The Case for and Against Brands Publishing Content
Using Bob Parsons' recent self-immolating social-media experiment to debate the merits of brands publishing content is like using Charlie Sheen to contrast acting techniques, but maybe it's a good time to think about it. Here's another angle on the topic (and it's certified dead-elephant-free):
I'm on the advisory board of an online community called Social Media Today, where I also post occasional essays. SMT is an "open community," so there's no gatekeeper deciding which opinions are fit to print (background and style are vetted, but not facts). The community votes with eyeballs and comments on what's true or not. Brands can advertise or sponsor the site but have no say on what gets published.
A few weeks ago, one of its sibling sites, The Energy Collective, ran a post that minimized the nuclear crisis in Japan. The essay went viral and prompted more than 100,000 visits before a blogger for Salon.com ("Salon") read it and wrote a piece claiming the story was part of a pro-nuclear campaign, and that TEC was run by its corporate sponsor. Salon doesn't take responsibility for its bloggers' stories either, so TEC's only recourse was to write its own smackdown reply and hope that The Crowd would fix things. So far, 173 mostly obscenity-laden comments to the Salon post haven't exactly set the record straight.
So who's telling the truth? If everyone is biased and somehow on the take, then what makes your brands' published content any more true?
Remember those slow multiple-sourced facts expressed in long paragraphs of text printed on -- gasp! -- paper? We used to rely on news reporting to tell us the truth, even though reporters were biased and imperfect human beings who walked an awkward line between relevance and sensationalism. Traditional media were equal-opportunity abusers when it came to misstatements or slips of rigor. When businesses wanted to talk directly to the world, they took out ads or answered the phones in customer service.
Now, brands publish content, and the Parsons and SMT cases suggest that CMOs ask this question: Do you believe that consumers want to talk "with" brands (from brand-owned sites or the output of employees) or talk "about" them (between independent bloggers published on community platforms)? I think the latter gets closer to the truths that traditional reportage used to create.
I say it because brands don't exist the same way rocks or tax returns do. Branding is created by people who are speaking on behalf of the business operations that pay for their efforts. Brands are lenses, so the stuff you create is biased by purpose and practice, which isn't a crime but certainly isn't synonymous with news or truth. When you produce branded content, it's paid placement, like the accusation the Salon blogger made against the SMT blogger. It's people talking for the brand, and there's no mechanism within your published content that makes it true.
Conversely, open online communities are to truth what the Wild West was to justice. Everyone has a bias and ulterior motive, so you can assume that every participant starts with distrust and disbelief, and that they'll duke it out to conclude the lowest common denominators of truth. If you insert your brand as a participant in this process, don't you become just another voice that can be doubted? Owning the process is even worse, because you risk tainting whatever occurs within it.
Just because the technology exists to allow you to broadcast to your customers doesn't mean that you should do it, because no models or new rules will make what you say true. Consider these alternate publishing strategies:
Make your brand a relentless source of factual data. Instead of producing inane entertainment content, why not spend those resources on making better, deeper and more-frequent factually accurate information available to anybody who wants it? Full stop. Be transparent about it, too.
Let people disagree. Skip even the hint of spin, and that includes trying to get bloggers to get smarter or change their minds. You need to learn to tolerate a ton of disagreement and misunderstanding (often purposeful). If you pay someone to promote your POV, you will denigrate your message.
Actively encourage independent debates. The logic of new media suggests that a greater number of conversations will get to truthful conclusions quicker. It also means that the more useless dreck you send into the cosmos, the more your brand impedes this behavior and could be doubted.
Ultimately, your brand was always in the content-publishing business, only content used to be called "information." Perhaps you should stick to the products and services about which you're qualified to speak, and allow independent people and communities to separate the wheat from the chaff.