Should journalism worry about content marketing?

Corporate brands now compete for audience with an aggressive storytelling strategy

March 2, 2015

(Noma Bar)

At a glance, the Daily Growl could be any morning news meeting held in the “win the internet through pet videos” bureau of a lavishly funded media startup. Rows of eager young people stand behind their monitors–“TMZ-style,” managing editor Lisa Keller told me–as Keller solicits memes and news pegs to supplement the content already scheduled on the team’s editorial calendar. Monitors are tuned to Twitter feeds and Photoshop works in progress. Any of the team’s 10 “community managers” and eight designers might produce as many as 10 postings a day. Those numbers don’t include the constant interaction with fans and followers and strangers that is also a big part of the job. The office is light-filled and, despite the heavy productivity expectations, seemingly free of stress. I’m struck by this, having been in so many newsrooms in which there’s a palpable sense that the media industry, to say nothing of the country and the human race, is at the abyss.

The Daily Growl is the morning ritual of Nestlé Purina PetCare’s content marketing team. Neither the Daily Growl nor its counterpart, the Weekly Meow, are really news meetings. But the Purina operation is, in some ways, closer to a newsroom than journalists would care to admit. As its name, The Feed, suggests, the team produces timely information and entertainment and pushes it out to an audience on social platforms. It’s focused on speed, accountable for accuracy, and perpetually aware of the needs of its readers. The most obvious difference between The Feed’s work and that of an actual newsroom is that the team is explicitly aligned with the interests of the world’s second-largest pet food company. Then again, boundaries between editorial and advertising in journalism newsrooms aren’t what they used to be. Editors at Time Inc. now report to managers on the business side, and a series of recently leaked emails suggests that executives at Vice expect to know in advance about stories that mention advertisers or other corporate brands. That The Feed’s work is overtly coming from a brand is arguably a win for transparency.

Everyone I talked to for this piece seems to agree that some essential distinction between journalism and content marketing needs to be preserved, but no one agrees on exactly what that distinction should be.

The Feed devotes itself to customer service, with the ultimate goal of making money. Signs posted throughout the team’s office remind members of this: “Engage,” “Impact Business Now,” “Convert,” “Results.” How different are these reminders of the realities of capitalism from the various measures of popularity (total traffic, new readers, etc.) prominently displayed in newsrooms? Are the lists a reminder that reporters should be giving readers what they want, or just rankings of the writers whose stories have been most successfully monetized that day, not unlike the sales-leader board in a firm hawking timeshares?

Another thing The Feed’s work on behalf of Purina has in common with the work of journalists on behalf of their own (often corporate) owners: People are reading it.

The employees of The Feed are practitioners of a shape-shifting genre that has taken over billions of dollars of corporate marketing budgets globally in the last decade. Content marketing is so broad that it eludes definition even by its most ardent practitioners, but the term includes essentially any form of content (a Facebook post, a celebrity Q&A, a feature-length documentary) created by or on behalf of a brand with the hope that it will attract an audience on its own merits–as opposed to traditional advertising, which has the far smaller ambition of gaining notice from a captive audience before the ad break ends, or the page gets flipped, and the real content begins.

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Most content marketing bypasses traditional media entirely, and as such it threatens to further erode journalism’s dwindling advertising revenue. “Native advertising,” stories commissioned by an advertiser that mimic the style and voice of a given publisher’s journalism, is the exception. This form of content marketing generates significant revenue for publications–and surely complicates any concern journalists have about corporate America’s foray into storytelling. BuzzFeed was a pioneer of native ads, and in doing so created a new kind of media company that functions as a hybrid of news publisher and ad agency. BuzzFeed employs an editorial team of more than 200 to produce everything from foreign coverage to funny quizzes, and a creative team of 65 that produces work in BuzzFeed’s editorial sensibility on behalf of corporate clients. Native ads are seen by some as a natural progression for publishers seeking new ways to connect their audience with advertisers, and by others as journalism selling its last point of distinction to the highest bidder. The debate is ongoing among everyone, it seems, but journalism CEOs: Virtually every major publisher is now pursuing native advertising in some form. The genre has had both success stories (The New York Times‘ explainer on women in prison on behalf of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black), and failures (The Atlantic‘s advertorial love letter to the Church of Scientology). But one day soon, native advertising may be recalled as a quaint evolutionary step, as brands are increasingly comfortable simply reaching an audience themselves.

Advertisers and journalists have always been partners, and that partnership contained an inherent tension. Content marketing has the potential to turn that tension into an existential threat.

