Header image from: Science 09 Mar 2018

The necessity of a strict ethical stance on content marketing is captured by the following statement:

“…the content you’re creating now is going to outlast both its relevance and your own lifetime.”

Julia McCoy, ExpressWriters.com

News, entertainment, and advertisements were once delivered from a limited pool of sources through printed materials and unified television and radio broadcasts. Audiences are now able to access all three at an unprecedented pace and through avenues of their choosing. According to IBM’s 2013 article, “2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day…” Five years ago, 90% of the data in the world had been created in the prior two years. Forbes contributor Esther Bonardi listed the following transactions that occur each minute:

  • YouTube users watch almost 4.15 million videos.
  • Over 103 million spam emails are sent.
  • 456,000 tweets are sent.
  • Almost 2.7 million gigabytes of internet data are used by Americans

This increased access has blurred the lines of authority, making non-factual content indiscernible from journalism. Studies conducted on both sponsored content and its evil twin, ‘fake news’ have shown that audiences are more likely to share and engage with sensational content as long as it elicits an emotional response.

A 2016 study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that over eighty percent of middle school students accept sponsored content as news articles. Regardless of the piece bearing a “sponsored content” label, students “…still believed that it was a news article.” As noted by Camila Domonoske on NPR.org, the acceptance of sponsored content as news indicates confusion as to what the term means.

In their 2015 study, native advertising company TripleLift, confirms this lack of clarity. 209 participants were shown five versions of the same ad with different disclosure titles, starting with ‘advertisement.’ While this was the clearest label, it was also the least popular, resulting in the content being ‘seen’ by only 23% of participants. Netizens have trained themselves to avoid ads. Between personal mental cues and ad blockers, content creators are tasked with producing meaningful work that serves both their clients and audiences.

In the March 2018 issue of Science, Lazer et al. stated:

“…we view the defining element of fake news to be the intent and processes of the publisher.”

The defining elements of the most pernicious form of content are integral parts of content strategy; intent and process. Regardless of the quality and integrity of a strategy, the goal is to result in a specific interaction by the audience. In order to achieve this goal, the creator and sponsor must build trust with the audience.

In order to do so, the content must begin with a foundation of transparency as defined by Ikonen, Luoma-aho, and Bowen:

“…transparency is “the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from a sender” (Schnackenberg & Tomlinson, 2016, p. 1788)… This definition includes the idea that disclosure of information must be perceived properly by the receivers in order for it to be effective.”

While the ‘proper’ reception is beyond a content marketer’s control, disclosure is a critical facet of their charge. Bearing in mind that “…Individuals tend not to question the credibility of information unless it violates their preconceptions” (Lazer et. al), content marketers must seek to earn and maintain that credibility. To that end, the advice provided by Esther Bonardi on Forbes can serve as a preliminary framework:

  • Publish for value.
    Shifting the focus from publishing for commercial gain to providing value is the first step towards a more ethical standard of content marketing.
  • Keep it simple.
    Simplicity is critical in the current age of shortened attention. 
  • Create, recast, and layer.
    Careless execution of recasting can result in lazy duplicate content, however, Bonardi frames this step as a series of questions a creator may ask themselves with consideration to the different ways their audience consumes content.

In direct opposition to Bonardi’s first point, Jayson DeMers states:

Audiences are hungry. Social audiences are hungry for surprising, cutting-edge content that they can share with their friends and followers if it incites an emotional reaction—so much so that they don’t care about its value. If you’re able to provide that content, they’ll flock to you.

However, engaging and valuable do not need to be mutually exclusive features. Effective content can be both. Further in his writing, Demers states:

Judgments are instantaneous. People don’t take the time to make careful evaluations of the content they read. Instead, they read headlines and form judgments instantly. Use this quality to your advantage in your content campaigns moving forward by thinking carefully about the headlines you use in your content.

Which then reinforces Bonardi’s secondary point regarding simplicity. An example of engaging content that provides value and draws in audiences can be seen in the Moz team’s campaign for their client, Abodo. Abodo is an apartment listing site, and the Moz team elected to conduct and publish a study covering a sensitive topic; which cities in America had the highest concentration of both prejudiced and tolerant Tweets.

The campaign made use of engaging titles, extensive research, and presented both positive and negative findings impartially. The risk proved successful, with quantifiable results including: over 600 ‘placements’ or backlinks, features on “high-authority sites including CNET, Slate, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, Mic, The Daily Beast, and Adweek,” and over 60k social shares.

In presenting the results of the experiment, Kelsey Libert cites the principles the team followed to minimize risk. However, the same five points hold true as an approach to ethical content creation:

1. Presenting data vs. taking a stance: Let the data speak.

2. Present more than one side of the story.

3. Don’t go in with an agenda.

4. Be transparent about your methodology.

5. Don’t feed the trolls.

Number five is particularly relevant, regardless of its casual terminology; Libert emphasizes the importance of fact checking and quality assurance. There is no shortage of readers waiting to share content for its relevance or tear it down for its flaws. Content marketers must prepare content that will fuel the former without leaving room for attack or misrepresentation by adhering to a code of ethics. The growth of social networking has shown that people enjoy sharing, but it is up to the content creators to shift the quality of what users are engaging with.