Aug 042011

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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.

  3 Responses to “Does ‘Branded Journalism’ Work?”

  1. The client should also not underestimate the cost of consistently creating quality content.

  2. “Branded Journalism” =s Content Development =s Sponsored Information =s PUBLICITY. Sorry, but I’ve got to pop your bubble. Branded Journalism is NOT at all new. You’re just playing a semantic game and ignoring public relations history and campaigns that likely predate your professional consciousness. PR pros within corporations and agencies have been creating content of an informational/journalistic nature for decades. Newsletters, in-house magazines, books, sponsored films, events and videos all have used “owned” channels rather than working via mainstream media (newspapers, broadcast, etc).
    For more on this, go to:
    I know its cool and makes good blog copy being the first to exclaim a new phenom but at least come up with something that’s truly new. :)

    • Ford — thanks for the detailed comment. And I liked your MarketingProfs piece, and happy to make the link available on my blog. Not sure why you think I’m “first to exclaim a new phenom” — I notice your piece is from 2010, so clearly you know people have been talking about this for a while.

      Of course corporations and their PR teams have always tried to communicate directly with audiences. But the never tried to REPLACE the media. What makes content marketing different today are the dramatic contraction of the news media, and the reach and trackability of the Internet. In the B2B and B2G markets I work in, the trade media has been decimated. My clients almost have no choice but to communicate directly. But it can’t be overly promotional and it better tell a comprehensible story.

      The quality needs to be much higher today. When’s the last time you read a corporate newsletter and thought ‘wow, now that’s good journalism?’ Almost all organizations struggle to maintain an objective viewpoint of their product or service. And audiences are more fragmented and skeptical than ever.

      So if you think there is nothing new going on, then I have to disagree. Even though I think we both agree that content marketing/branded journalism can be very effective.

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