By Peter Haapaniemi
Is content marketing invading traditional journalism’s turf? As content marketing becomes more sophisticated—and as it employs more trained journalists—it has raised the hackles of more than a few traditional journalists. The controversy came to a head this past March at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, when one reporter on a panel derided branded content as “infopollution.” Journalists worry that the line between journalism and marketing is becoming blurred, causing problems for people in search of objective information.
Content marketers, however, say that line remains bright. Indeed, rather than seeing traditional journalism as competition, many content marketers fret over its decline. “Traditional journalism has been somewhat under assault for a couple of decades,” says Philip De Jong, president of the Journey Group in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the problem, he says, is not confusion with branded content, but the emergence of a world where virtually anyone can easily distribute their own content—including marketers. When it comes to journalism versus branded content, he says, “I don’t find it an argument at all. I think there’s certainly a place for both.”
“We can’t go back in time, and one of the realities of today is that everyone is a publisher,” says Jane Ottenberg, president of TMG in Washington, D.C. As content marketers have taken advantage of that reality, she says, the line between journalism and content marketing isn’t so much blurring as moving. That is, while branded content talks directly to consumers or customers, it is not talking to them about hard news. It is only addressing part of the traditional journalist’s domain, she says, and it’s important to understand that distinction. “I am passionate about the importance of journalism in our society—may investigative journalism live forever,” she says. “But service journalism is a different form of journalism. I think that marketers, if they do it right, can do as good a job as any newspaper or magazine in that area. In terms of service journalism, we’re doing the real deal—we have three sources per story, they’re written by seasoned journalists, and so on.”
There’s a big difference between borrowing journalistic techniques and adopting the mission of traditional journalism, content marketers say. “Ultimately, it really raises the bar of conversation between brands and consumers when you employ a trained journalist,” says Joseph Barbieri, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Toronto’s Totem Brand Stories. “We know that marketers value the discipline that comes from the craft of journalism. But we also understand the limits of how that can be used or should be used by brands. We’re not out to try to enter the realm of traditional journalism, where the division of church and state is fundamental. We respect that, and I don’t know of any brands that would want to even get close to infringing upon that.”
And anyone who fears that branded content will damage journalism underestimates the audience, says Fred Petrovsky, president of content marketing at Phoenix-based McMurry. “The saying is, ‘You can’t fool all the people all the time,’ and that’s very true for consumers. People are smart, and they know what’s right.”
Indeed, today’s audiences are accustomed to filtering information from a great many sources and taking those sources into account. Ottenberg notes a recent survey conducted by Roper Public Affairs on behalf of the Custom Content Council in which more than three-quarters of respondents said they understood that custom content comes with a selling agenda, but they were fine with that “as long as the information is valuable.”
The lesson, then, is the same for marketers and journalists: No matter who is creating it, relevant, useful, quality content is the key to reaching an audience. Says Petrovsky: “That’s a truism that we’ve seen over and over: Great content trumps where that content comes from.”