As journalism newsrooms have diminished in strength and ambition over the last decade, “brand newsrooms,” a term that’s now used casually within the marketing and PR industry, are booming–and have been for some time. As Sam Slaughter, the vice president of content at Contently, a software platform with a network of freelance writers available to both marketers and journalism publishers, notes, Red Bull was covering the action-sports industry when “BuzzFeed was just a twinkle in Jonah Peretti’s eye.” American Express has a publication devoted to small-business owners, and General Electric covers its own scientists and hopes to never send another press release to an inattentive newspaper reporter. Chevron runs a community news site for Richmond, CA, where it is the town’s largest employer. Coca-Cola now reportedly spends more money creating its own content than it does on television advertising.

Nestlé, Purina’s parent and the world’s largest food company, creates more than 1,500 pieces of content each day company-wide, and its brands have accumulated more than 250 million Facebook fans.

Advertisers and journalists have always been partners, and that partnership has always contained an inherent tension. Content marketing has the potential to turn that tension into an existential threat. Journalists like to think of themselves as protectors of the public interest, intermediaries who police both fact and rhetoric. The very premise of the profession is that it’s dangerous to have words pass straight from the mouths of CEOs or politicians to the public’s ear. This intermediary function is at the core of journalism’s identity and, though it wasn’t always thought of this way, the core of its business model. But each successful piece of content marketing is, in effect, a statement that a journalist wasn’t wanted or needed. Each time a consumer clicks on a piece of content marketing, or shares it with a friend, it’s confirmation that they’re very comfortable being out there in the information landscape on their own.

The Feed is located in the main building of Purina’s St. Louis headquarters, a 15-story, tan-brick structure that is indistinct except for a giant banner of a cat pawing a baseball, draped down one side just before my visit in late September, in honor of the Cardinals’ appearance in the playoffs.

In the lobby, I’m surrounded by photos of Purina employees playing with their pets. A store in the basement sells Nestlé products at a discount. Employees can order dog or cat food in bulk. Attractive perks, but unlike many journalists who enter Purina’s headquarters these days, I wasn’t there to interview for a content-marketing position. Purina is, by some measures, St. Louis’ largest media company. Purina Pro Plan’s nutrition-minded Facebook account has some 700,000 likes; the account for Beggin’ Strips, a dog treat, has about 1.1 million. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Facebook page, meanwhile, has a mere 120,000 likes–though given the social Web’s taste for pet photos, perhaps it’s not a fair comparison.

Chevron runs a community-news site for Richmond, CA, where it is the town’s largest employer. Coca-Cola now spends more money creating its own content than it does on television advertising.

The man who built The Feed is Rick Spiekermann, a 25-year veteran of Purina’s marketing side. His bosses assigned him the task in January 2013, at a time when the rise of the social Web was presenting brands with an all-purpose medium that combined the self-publishing reach of platforms like YouTube, the advertising audience offered by print or television, and the customer-service element traditionally filled by an 800 number. It was a new age in which consumers and brands could interact in real time in a public forum, and Spiekermann, like marketers around the country, was eager to take advantage of the opportunity. The nature of these platforms was such that it wasn’t enough for companies to simply post display ads. Who would click on that? They had to give customers some kind of value in order to get them to read the content. In Purina’s case, this could mean information about pet health, or funny pictures–anything that would tap into humans’ intense devotion to their pets. An added goal was to persuade consumers, ever skeptical of advertisers, to think of these brands as something other than marketers. You had to be sort of like a friend. Besides attracting an audience, the idea was to get that audience to think of them not as companies trying to sell something, but as experts in the field, trusted purveyors of information that people want and need.

Spiekermann knew that journalists would be perfect for this task, and one of the first journalists he hired was Stacy Schultz, who had been managing editor of a magazine that covers the St. Louis restaurant scene. Schultz told me that although the content she creates now is shorter, cranking through a month-long editorial calendar that can include as many as 150 pieces of content feels a lot like her previous job. Much of her day, though, is spent interacting with customers. “If I know their dog had surgery, or was sick, or had a birthday, it’s my responsibility to be checking back in, calling that dog by name,” she says. “It’s really my role to build a relationship with that consumer. It goes way beyond one two-minute tweet.”

The best content marketing blends news, promotion, and customer engagement so skillfully as to be unclassifiable. In 2009, the ad agency JWT won a closet full of industry awards for hiring tech journalists and transforming itself into a “news agency” that engaged in real-time discussions with IT professionals on behalf of Microsoft.

Kyle Monson left PC Magazine to work on the Microsoft campaign, and now is a partner in an ad agency called Knock Twice that produces brand journalism. “I think a lot of the audience challenges and skepticism that we were facing back in 2009 are gone,” Monson says about his work in brand journalism. “We don’t have to overcome the same level of innate skepticism that we did a few years ago. General audiences, especially millennials, are now very comfortable hearing from brands.”

