Free Giveaways Can't Beat Good Info in the Social-Media Era

Content Marketing Must Build Credibility and Trust by Offering Consumers Facts They Need and Can Use

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I've long struggled with the premise that social-media marketing is something fundamentally different from marketing marketing. I mean, selling and buying have always been social; marketplaces were foundations of communities back in the Dark Ages, and even if we want to pretend that consumers in the 1950s were obedient and isolated automatons, the truth is that they were in many ways more socially involved than the most dedicated Twitter or Pinterest users.

What's felt the strangest to me is the argument for giving away "content" that 's utterly neutral to the established rules of customer acquisition. I've had to stifle a laugh every time some company chose to make no brand promise, offer no transactional payoff, and do it at a price tag of zero to the consumer, with the hope that value would spontaneously appear sometime thereafter.

But I think I've figured out why it bugs me: It's the wrong answer to the right question.

CMOs have to figure out what consumers will use to make purchase decisions if there's no authority, credibility, or trust coming from the traditional social mechanisms that used to help them do so. The institutions in our life don't have much authority anymore. We certainly don't find advertising very credible, and we know now not to trust anonymous online opinions that skew to extremes, or community rankings that net out to lowest-common-denominator consensus.

So the answer du jour is to give consumers free content. Produce enough stuff to earn their attention and belief, after which you can try to get them to pay for things. It's a tactic we've known for a long time as sampling elevated to encompass all of strategy.

Putting free before paid isn't a nutty idea. There have been intriguing experiments in giving away services and then asking customers to pick what price they want to pay for them afterwards. And after all, most consumer purchases are made on consignment (what isn't returnable these days, other than airline tickets and digested food?). But content marketing goes further, and supposes that by giving things away -- be it entertainment in their ads, background info in their social campaigns or actual services -- brands can buy the authority, credibility and trust that were once provided by third-parties or otherwise independent qualities of the marketplace.

It's this answer that rewrites the roles of marketing; there are rules changing and requiring it. Your brand could just as easily pursue a different answer that made the proven mechanisms of social experience work better instead of inventing new ones:

Support institutions, especially media and within your industry.
Favor journalists who've earned real jobs over bloggers who are self-appointed, and demand more transparent policies and standards when you place ads instead of choosing on the basis of eyeballs or clicks alone. Challenge your industry association to be objective on issues, not just advocates for a POV. Forge real standards with real teeth for noncompliance. If institutions have authority, couldn't they can help vet information about your brand instead of you trying to do all the heaving lifting?

Make ads truthful.
Instead of trying to buy credibility with a small percentage of your marketing spend, why not focus the vast majority of it on producing ads that are more believable, useful and supportable? Ads are your primary channel of communication to the world and you still think that 's where you should be funny or otherwise try to attach abstract ideas to your brand. How about using it to tell people stuff they need to know, however creatively, so they attach credibility to your brand instead of clicks on your latest goofy video?

Participate in P2P communities, which means don't try to own or "brand" conversations.
It's pretty clear that consumers want to talk about brands just as they always did, only much of the content they're given now isn't really useful to that purpose. Your creative content strategy risks reducing your brand voice to being just another participant in conversations, or the presumptive overlord of them. Both roles miss the mark. Why not contribute information (again, be as creative as you want) that communities needed or asked for instead?

Marketing is still marketing, and the rules haven't changed, only the circumstances and some of the details. My problem with the content approach is that it presumes otherwise, and I think that 's why many CMOs are still leery of its promises (and why it's sometimes hard to connect the dots between its deliverables and subsequent sales). I'm all for doing what it takes to acquire customers, of course. Sampling works, and I support giving consumers better stuff because they're always searching for sources of authority, credibility, and trust.

I'm just not so sure brands can fill that void consistently by giving away content for free and hoping to get paid for it later on, or that we need a new model called "social" to do it. The question of how to do better marketing is always valid. It deserves better answers.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing decisions consultancy, and author of the just published "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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