerful concept. Companies publish interesting and informative content to cultivate an audience and connect with influencers, all without going through the media filter.
That’s the strategy, but does it really work? By ‘work’ in this context I mean can it achieve measurable communications and marketing objectives. In the past few days two differing views on the question have been published in two influential blogs.
Tom Foremski writes the Silicon Valley Watcher blog and the IMHO blog for ZDNet. He left journalism for full-time blogging way back in 2004, so he saw very early how the Internet was fundamentally changing the media. In his post “Social Media is Not Corporate Media,” Tom claims social media is only for conversations, it cannot be a channel to support sales or marketing. He feels corporations will destroy the integrity of social media and create a “mutant form of corporate media,” with consumers retreating to more private networks and communities.
Former technology journalist turned agency content strategist Kyle Monson disagrees. In a guest post on Brian Solis’s blog, Kyle talks about how brand journalism is practiced at the J. Walter Thompson agency on behalf of clients. He jokingly uses the well known term “the Dark Side” to describe agencies and their work. But he says that by thinking like journalists and focusing on speed, relevance and transparency his agency makes it less dark, and predicts they are on the forefront of how all companies will communicate in five to ten years.
So who’s right? On one level, it’s not surprising that the PR guy says it works and the blogger/ journalist says it doesn’t. Beyond that, both make good points.
Tom talks about how companies don’t listen enough, and are too often focused on control rather than information exchange. No argument here on those points. But he misses a critical point, which is EVERYTHING a company does should show ROI.
It’s not realistic to expect companies to engage in strategies that don’t support the bottom line. I made this point via a comment to Tom’s post, and my partner Marc Hausman really takes him to task in his blog Strategic Guy.
Kyle makes some good points as well, and I certainly try to be fast, relevant and transparent on behalf of my clients. But he leaves big questions unanswered, especially when he talks about partnering with “some of the biggest tech publications and journalists.” What exactly does that mean, and who controls the content produced?
And what about performance metrics? He says they have been very successful for clients like Microsoft, but how does this all help the bottom line? I wrote recently about how some campaigns in the b2c space are judged successful without ever having to show ROI — seems incredible but true according to Fast Company.
For my part, I can say this approach has worked for my clients in the b2b and b2g markets. We’ve used sponsored content to improve organic SEO and assist in deal capture. We’ve supported lead generation and moved prospects faster through the sales pipeline. The approach most definitely works, at least in our markets.
But it’s not easy, and the client should never underestimate the culture change required to truly become a publisher.
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