'Branded journalism' offers opportunities, pitfalls

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New York—The emerging world of brand journalism—the marketing practice of using digital publishing and social media to speak directly to customers—has publishers, marketers and agencies stepping carefully through an unfamiliar landscape. A note of cautious optimism about the topic was sounded at Monday's Rise of Brand Journalism conference at Forbes Inc. headquarters here. One conclusion reached by presenters was that brand journalism is “the new order of the day,” despite potential pitfalls. “One challenge we all face is scale,” said Steve Rubel, exec VP-global strategy and insights at public relations firm Edelman. “We see paid as the new way to partner with the media, and that it's a triple win for companies, publishers and readers. “The challenge is ensuring that trust is the igniter,” he said. “For a media brand, earned and paid content has to be good across the board.” Goldman Sachs, embattled over its controversial role before and during the recent recession, has found brand journalism to be a subtle means of soothing its battered image, according to Amanda Rubin, managing director-marketing and digital strategy at the investment banking company. “We found that the conversation lacked our voice, and we were struggling about what we could say,” Rubin said. “We've focused on creating valuable content so people have a better perception of our firm. In assessing the performance of the company's content practices, Rubin said, “Click-through rates are meaningless.” “We look at engagement; the actions readers take, the time they spend with our materials and what they share,” she said. “These are behaviors that ratchet up to a broader metric of favorability toward the firm.” At the conference Forbes presented new research, conducted in partnership with IPG Media Lab, that showed branded content has a positive impact on the branding funnel. The report, “Exploring the Effectiveness of Branded Content” (based on an online survey conducted in March that drew 2,259 respondents) showed that branded content produces a 29% boost in unaided brand recall, an 8% increase in brand favorability and a 9% jump in purchase intent. Branded content beats display ads alone but, when combined with display, the two are particularly effective, according to the study, with such metrics as brand recall boosted up to 15%. Panelist Linda Boff, executive director-global brand marketing at General Electric Co., said this only works with strong content that's long on credibility and offers information that readers are interested in. “For GE, any of these experiences on any platforms can get diluted fast if we stop creating what readers want to consume,” she said. “And transparency obtains all around. I can't imagine a brand worth its salt putting themselves in a position where they'd be deceptive, and offer 'bait and switch' content. “The lowest common denominator can bring everyone down quickly,” Boff said.
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