Insights

In the age of co-creation, can we trust brands and journalists to work together?

July 21, 2016

Everyone has a role in the media sphere, right? Content marketing teams work at telling inspiring stories to promote brands, and journalists tell readers the stories unravelling in the world, the reality of what is happening. Audiences know to take branded content with a grain of salt, but have a level of trust in content created by journalists. 

But when branded content is done well, it results in credibility too. Good content wins over the hearts and minds of audiences (eventual clients). Buying a product or service, and believing in a brand story or mission makes people feel like they’re not only learning something new, but can inspire participation in change- a form of consumer empowerment.

Take TOMs shoes, for example. Once a consumer learns about the facts of the international need for shoes, glasses, clean water and safe birth, then buying a pair of TOMS makes them feel good, as TOMS will donate shoes, glasses, etc to someone in need one-for-one with your purchase. This is not only a marketing technique, it’s also newsworthy.

But in some cases, brands may not have the credibility they need to distribute relevant content, and need a little help from credible, professional storytellers.

Investing in Credible Content

At a recent Content Creation Strategy Conference hosted by InfoPresse in Montreal, I attended a session that got me thinking about how brands and journalists can work together in new ways to not only communicate a brand message, but also to educate, entertain and sensitize audiences.

The video game company Ubisoft recently launched The Division, a video game about the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic in New York City where the player “is tasked with helping the Division rebuild its operations, investigating the nature of the outbreak and combating criminal activity in its wake.”

To launch this game to a Canadian audience and to bring it closer to home, Ubisoft partnered with Vice to find out what would happen if such a threat were to take place in Canada today. Vice, an edgy journalism outlet driven by investigative journalism, and not afraid of controversy, was the perfect fit for the job because it’s a news medium popular with a young audience— particularly the gaming crowd.

Sponsored by Ubisoft, Vice produced a documentary to create awareness about infectious disease, interviewing experts across the country, and bringing the reality of the issue to the fore.

The documentary was launched in tandem with the video game launch,– the topic was trending and there was a natural interest for the video game, a win-win for both the journalistic content, and the brand.

Full Disclosure

If Ubisoft were to start talking about the threat of infectious disease outbreaks, few would watch; it’s not their business to talk about real-world problems. But when Vice produces a documentary, audiences sit up and listen.

The key is the credibility of the platform that publishes the content. In this case, the content was sponsored by the Ubisoft brand, but at no point did the content talk about the launch of the new video game theme about fighting a plague.

Does this mean the editorial lines between journalist and brand marketer are blurring?

You betcha. Content is king, and those who understand that have bought in. Brands and journalists have been blurring the editorial lines for some time; and that’s only going to continue.

Over two years ago, years, BuzzFeed, a viral content producer, invested in building a team of investigative and foreign reporters, making it difficult to distinguish between viral, trending and real. Other media outlets have been purchased by major brands or have received investments by them. For example, the Washington Post was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos while eBay founder Pierre Omidyar invested $250 million in First Look Media.

Brands and journalists are working together to stay alive, to thrive. This isn’t advertising, or native content. It’s something different.

Agencies and content marketers are becoming increasingly talented at creating native content. But journalists tell real stories without any brand loyalty every day. They know how to deliver a story that looks at multiple viewpoints; something brands are getting better at, but are often too fearful to do.

Many shades of content

There’s not clear across-the-board solution to how to deal with the blurring editorial lines between brand and news content. The editorial line is no longer black nor white: content authenticity comes in many shades of grey. Each project must be scrutinized on its own merit, and full disclosure will always be a guiding principle.

Ideally, if a journalist doesn’t like a project, and don’t have independence, they should be able to say no. They know their reputation is on the line. At the same time, with decreasing advertising sales revenue, traditional media are looking for new ways to generate profits to stay afloat, and need to make compromises.

There might be something in it for journalists too. Brands are in a unique position to help newsrooms better understand what people are interested in knowing as they become highly skilled at collecting information. Smaller newsrooms don’t have the resources to analyse audience metrics, keep track of what people are interested in. Brands do.

The trend is toward co-creation, what each individual brand and journalist decide is still up in the air. New creation collaborations are possible, and probable, and likely will be far more successful than any of these parties working solo. They have always had a relationship – co-creation is yet another evolution of the mediashpere. It is in evolution.

Will journalists be sceptical about brand expectations? You bet. Should brands be aware that journalists will not cross certain editorial lines? Definitely. Are audiences going to be critical? Of course.

But this can be a win-win. As long as the brand, the news outlet, and the audience are aware of what their role in the project is—with full disclosure— audiences can make up their own minds.