My college friend, and Movable Media editor Zora O’Neill is currently on a cruise ship to London (the Queen Mary II). I suggested she read (or as it turned out, re-read, because she is definitely the kind of person who read Harper’s Magazine in the 90’s) David Foster Wallace’s phenomenal 1995 essay “A supposedly fun thing I shall never do again.”, which I still consider to be the best damn thing I have ever read, ever.
I skimmed through the essay again and noticed that DFW actually spent some time ruminating on a promotional cruise ship essay — an paid-for insert, without disclosure of the commercial relationship, for the cruise line. Today, we might simply call it an effective piece of content marketing, or in the parlance of the 1990’s, custom publishing. DFW had the following to say about Conroy’s essay:
This is extremely bad. Here is the argument for why it is bad. Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisements primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too – that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated – and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.
Everything I understand about the current state of publishing says that advertising is failing to effectively monetize its audience, which is causing an overall decline in the quality and rigor of content creation. This trend is bad for everyone: readers, writers, and perhaps civilization in general. My view is that content marketing if done correctly, not only has the potential to be good for writers and brands, but also has the potential to be better for readers. As I have stated elsewhere, the economics behind branded content are much better than the economics behind publisher supported advertising, so brands can afford editors, great writers, and more time for thoughtful and researched writing.
The unease DFW feels about content marketing, however, should not be underestimated. In my view, he has identified the number one obstacle for content marketers. We are building a fairly fragile house of cards here with the branded content movement, and early participants need to be pellucidly clear about their intentions. DFW describes the feeling he gets from being manipulated by content marketing (in this case the feeling is amplified because Pat Conroy, the writer, also happens to be one of his personal heroes):
An ad that pretends to be be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwills’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.
Tragically, David Foster Wallace was already a bit over-susceptible to despair in general. Nevertheless, his words ring true, at least to my ears. As readers, we are increasingly wary of an invisible hand behind the content we consume: some marketer or political group putting its own interests above our own. Conflicting interests are already a huge problem for traditional publishers, so brands will have a steep hill to climb to earn their readers’ trust if they want to be seen as a legitimate alternative. For the new content marketing model to work (by which I mean, specifically, a scenario in which brands compete directly with publishers to provide useful content to an audience) marketers must make a conscious and conspicuous choice, before they even publish their first post: Are they creating content in the interest of the brand, or they are creating content in the interest of the reader. As simple as that. “Both” is not a good answer — if there is a conflict between the reader and the brands interests, you need to know who wins. Either model can and will work. While I personally believe the second approach will ultimately be more effective from a ROI perspective, most of the history of custom publishing has been the first approach working perfectly well. Either way, just keep in mind that it won’t take much to erode the trust of the reader.