Why Content Marketing 2.0 is like ‘Inception'

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Long-time marketers may remember the small, imprecise quiver of arrows we had for brand building 15 years ago. One particularly popular tactic was special advertising sections, a.k.a. advertorials. Newspapers and magazines printed advertorials in a different font from their regular content and hid them embarrassedly inside their pages. The Internet has exposed the shortcomings of this tactic. Much has been written about how technology helps personalize marketing, bringing us back to the 1:1 relationship selling that dominated marketing 100 years ago. That's all true. What I'm particularly interested in is the opportunity this creates for "brand journalism," which I see as the most important facet of Content Marketing 2.0. In the old era, media partners like newspapers had to be discreet about their special advertising sections because they knew the content would only appeal to a tiny fraction of their overall readership. With the advent of Google and social media like Twitter and Facebook, advertorial content is discovered by the readers who want it. As a result, publishers feel less pressure to erect the big wall between editorial and advertising. For instance, our partner CBS Interactive hosts a blog on its ZDNet tech news site sponsored by Sybase on enterprise mobility. Written by a former tech journalist, UberMobile has proven to be a big success in its first year of existence (including winning the top blog honors from this very magazine). That brings me to the brand journalism part. The barriers to entry for blogging and Twitter are absurdly low. As evidenced by this very piece, anyone can blog now. But not everyone can do it well. So rather than hiring a fresh college grad whose chief qualification is his number of Facebook friends, we brought on an experienced reporter who could write in an intelligent—and balanced—way about the industry, and do it fast and often. Think of it as being similar to an endowed chair at a university business school. That professor has 100% free rein to research and write about what he wants, though, obviously, he is unlikely to bite the hand that feeds him and directly criticize his corporate sponsor. Not tasking our brand journalist to explicitly promote Sybase (or our parent company, SAP) raises his credibility and makes him more effective at promoting our agenda. This is not just my belief; we have the numbers to prove this. This is the paradox explained by British author John Kay in his new book , "Obliquity," in which he argues that a person or organization is more effective at reaching a goal, whether it's happiness or profit, when they are not deliberately pursuing it. Or take the movie "Inception" (I bet you were wondering when I would get to it). In that movie, a corporate heir is moved to break apart the conglomerate carefully built up by his late father after he is "incepted" by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio with an idea: Not that he should split up his inherited asset, but that his father loved him and wanted him to forge his own path in life. That indirectly gave the man permission to do so. Similarly, the new way to reach the primary IT decision-maker--the CIO--is not to bombard him or her with emails and sales calls. With the "consumerization of IT" trend, the work-style preferences of employees become as important as business process needs for determining how IT will be deployed. So educate the programmers who work for the CIO, the vocal power users, the line-of-business managers agitating for new applications and the senior executives who covet the tablet their peers carry. Their collective lobbying efforts create the tipping point within an enterprise for new initiatives like mobility, which benefits vendors like Sybase. The net net: a brand journalism-based approach to content marketing can be an effective tool for turning your company into a thought leader. But make sure to give your brand journalists the freedom that they would enjoy on the media side. By not forcing them to plug your company is exactly how you'll make them more effective at doing so.
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