Why trust is everything for brand content

October 25, 2016 3:30 pm

This post was first published on 19 May 2015

This post draws on two separate but related conversations. Speaking on a panel a couple of weeks ago, one of the people who runs the Guardian Labs (who, I should add, is a former colleague and friend) talked about the ways his well-known publication labels advertiser involvement next to content items. A few weeks before that, I had a really interesting chat with someone at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) about the sophistication of the average reader.

How are the two related? You probably have a good idea. Our ability as publishers and brand content creators to be good at the former (the labelling) doesn’t always match up with our assumptions about audiences (the sophistication).

When we get that wrong, as professional content people, we lose trust. And trust is the bedrock of all serious content.

Graham Hayday from Guardian Labs talked about that newspaper whittling down ways to refer to an advertiser’s involvement – including ‘no involvement’ – from a total of eight labels to the current three. (These are ‘Sponsored by’, ‘Brought to you by’ and ‘Supported by’.)

This is an issue most of us will face in the era of brand content. Years ago, there was editorial copy, there was advertising creative/copy that sat next to it, and on occasion there were supplements or ‘advertising features’ that were clearly created by or for paying clients but weaved into or around the main product.

Today there are all manner of standalone commercial creations – brand publications, blogs, white papers, infographics, animations, videos and events (I’m not even going near social media for the moment) – and often these aren’t even the hardest to deal with. Something like the Amex OpenForum publication for small businesses, for instance, is clearly created by that charge card provider, and it wants you to know that.

It’s harder when you look at media publications that are now dabbling in native advertising. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, because a traditional ad (advertisers usually don’t know which stories their creative will appear beside) might not need any labelling, whereas ad creative in a section developed especially for an advertiser (who still doesn’t get sign-off or any input) will. But that kind of ad creative won’t be the same as copy (the ‘native’ bit in native advertising) produced by a brand that will need a special marker, as it appears in the flow of editorial.

So we see ‘Sponsored by’ or ‘Brought to you by’ or ‘Advertising copy’ or ‘Paid post’ or ‘Partner content’ or any number of other phrases. No wonder a publication such as Digiday writes so often about labelling.

But do readers understand the differences? It’s not like these are standardised industry terms. Each publication uses its own judgment.
Phil Morcom, the head of the NUJ’s PR and Communications Industrial Council, addressed the subject of audience comprehension when we spoke a couple of months ago. He discussed the example of the UK, with its unique media landscape. The UK has one of the world’s most sophisticated media markets with high use of online media and multiple commercial players – arguably too many for such a population size – which means lots of innovation. There’s also the rather huge anomaly of the BBC, a public service broadcaster on a scale you just don’t find elsewhere.

Given such a media environment, Morcom asked, how can a reader know the difference between ‘Partner content’ as opposed to a ‘Sponsored post’? What about when an advertiser has supplied the whole package? How do they know when advertisers just want to appear next to a section of a publication, much as they have always done?

With so many ways to differentiate – or not differentiate – ad content from editorial, it will prove very easy for publications to lose reader trust. This is a challenge that will take years of education and openness with audiences, even audiences who are smart and sophisticated about how this all works.

Our advice is for labelling to be as plain and descriptive as possible – though sometimes those two things don’t go together. It’s also not just in a publication’s interest to say the involvement a brand has had. Brands will benefit from readers knowing they are responsible for great content, perhaps doubly so on pages where that great content also means one ‘Sponsored by’ reference rather than a dozen flashing types of display ad. Less really can mean more, for publishers, brands and readers.

Might this issue of trust and labelling be the biggest challenge the content industry faces?

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