Once The Feed was staffed, Spiekermann took his charges to train at what is now called BuzzFeed University–a program developed to teach corporate content teams how to approach their work in the style of the Web’s hottest social-news and entertainment publisher. BuzzFeed was founded on the insight that people treat their social-media feeds as a kind of homepage that offers news about their life, and that the best way for a publisher to be part of that feed is to create content that people want to share with their friends. BuzzFeed taught Purina that putting “shareability” at the heart of every post was particularly important for brands that want to endear themselves to a community.

Purina has created its own platforms and integrated them into the social Web. Purina’s PetCentric site generated peak traffic of 38 million visitors via Facebook in one month, a reach that dwarfs that of many traditional publishers. The site’s content suggests how successful corporate brands can be at crafting an editorial sensibility that readers find just as compelling as the ones they borrow, as it were, from publishers via native advertising. A PetCentric post such as “Lincoln, the Formerly Quadriplegic Miracle Kitty, Turns One,” is remarkably similar to a story that might appear on Upworthy; General Mills’ “17 Waffle Flavors You Never Knew Existed” could have been at home on BuzzFeed, with or without a sponsorship fee.

The main concern about native advertising has been whether content is properly labeled. But it’s not a lack of labels that makes it difficult to parse the difference between content Purina produces in house, content it pays creative teams at publications like BuzzFeed to create on its behalf, and content the company sponsors but otherwise has no editorial control over, such as the “Tips to Keep Your Best Friend Healthy” section at WebMD. Or, for that matter, between any of that content and much of what appears in the pet section of The New York Times‘ Well blog. Often, the labels are the only discernible difference. It’s not that readers don’t know where each piece of content comes from–it’s a question of how much they care.

I was accompanied by someone from PR my entire time at Purina, and spent my second day with Kim Beardslee, who I had previously seen playing with her dog in a photo hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. We talked about the shifting relationship between public relations and journalism in an era in which it’s no longer taboo for brands to pay to be featured in content resembling news stories.

When Beardslee’s career began nine years ago, she could ask a local TV station if it was interested in speaking to an expert from her company, and it was clear that she was pitching the expert in the context of a news story. Today, Beardslee and other members of Purina’s PR department are sometimes unsure which stories will be seen as news segments, and which will be treated as “integrations,” requiring a sponsorship fee. In the last few years, they say, the news department at KMOV, the St. Louis CBS affiliate, has forwarded pitches from Purina that might have once been treated as news segments on to the staff of a separate KMOV program that offers to air them in exchange for a sponsorship fee. “It’s either you pay to have your story told or they’re not going to work with you,” says Bill Etling, Beardslee’s boss and the director of public relations for Purina’s marketing department. (Brian Thouvenot, KMOV’s news director, said the station doesn’t run paid segments in its newscasts. Pitches that are “purely promotional” are passed on to Great Day St. Louis, a talk show run by the station’s creative services and marketing department that does air paid segments.)

Etling noted that this is starting to happen at the national level, too. Beardslee, a new mother, mentioned how she had recently watched a segment on NBC’s Today on tips for getting your baby a good night’s rest. Although the segment was hosted by Today‘s regular anchors, one of the featured experts was a Johnson & Johnson executive, because the company had paid for the segment.

One of the most revered companies in content marketing is Chipotle Mexican Grill, in large part because of its ability to draw a big audience without having to resort to these sorts of tactics. Rather than pay for native advertising, Chipotle has created consistent content-marketing hits in the realm of entertainment. The company’s 2011 anti-factory farming animated short, set to Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s The Scientist, earned 8.5 million views on YouTube.

Another animated short, about a scarecrow living in a dystopian future where all the world’s food was controlled by one company, drew 13.5 million views and became a viral sensation. Most ambitiously, the company produced Farmed and Dangerous, a four-part satirical miniseries about an agribusiness spin-doctor. According to Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director, it got about half a billion media impressions, which is a measure of the total attention it received across all media.

Arnold told me that the decision to produce content marketing that stays explicitly in the realm of entertainment was a deliberate one. “Unlike native advertising and the stuff that populates BuzzFeed or HuffPost, our content is not masquerading as journalism in any fashion,” he said.

Of course, the distinction Arnold makes between journalism and entertainment has long been fuzzy, but his point gets at something important: Should we worry more about content marketing when it takes on issues that also are fodder for serious journalism–such as the problems with industrial agriculture? The content that Purina produces, by and large, isn’t going to shape someone’s understanding of an issue of global significance. The same can’t be said for Chipotle’s entertainment content. Is a light piece of marketing in the form of a news story any more or less of a problem–for the public or for journalism–than a serious piece of marketing in the form of entertainment? I’m not sure.

