Disclosure: I am Vice President of Sales & Influencer Marketing at BlogHer. Advertising and social media marketing programs are a significant source of revenue for my company and for the bloggers in our advertising network.

Content marketing. It is the hot topic of 2014. And like “native advertising,” there are as many definitions of and opinions about it as there are marketing pundits on the interwebs.

Far be it from me to back away from a challenge.

Linguistically, content marketing simply is using “content” to market products and services. But what exactly is this thing called “content.” Channeling Inigo Montoya (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inigo_Montoya), it is entirely possible that this word does not mean exactly what we think.

Let’s stay simple to start. Brands are using “content” as distinct from “advertising” to promote their products. This can take many forms:

  • sponsored posts — on blogs and mass media sites (advertorial)
  • sponsored editorial
  • in native ad units
  • editorial on brand sites

Sponsored posts often integrate the brand into a story, not dissimilar from old style advertorial, but quite a lot of this content is just, well, content brought to you by a sponsor, either intermediated by a publisher, like Forbes BrandVoice or Mashable or direct, like Coca-Cola’s new content site, Coca-Cola Journey.

Mashable Screen Shot for content post

Example of integration of sponsored editorial: Is Your Cash Working for You?, sponsored by American Express

On some level, this is the fulfillment of the promise of the World Wide Web — build a terrific website and your customers will come to you, with the twist that we finally get that reading about the products isn’t the attraction. It’s useful and when you are ready to buy, critical, but product websites are selling tools, not marketing tools. They matter once you are in the consideration phase.

What attracts the consumer is storytelling.

And now brands are joining their customers as the publishers of content. If 2004 was the beginning of the rise of the citizen journalist, 2014 may be the birth of the brand journalist. This has implications for the quality of the news we consume, and already has had an impact on mainstream media. Advertorial content is increasingly front and center on mainstream media sites, with varying degrees of disclosure. More on that another day.

The long term impact of this shift on the independent,  read objective, journalist remains to be seen but the shift to brands as the direct funder of our news feed is already exerting a tremendous pressure on prices.

The quality of online content is also at some risk… The costs of feeding a machine that relies on new stories every day is why newspapers began selling advertising in the first place. Unlike an advert,  which is “create once, play many,” and works because of its simple, entertaining, purchase-oriented message, content marketing requires new stuff every day. The temptation is strong to sacrifice quality for volume.

But simply shoving a lot of words into a funnel isn’t going to have the long term effect we want. We need deeply engaging content that will connect consumers with our value proposition in a meaningful way and encourage them to consider our product or service. Bottom line, much as I love the quizzes, and top 10 lists, their impact is fleeting when it comes to long term engagement.

Collectively, we –marketers, consumers and publishers — need to take a step back and commit to creating and supporting GOOD content.

What’s good content in this context? It’s well-written content that engages the audience with a story, and connects with the brand message in some fashion. It can be tightly integrated like a review, loosely integrated like many sponsored posts or simply aligned editorial brought to you by the brand, with a brand message at the end of the post or article.

While brand marketers can, and should, produce material to feed the content marketing machine, the best stories will come from the community. No matter how well we write, we shouldn’t try to copy community-created content. It is extremely difficult to excise our passion for our brand from the story, and, as has been proven time and again, with good stories and bad, there is nothing more powerful than an engaged consumer.

Use your marketing passion to create the brand material for your content funnel that consumers rely on for more information about a product – micro sites, Facebook pages, Pinterest “catalogs,” and help your customers channel their passion into storytelling. Find and nurture your evangelists. Let them create the content and stories that matter with your support, either directly sponsored by you, or syndicated for re-use. A story may not be new to you, but it will be new to someone.

Personally, I’m excited about the potential for content marketing, and true partnerships between companies and their customers, brands and bloggers, to tell the stories that connect us with each other and with the brands we love. It’s what I’ve been hoping this interweb would morph into since I started writing about the space in 2004.

