Is Lewis DVorkin a visionary or a sell-out? I can never quite make up my mind. That’s never more true than when he writes about content marketing, as he did last Monday.
As Chief Product Officer for Forbes Media he’s done some impressive things to advance the publication’s online and social-media presence, and his “Copy Box” column is essential new-media reading. But whenever he explains AdVoice, the Forbes approach to mixing editorial contributions from advertisers with more traditional editorial, I start feeling queasy.
DVorkin describes AdVoice as an outlet for content marketing, which he defines as “brands using the tools of digital media and social sharing to behave like original-content publishers.” As he goes on to say, the “idea that a company—as a brand and marketer—can be an expert content creator and reach an audience by disintermediating reporters is confusing, threatening and scary to an entire profession that had its way for a century.”
True enough. But content marketing itself doesn’t worry me. As long-time readers of this blog know, I generally like the idea of content marketing.
Where I get uneasy with content marketing, though, is when it starts to look more like advertising.
I think of content marketing as owned media rather than paid media, as published by the originating brand itself, that is, rather than by and under another brand. So when DVorkin talks about integrating his advertisers’ content-marketing efforts into the Forbes brand, I worry that he’s really talking about advertorial.
His first line of defense against that charge is full disclosure. AdVoice, he says, is “a fully transparent way for marketers to publish and curate content on Forbes.com and in our magazine.”
But is transparency an adequate defense? When a publication buys content (from staff writers or contributors), that clearly counts as editorial. But when the publication is paid to publish it (by advertisers), is it still editorial?
For a traditional publisher, the answer would be no. In buying content, a publication is essentially saying that it is good, that it will serve the readers well. When the publication is paid to publish it, though, all bets are off. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter: it’s an ad, not editorial.
But, radically, DVorkin argues against such differentiation between an advertiser’s content and, say, Forbes’s own editorial: “content is content, and transparency makes it possible for many different credible sources to provide useful information.” To a traditionalist, that sounds plain wrong, if not evil.
But of course Forbes is in DVorkin’s view anything but a traditional publication. It is, rather, “a brand-building platform for journalists and expert voices.” In his model, the publisher does not differentiate and ordain content, but simply hosts it without prejudice:
For FORBES, everything we do cascades from a belief that there are five vital constituencies in the media business, each with a different agenda. FORBES certainly has a voice. So does the journalist, the consumer, the social community and the marketer. . . . AdVoice is organic to our experience, not an add on. Our marketing partners use the same tools to post and engage with readers that I do. AdVoice content appears on our home page; it breaks into the Most Popular module when rising page views push it there; it appears dynamically in our real-time stream and channel streams.
In other words, the publisher is no longer a gatekeeper for content, but just one of several equally privileged voices. The publisher’s role now is to provide and share a common platform for community voices.
I’m old enough to find this vision troublesome, and radical enough to see its potential. So I guess I still can’t answer my opening question. What do you think?
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I am fascinated by the move that DVorkin and Forbes.com have made with their redesigned home page, because I think such a move is inevitable. Content that is restricted to the media platform a company owns (its own website) cannot reach as many audience members as it can if it makes it onto a site where information is curated, so companies are certainly motivated to get that visibility, and I don’t think there is much pushback.
Many trade magazines (at least in the building industry) have been publishing company-generated pieces in their print versions for quite some time now. Readers generally seem to accept it, and given the open forum culture that exists online, I expect that pieces produced by marketing departments will gain even greater acceptance… not to mention that economic forces will continue to accelerate the trend.
I think what we will see is that progressive companies will be savvy enough to create or pay for content that rivals traditional publisher-paid pieces. B-to-B publishers may cease to perform the role of gatekeeper (who is going to pay them to keep monitoring the gate?), but, in addition to the maintenance of transparency, readers may be well served by the direct feedback and honest communications that arise from online comments.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It’s an excellent point that the ability for readers to comment on paid advertiser content will help keep it useful and transparent.
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For years, newspapers and many publications have been hiding advertorials as content. Journalists have been forced, often, to write the articles their editors chose, with motives often unclear to anyone but those who were paying them. Additionally, the public believed that these stories were actually news.
While I have always been opposed to advertorials disguised as content, I am also thankful, as Kristin was, for the ability to call out those companies that too thinly veil their motives.
In a perfect world, each company would create their own content that expressed their mission, their values and their services, but the reality is that content, created correctly, is expensive, and without a concrete buyer, it is not always a priority.