An important distinction between most journalism and marketing is the mandate to follow a story where it leads, and offer it to readers in the spirit of public interest. But it may also be true that this principle that we journalists hold dear–the idea of not being invested in a story’s outcome–is more important to us than it is to the people we purport to write for.

Intermixed in all those social-media feeds, journalism and content marketing exist on the same spectrum. At one end is the investigative piece on worker safety that Purina–or any other marketing operation–won’t be commissioning anytime soon. On the other end is the tone-deaf piece of corporate propaganda that few readers would be fooled by or share with their friends. In between is an array of entertainment and information of varying ambitions and origins.

Everyone I talked to for this piece seemed to agree that some essential distinction between journalism and content marketing needs to be preserved, but no one agrees on what that distinction should be. Chipotle certainly understood the connection between its Farmed and Dangerous series and the actual journalism produced about the problems of industrial agriculture. As a means to promote and add journalistic context to that marketing hit, the company paid The Huffington Post to create “Food for Thought,” a section of its website devoted to covering issues of farming and sustainability. Chipotle dictated the section’s theme and subject matter, but had no editorial control over the actual content. (Chipotle has ended its sponsorship, but the section is still live.)

Like Chipotle, The New York Times thinks it’s important to take clear stances regarding the kind of content marketing it’s willing to pursue. But the Times‘ stance is effectively the opposite of Chipotle’s. Since launching its in-house native advertising shop in January, the Times has produced stories for clients from Netflix to Chevron to Goldman Sachs, but when I asked whether it was considering sponsored coverage similar to what Chipotle funded at The Huffington Post, a spokeswoman responded, “the answer to that is a hard no,” and included a smiley emoticon for good measure.

My first guide in the world of content marketing was Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat, which provides data on readers’ online behavior to many of the world’s largest publishers, both journalistic and marketing. Having little prior knowledge of the space, I presumed that it was brands fighting it out over customers the way they always had, with Coke going up against Pepsi in much the same way that the New York Post fights it out with the Daily News. He told me that both the goal and the challenge were in fact far more audacious. Given that audiences only have a fixed amount of attention, and that on the Web they’re only one click away from every piece of information on the planet, the challenge wasn’t how to compete against other brands, it was how to compete with media–all of it. “If Coke says, ‘I want to get someone to come to my site every day for five minutes,’ ” Haile said, then what it offers has to be up to the “standards of some of the great media sites on the planet.” He stressed five minutes as if that was an insurmountable goal.

During one of my conversations with Spiekermann, we were happened upon by Steve Crimmins, Purina’s chief marketing officer. It wasn’t long before Crimmins was due on set with his Yellow Lab, Zoey, to film a paid integration for the National Dog Show, but he happily sat down to speak about Purina’s growing responsibilities as a media company. I explained that many newspapers have a position known as an ombudsman, who serves as a reader advocate and often writes harshly about the paper’s own coverage, putting the interests of the public above those of his or her employer. Considering that Purina and other companies were increasingly in a position of covering themselves, might they get to a point where they would consider hiring for such a position? Both marketers were enthused. Spiekermann wrote it down in his notebook.

“That’s an interesting thought,” Crimmins said, and gave it a few minutes before adding, “I love the idea, the more I think about it. It would be like a consumer advocate.”

I meant the question in earnest, but their eagerness made me realize something: Brands are really good at finding new ways to adopt the aspects of journalism that most appeal to the public–and they’re getting better at it every day. Of course it would be a good idea for Purina to hire someone to play an ombudsman-like role, just as it was a good idea a few years back for Domino’s to launch a campaign acknowledging that its pizza used to suck but now was new and improved–a campaign The Washington Post called “sheer corporate candor.” McDonald’s already effectively added an ombudsman, launching a social-media campaign called “Our food. Your questions.

I had every faith that the Purina ombudsman would be skilled and accurate and, like everyone else on The Feed, would take the best interests of pet lovers to heart. She would be a journalist in most every way except for the independence, and that would probably be just fine with her audience.

As content marketers grow more sophisticated, they will continue to adopt the trappings of journalism if not the journalistic mission, creating a world in which more and more content looks and feels the same but in fact isn’t. The truth is, we’ve always been out there in the information landscape on our own, choosing what to trust and what to ignore. The difference now is that there are fewer distinct features, fewer landmarks to guide us. Instead, we have labels. The landscape is flattening, and flattening fast.

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.