Here are some oldies but goodies from my archives on the topic of the brand-blogger connection:

Other writers who touch on this topic that you might enjoy: Rebecca Lieb, Christopher S. Penn.

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Cole Haan WestFarms
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Disclosure: Not a lawyer. Don’t play one on the Internet. But I’ve studied the FTC endorsement guidelines. A lot. 

Yesterday news broke that the FTC had issued a warning to shoe manufacturer Cole Haan, notifying it that the disclosures used by consumers in its Wandering Sole contest on Pinterest were not sufficiently clear as to the potential material connection between contest entrants and the company. Said the letter (as quoted in MediaPost):

“We do not believe that the “#WanderingSole” hashtag adequately communicated the financial incentive — a material connection — between contestants and Cole Haan,” Mary Engle, FTC associate director for advertising practices, said in a letter sent to the retailer’s attorneys on March 20.

This represents an evolution in the FTC’s thinking with regard to disclosure of a sweepstakes or contest entry. In the early days, it did not explicitly require such a disclosure when a blogger mentioned a brand in a post to enter a sweeps or contest.  In part, because there was no material relationship between the parties, so there was nothing to disclose. And, for the most part, back then (2010!), in text-based formats like blogs and Twitter, sweeps and contest entries were often disclosed as part of the entry instructions. Hence no confusion.  [Facebook only allowed contest entries on pages recently.]

So what has changed? The endorsement guidelines are grounded in two basic concepts:

  • is there a material (compensated) relationship between the parties, and
  • is there a possibility of consumer confusion about the relationship?

In my opinion, the FTC’s thinking has evolved due to the prevalence of contest and sweepstakes entries, particularly on the highly visual Pinterest, that mimic organic endorsements, and do not have clear disclosure that they are a contest or sweepstakes entry. In other words, that the posting is motivated by a commercial incentive, not an organic interest in the product. Quite simply, all these sweeps and contests were causing too much consumer confusion.

The resolution is pretty simple, and follows the same simple guidelines that normal disclosure does. When possible, use natural language to disclose the relationship (Pinned for the Blah Blah Sweepstakes) and use clear hashtags (#sweepsentry) or @ addressing (@BlahSweepsEntry) to make it crystal clear. Using the hashtag or @ addressing is useful even if you also require a natural language disclosure as it makes it easier to track the entries. IMPORTANT: Make the proper disclosure part of the requirements to enter the sweeps or contest.

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Update: Pinterest’s Acceptable Use Policy and Brand Pins/Pinboards

February 23, 2014

Disclosure: I am Vice President, Influencer Marketing at BlogHer. Advertising and social media marketing programs are a significant source of revenue for my company and for the bloggers in our advertising network. It’s not a secret that I am something of an ethics/best practices aficionado. As a result, I pay particular attention to the terms of service […]

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Shining a Light on the Native Advertising Debate

January 20, 2014

Disclosure: I am Vice President, Influencer Marketing at BlogHer. Advertising and social media marketing programs are a significant source of revenue for my company and for the bloggers in our advertising network. In December, the FTC held a workshop on Native Advertising,  the practice of embedding/including advertising messages in editorial spaces. Prompted by concerns that publishers are not disclosing sufficient […]

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Old Spice: Bring back the man on the horse!

January 7, 2014

Boys, use Old Spice, you’ll get laid, and your mom will turn into a crazy stalker who doesn’t brush her hair. Old Spice has rung in the New Year with a new ad campaign for its teen-skewed products, and I hate it. And not just because I don’t think the joke is funny. I understand […]

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Matching the social platform to the marketing objective

December 31, 2013

Matching the social platform used in a marketing campaign to the marketing objective of the campaign is the first step  of successful strategy. Yet, all too often, early adopters rush to the shiny new object, regardless of whether it is the right choice for the specific need. And on the extreme opposite of the spectrum, […]

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