Is provocative content worth it?

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND: A headline in the recent ‘sponsored’ section of a New Zealand daily newspaper read, “Religion in class: The debate goes on” – followed by the teaser, “Values key for NZ’s young but private school group rejects faith-based teaching”.

Although we’re talking about a ‘native ad’ – which is not content marketing per se, but rather a tactic for increasing exposure to your content – it’s readily apparent that this is a story that serves the newspaper more than it does the advertiser. A fact that is made obvious by the use of the word ‘rejects’ — very news speak.

It’s a story about the advertiser, ACG Education, and their secular philosophy, which is perfectly fine for an advertisement and even a news story – albeit one that will alienate a segment of their audience.

But it offers very little utility value for the audience, which is why it’s not content marketing. Advertising is about the advertisers, when really audiences are turning off messages about things they don’t need or that will make very little difference to the way they live their lives.

Leaving yourself in the hands of news journalists is risky because their instincts are for news that is sensational, provocative, controversial and polarising. Not values that you want to be associated with your brand unless you’re convinced that your like-minded market holds beliefs as strong as yours (and is big enough to sustain your business).

In essence, though, it’s unnecessary to court controversy for controversy sake. Native ad sellers, the same people whose market is declining, will tell you that it’s what works. Yes, it works for the news media, but not necessarily for brands. Yes, it sparks debate, but that’s the work of news media, not brands – don’t be seduced into paying for news media to do what they’re supposed to do anyway.

Your question should be, “Will this piece of content increase my website traffic, help me find more leads and convert more customers?” If not, don’t do it.

A story angle that would have offered more utility value might have been, “How do I teach my kids values in a world without consequences (in other words, where there may be no threat of hell hanging over their heads). Followed by real tangible values-based teaching techniques for parents.

This kind of helpful content achieves a number of things. Not least it’s useful and relevant to the intended secular audience. It doesn’t necessarily polarise or provoke negative reactions, and it positions the brand as an expert who is concerned with the needs of the audience, rather than just talking about themselves.

A few years ago I read a sponsored piece with a headline that read something like, “Mid-market companies struggling to get Government business”.

What followed was a long whinge about how mid-market companies are shut out by Government (or something similar).

It was an article that added value to nobody, never mind the brand that ran it. Wouldn’t it have been better to create something that dealt with ‘how mid-market companies could go about winning more Government business? To have provided real life examples, and advice, from companies that have already succeeded in winning Government business?

By all means, use controversial headlines to get attention, but leave the reader feeling positive or at least better informed, educated or empowered.

Native advertising is not content marketing. It is one channel that marketers can use to distribute content or reach a wider audience. It does, however, impact how people perceive your brand and frankly, no brand wants to be associated with negative perceptions.

Don’t get sucked in by native advertising publishers – predominantly news-based media organisations – that insist on using journalists to write the content. Most journalists (take it from somebody who cut his teeth in the newsroom) don’t have the faintest idea of how to sell or market a product, never mind how to build sustainable, valuable brands. They are in the business of conflict. You are not.

Here are my top tips for making better use of native ads:

Use a negative only to establish relevance

For example, if mid-market companies are struggling to win Government business, that’s the negative that makes the article relevant. There’s no need to bang on about it.

Make yourself useful

Offer advice and tips about how your reader can solve their problem.

Quote third parties to establish credibility

Provide some comment and tips from customers that were in a similar position but managed to solve their problems, even better if it was with your help.

For example, obtain two or three comments and tips from mid-market companies that have won Government business on how they went about it. Use a negative only to establish relevance

Using the techniques of news journalism is an invaluable way to achieve relevance and establish context. There is nothing wrong with highlighting problems and exposing issues, provided you’re doing it to help your customers solve a problem.

Sparking debate is the preserve of news journalists, not marketers, because it simply isn’t necessary for brands to irritate, polarise and offend people.

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