Tomorrow I’m sitting on a panel for an entrepreneurial journalism class at Colorado State University. I’m pretty stoked! Two groups of students tasked with creating a media platform for an underrepresented community will be presenting. I’ll hopefully be able to provide some useful insights to guide them forward.

In anticipation of this, I’ve been contemplating something central to content marketing and my personal values: the journalistic ethos. To get my thinking clear I’ve defined all three of these in my own words:

  • ethos: a principled way of thinking about and doing things
  • journalism: capturing and distributing true stories about meaningful topics in a way that reflects disciplined research and analysis, for the benefit of public knowledge (as opposed to malicious gossip, propaganda or raw entertainment)
  • content marketing: creating and distributing useful, engaging stories and insights that help prospects solve problems and make informed choices, with the short-term objective of positioning oneself as a trusted resource and the ultimate objective of attracting clients

Taken together, these things describe why I think content marketing is so great: Content marketing lies at the confluence of sound business judgment and high ethical ideals. This is an under-communicated virtue.

Marketing vs. Journalism: Where the lines blur and where they shouldn’t

Content marketing is to advertising what reporting is to editorializing. None of these things is wrong as long as it doesn’t masquerade as something it is not. Just as an objectively-reported article in the editorial section would bore readers, an editorialized article masquerading as objective reporting would anger readers (at least discerning ones).

Content marketing is analogous to reporting. The purpose of content marketing is to build trust. To do that, you have to provide accurate information. You have to be authoritative, helpful and empathetic.

For instance …

Say you publish a matrix or “guide” comparing your products to your competitor’s products, but you cherry pick. You only compare things along the dimensions that make you look the best. If you conspicuously ignore features that people might need because you want to sell as much as possible to whoever’s out there, you’ll have unhappy clients. Feeling manipulated and mislead, those clients may fillet you on customer review sites, demand refunds and cost you sleep. Not only have you failed to focus on the most high-value clients, you’ve also gambled with your credibility and lost.

This type of manipulation is bad business judgment. Embellishing or glossing over relevant information is counterproductive because it erodes trust, which is the primary purpose of content marketing.

It’s a guide, not a directive.

A journalist (at least, if she’s with Reuters or AP) will pay dearly if she betrays a source or deliberately excludes important details due to bias. The journalist’s responsibility is to shine light into the shadows and, when editorializing, to be transparent about it. Content marketing is analogous to reporting; advertising is analogous to editorializing. Each has its place, but content marketing shouldn’t be self-promotion in disguise.

Journalism and content marketing are there for the same basic reasons: to help people understand complex issues, make informed choices, and sometimes, to inspire and move people.

It’s an aspiration, not a commandment

You don’t need to take this to an extreme. I realize sometimes I get one-sided information and I try to adjust for that in my writing. It wouldn’t be reasonable, however, to hold myself to the standards of a Reuters correspondent.

With content marketing, there’s obviously going to be some bias—you are, after all, representing a brand. My sources tend to be clients and brand representatives who are more familiar with the benefits their products and services provide than they are with the merits of their competitors. The important thing isn’t to be 100 percent objective. It’s to be helpful, earnest and transparent about biases you may have.

Key takeaways

  1. With content marketing, as with reporting, people deserve to be given information that’s accurate and helpful, then left to draw their own conclusions. If you try to tell them how they’re supposed to feel they’ll balk.

    Trust
    Leash not required.
  2. Content marketing is analogous to reporting. Each should provide accurate information that leaves people better informed about the world.
  3. Advertising is analogous to editorializing. An ad or editorial is there to support a point of view. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it’s done honestly.

Content marketing is all about taking the long view. That means having a relational mindset rather than a transactional mindset. If you fudge up the facts in an attempt to disparage your competitors, or if you gloss over important information in an effort to close sales, it’s ultimately going to work against you.

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