17 January 2013

Why “Content Marketing” is A Model for Disaster – And Why Journalism is the Answer

The first in a series:

A former colleague recently asked me the following in an email: “I’m looking for recommendations for good content marketing conferences to attend. Let me know if you have a few minutes sometime to chat?”
So it’s come to this. We’ve gone so far down the “content” rabbit hole that there are now entire conferences dedicated to teaching smart communications people how to act like Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross. Awesome, sign me up. I mean, first put a bullet through my skull and then sign me up.


I know, I know. Not all “content” is created equal and not all Content Marketers are douchebags. A great story is “content” as much as a lame infographic about Why My Company Can Beat Up Your Company is “content.” Yet this is the problem we’ve created: Because we use “content” to mean everything, it now means nothing.  Even “storytelling” has turned into a euphemism for content, stripping away any emotional value it once had.


Here’s the challenge for brands in 2013 and beyond: How to apply journalism principles to content that tells a story and works across devices, platforms and audience frames of mind, while not getting lost along the one-way, one-size-fits-all and “feed the machine” content path plaguing us today.


That’s right, I said journalism. You know, that thing people respected before Rupert Murdoch and Julian Assange, before gratuitous link baiting and automated news aggregators. But journalism – real, emotional, story-driven journalism – is the way out of the Sea of Sameness and the path toward lasting connections with customers.


“Content Marketing” is about, well, the “content” first – what does (insert brand here) want to say and then replicating that message across every channel possible. It’s about channel and technology. It’s about using “story” as a Trojan horse for whatever ulterior motive is hiding inside.


Journalism is about the audience first – what do they care about and then tailoring the story to engage people where they are. It’s audience-centric and channel agnostic. It’s about connecting, not marketing.


Good stories have multiple voices, not just the Corporate Voice or the well-crafted customer testimonial. The best journalism inspires, has impact and earns trust. It’s not a press release turned into a creative writing assignment.


Look, creating content is easy. Brands do it all the time with releases, videos, ads, brochures and white papers. Brands are content machines.


Journalism isn’t that hard either, but it takes time and resolve. For every journalistic brand endeavor such as McDonald’s “Our Food, Your Questions” or Coca-Cola’s “Journey” publication, there are countless initiatives like GE Stories that, while well intentioned, miss the journalism mark.


That’s okay. It’s not like every company is going to close its Content Marketing department tomorrow and open a Newsroom (though that’s the right idea.) The point is to recognize that the tide has shifted and that the days of “content” are numbered.


Let the bottom feeders of our industry market content. The rest of us need to look to journalism to restore content’s value and, more importantly, to ensure that we can communicate effectively and emotionally in an ever-fragmented media environment.


How do we put this journalism approach to content into practice? We’ll explain the Layered Narrative Storytelling model in part two of this series.




Gary Goldhammer is Hill+Knowlton Strategies' U.S. Digital Strategist and is based in our L.A. office.