The content tussle between PR & digital – who will win?

The rising of content marketing as a viable promotional strategy may be just the lifeline that the struggling media industry, journalists and digital advertising agencies in New Zealand need, provided they can put aside their adherence to outdated roles and philosophies.

In its purest form, content marketing is brand journalism – the creation of content that aims to educate, inform and entertain the target audience, without selling to them. Where in the past journalists interviewed experts, interpreted their knowledge and views, and reported it to their audience, the experts can now address the audience directly – without the need for intermediaries like journalists and public relations people.

The problem opportunity, for everybody, is syndication. Companies need to get the content in front of the audience. Traditional media websites have the authority and the traffic that content publishers drool over, but persuading the media to publish that content is not an option because it then becomes a public relations exercise.

The attraction of content marketing is that the company, marketer or organisation retains complete control of the content; what it says and where it is published and how it is interpreted.

Once a journalist takes over the content, the publisher is no longer in control of the outcome. This is where public relations is valuable in trying to manage and influence the ultimate interpretation that the journalist will apply in the media. But it is then no longer content marketing; it’s public relations.

In the traditional media model, the public relations professional pitches a story to a journalist and if they’re lucky the message they wanted to deliver is what goes out. The only win for the company is that its brand is promoted – most often they won’t even get a link to their website.

The only other option to increase exposure is for the advertising agency to buy media.

In the end the only winners are the intermediates – the media (newspapers, tv, radio, news sites), the public relations agencies and the advertising agencies. The biggest winners are the media, who argue disingenuously that it is the audience who wins in the end because they are given content that is trustworthy and objective.

If that’s the case, why are media revenues tanking so badly? Why do so many journalists find themselves redundant, particularly in an age of rising content consumption? Part of the reason is that the media have taken it on themselves to decide what’s good for the audience. They’ve stopped listening to the public and as a result, the public have stopped listening to them.

Companies, by necessity, understand that they are in business and that they will not remain in business if they do not listen to their customers. The media business, by and large, is yet to catch on. Content marketing thrives on producing content that directly addresses the questions, problems, challenge and aspiration of the audience – particularly their questions.

The opportunity for the media and advertising agencies is a form of native advertising, or a model whereby a company produces good quality content – often with the help of professional journalists – and pays to publish it on a high authority media website. The media website will of course distinguish and label the content as ‘sponsored’ – and so they should.

Sponsored content, a form of native advertising, must offer value, not promotion, to the audience. It is not advertorial which, by and large, consists of abominable, non-apologetic promotional drivel written by mostly junior journalist resentful of having to demean themselves by writing commercial copy.

In part this is why sponsored content is an opportunity for advertising agencies rather than public relations agencies. Public relations people cannot write to the quality required. Not because they are any less skilled than a professional journalist (although more often than not that’s exactly the case), but because their philosophy is compromised.

A journalist knows how to write for the audience. Public relations writers, most of them anyhow, only know how to write for the client. They are inherently compromised by the client’s interests. Public relations agencies also do not have the media buying resources and capability of the advertising agencies. The agencies on the other hand, can alway hire freelance journalists to write quality stories, including those based on interviews with experts from within the client’s organisation.

Content marketing, published on owned assets such as the company website, blog and social media channels, as well as the content that is sponsored on high authority media websites, will ultimately benefit the company, the intermediates — including the media – and also the audience because they are being given content by people who have researched their needs.

If the content fails the quality and objectivity tests, it will simply not stand on its own merits and will ultimately disappear. No company with any sense will throw money at flogging a dead horse. The public is also less exposed to the one sided, in your face advertising they so despise and are actively turning off.

Heard the latest joke? “The longest five seconds of my life… waiting to click the ‘skip ad’ button”.

Like good, independent journalism, there will always be a market for good advertising, but sponsored content gives digital agencies additional options beyond the traditional search, banner and other forms of digital products.

The decision about what to consume lies with the audience, which is the way they want it – to consume, or not to consume. It is the role of the intermediates to ensure that they incentivise the audience by providing content that actually meets their needs.

The commercial model depends on it.

Of course there will always be a need for journalists to report the news – politics and crime; to keep public officials – and corporations – accountable. But the fluffy stuff, like financial and property advice, will be pared down substantially until just a few, influential journalists remaing, leaving the space open to expert advice direct from the experts themselves (even if they need professional journalists to write it for them, the control remains in their hands).

In that way, it is the free market that ultimately protects the audience.

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