Today’s news that the Financial Times has acquired content marketing firm Alpha Grid is further evidence of the seismic shifts taking place in the world of media and communications. The lines that used to exist between the disciplines of journalism and marketing are continuing to blur and dissolve, creating opportunities for media companies and corporates alike.
The FT is an interesting example of a traditional publisher that is grasping those opportunities with both hands. Back in September last year, the company announced the launch of content marketing suite FT2, with the mission to “bring carefully selected client content to the right audience at the right time”. With the launch of this division, the FT has formalised the practice of publishing branded, often paid for, content from advertisers – content that readers have reported as offering real value. In fact, branded content has proved so valuable for the FT that it is credited with driving a 30% increase in revenues.
Branded content has proved so valuable for the FT that it is credited with driving a 30% increase in revenues
Native content vs native advertising
Business Insider is another publisher that takes pride in working with paying customers to deliver high quality content to its 2.5 million daily readers. Around the same time that the FT was launching FT2, I attended a CMA breakfast briefing where Julian Childs, Business Insider Managing Director UK and Europe, gave an impassioned talk about the difference between ‘native advertising’ and what he calls ‘native content’. In his view, native content is defined by its thought leadership qualities and the ability to offer genuine insight. That’s a very different proposition to the click-bait style native advertising that has found a home on many news sites these days.
The challenges facing media organisations in today’s fragmented landscape have been widely reported. Publishers must fight ever harder to retain their audience and overcome the issues created by the rise and popularity of niche websites, social media and ad blocking technology. When done in the right way, branded or advertiser-sponsored content is one of the most powerful weapons in that fight.
Publishers must fight ever harder to retain their audience
High quality articles that are endorsed by respected brands like the FT will always attract attention, whether paid for by an advertiser or not. And that advertising revenue is essential if those same publishers wish to continue producing journalistic pieces. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has always existed and is simply evolving to keep up with the demands and sensibilities of today’s readers.
If native content is helping publishers bring together the best of journalism and marketing, then the same is true in reverse: marketing has gained value from the discipline and rigour of journalism. Customers and clients are looking for more than carefully crafted brand messages. They can spot marketing hype a mile off and will often turn away from anything seen as flimsy or unauthentic. The way to win their attention is through useful, interesting or entertaining content that adds something real and honest to their lives, which sounds a lot like journalism by another name.
Customers and clients are looking for more than carefully crafted brand messages
The best agencies have journalists and marketers
No content marketing agency is complete these days without one or more journalists on the team, bringing with them a deep understanding of how to craft a well-balanced story. The best agencies and in-house teams are combining journalism skills and marketing strategy to produce high quality content with editorial flair.
Journalists make great content marketers because they understand how to hunt out an interesting angle; how to conduct thorough research that’s underpinned with appropriate references; how to avoid overt commercialism and how to work in a high pressured, deadline driven-environment. They have also been taught to write snappy, succinct copy that gets people’s attention and is free of grammatical nasties. Of course, alongside all of those skills, journalists also been trained to hunt out corporate hyperbole and spin, so it’s fair to wonder whether a trained reporter would ever be happy in the world of marketing.
The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) addressed this topic last November in an article that asked whether it’s ethical for a journalist to work in content marketing. The article makes the point that well developed content strategy isn’t a pure act of self-promotion. It’s about addressing the needs of the target audience, whether that’s a need for information, advice or pure enjoyment. In that article, Scott Roen, vice president of digital at American Express, makes the point that the ethics of a content marketer, or a brand journalist as he otherwise calls them, can and should be the same as that of any other journalist. And when more and more traditional publishers are calling on their editorial staff to produce branded content, one has to wonder if there is even a difference between the two any more.
It will be interesting to see how this relationship between journalists and content marketers continues to evolve, and I suspect that the likes of the FT will be at the forefront of that continued change.