The Federal Trade Commission held a workshop last month to discuss the challenges of native advertising, where companies pay to have editorial-style content (or links to that material) featured online, in lieu of traditional advertisements. The big issue is finding ways to mark the difference between traditional editorial and advertiser-presented content, so that readers can know whether or not the content is being featured because of a paid relationship.
Not long ago, most ad content focused on hawking products and services: marketing documents, sales collateral, advertisements and press releases. The idea that companies would dedicate marketing budgets to content that audiences might find useful is a great transformation.
Companies are starting to think of themselves as publishers of information, insights and entertainment tied to issues that they care most about. This shift carries the potential for companies to be more committed to listening to, connecting with and ultimately serving their customers (and other audiences that might see the material). And customers can see, rather than just be told about, a company's knowledge, passion and commitment to the issues its products and services are meant to solve.
Most importantly, new channels allow companies to reach their audiences when, and how, the audience members prefer, with information that serves their wants and needs
Sadly, most companies are making little use of this opportunity. Rather than change the logic by which we view and communicate with our audiences, professionals in public relations, advertising and marketing are largely finding new ways to do what they've always done: design content that promotes products and services. More troubling than that, companies are misusing the opportunities that are presenting themselves.
For instance, a bright light has been shone on the ways in which companies have paid for inauthentic endorsements and other forms of "astroturfing" (fake grassroots content), from the New York State attorney general's crackdown on fabricated Yelp reviews to a long line of stories before it.
That's why governing organizations like the Federal Trade Commission are concerned, as companies increasingly create content that blurs the traditional distinctions between marketing and publishing. The FTC has previously provided disclosure guidelines on how those who endorse a company or its products or services should be transparent when a material relationship exists between that person and the company. But even if the FTC eventually does decide to take action, it will work to establish the minimum of what constitutes proper transparency.
Marketers have to think in larger terms, not just about what is legally required, but what best serves the audience that the company is seeking to reach and what is the ethical imperative for our industry. We can't turn to the government to define what constitutes best practices.
These are issues that industry organizations like the Word of Mouth Marketing Association have spent years focused on. They help define what the "gold standard" of disclosure should be and advocate that marketers take seriously the reputational damage they do to themselves when they don't take the necessary steps to ensure that they and all their employees/partners are taking great care in being transparent. (And, in that spirit, I should mention that I am co-chair of the association's ethics committee.)
I'm grateful that the FTC and others are helping raise the profile of this conversation. Now, it's up to us as marketing professionals to answer the challenge of defining an ethical standard for transparency in so-called "content marketing" that goes beyond questions of legality, and to realize that taking every care to protect our audiences is, in the long run, the best way to ensure that we are also protecting our own organizations' reputation.