Content Marketing Suffers From Cognitive Dissonance

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During Content Marketing World, Keynoter Mindy Kaling joked about the “Etiquette Bitch” speech from her character on “The Office.” Kaling said etiquette would’ve prevented anyone from uttering the word “bitch.” Her character’s reasoning was that she was struggling with coming up with a brand identity.

Content marketing is generally practiced by brands that already have firm identities, but their use of content marketing has its own cognitive dissonance. Is it doing good or doing evil? Do its creators know? Its inherent struggle is based on monetization, in more ways than one. And is judging its value based on how quick audiences convert good or bad?

Content marketing lives at the top of brands’ sales funnels — or in the less revered part of sales cycles. Content creators often end up shortchanged in last-click attribution models, says even Nilla Ali, VP of Strategic Partnerships, BuzzFeed. And her Thursday keynote presentation was about shopping content — which is as close to a blatant “buy now” version of content marketing as a flat-out ad. But even BuzzFeed’s shopping stories may not get last-click attribution.

So, before marketers fix attribution models to offer content marketing more sales credit, let’s take a look at various forms of content. We can debate later if they’re all considered content marketing — because, as a journalist, I can tell you media critics can’t even agree on what content is devoid of calls to action; and, therefore, whether even objective journalism can be considered marketing. And that’s been true for decades — far before content marketing entered the zeitgeist. Even within last week’s conference, there seemed to be polar opposite views on what type of content marketing was kosher.

While the FTC ensures influencers make clear what’s sponsored and what’s not, there are plenty of gray areas. After all, remember when SEO experts didn’t consider keyword stuffing evil? So content marketing best practices are evolving, even among its experts.

So should content marketing inform or sell? Can its function live somewhere in between? During his keynote kicking off Content Marketing World 2019 in Cleveland on Tuesday, Joe Pulizzi — founder of the Content Marketing Institute — urged content marketers to avoid blatantly selling in content marketing. A conference keynoter, Ali, showed how content that recommends what consumers can buy and provides avenues for them to purchase the products can yield impressive results. So where should content marketing live?

Here’s a small comparison:


For content creators like me, there’s the Journalism Code of Ethics. And that code says we have to remain objective. Objectivity means we’re not trying to sell anything. We’re trying to inform our audience, without telling them what they should do.

This type of content lives at the very top of a sales attribution model, because it’s often simply informing B2B and B2C audiences that products and services exist. But media critics will be quick to tell you that there’s inherent bias in this content, too, through presenting basic facts in ways that, say, exclude other facts. For instance, informing readers of two or even 200 products means the writer isn’t mentioning other products.

This content should be devoid of selling.

Custom Content

Brands may ask, for instance, The Washington Post to create custom content for them. Annie Granatstein, who heads up The Washington Post’s in-house creative  agency, WP BrandStudio, spoke on Wednesday about how the newspaper does so.

WaPo custom content runs the gamut from mentioning client brands as infrequently as possible to quite often, depending on what the client wants. Though WP BrandStudio advisors do suggest the marketers agree to the low-frequency mentions, because readers tend to bow out of content that seems overly salesy.

Heather Fletcher is a freelance reporter for Adweek. She covers performance and direct marketing.