“Public media organizations need to find funding for the creation of their services. It is no surprise that funders come with their own ideas and agendas. What policies are needed to ensure that while funding is provided, it is not influencing the content?” (Byron Knight, University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics)
Conversations like this have been scarce outside public media and journalism, despite the obvious trend of digital content being manipulated for profit. This question was posed by a group of scholars, analysts, executives, and other experts in public television and radio who had gathered to formally discuss the issue of editorial integrity in public media. Respectable journalists purely serve their readers, but too often content and ecommerce marketers serve their funders more than their audiences. Especially in affiliate marketing, where the writer is providing the reader a special link to a product or service to earn a referral commission, these residual income sources can easily be abused.
When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post, the publication got a lot of flack from some readers about its seemingly-new affiliate links riddled throughout its articles. Others were fans of this marketing move by the WP, arguing that they’re creating a better experience for the reader and a logical revenue stream. In the end, the WP chose to remove many of the links. (Mashable) But if affiliate links are relevant to the content and convenient to the reader – isn’t this a more gracious way to market to readers than blocking content with a huge graphical banner? If journalists are faced with so much grief, what should be expected of bloggers who produce content specifically to sell something?
Editorial Integrity: The Marketer’s Key to Credibility
Editorial integrity has long been a concern in public media and journalism. It’s central to all a journalist does. A journalist’s mission is to serve the public — honestly and ethically. (Public Media Code of Integrity) Whether it’s an objective or subjective piece, the value of the content they produce should be intended entirely for the benefit of the reader, and never the agendas of the financiers, partisan parties, or anyone else. Their credibility depends on it.
Clearly, marketing in the digital age is difficult to execute with tact. Digital marketers must dance a fine line between selling and educating. Traditional marketing content aims to sell, but marketing departments need to adopt a more journalistic approach to better serve the current customer’s behavior.
“Without integrity your journalism is untrustworthy and suspect. Integrity gives a journalist the authority to investigate issues, shine a light in dark places and to dig where others don’t. It is essential for informing the public debate with trustworthy, rigorous journalism… Everyday news releases arrive in the newsroom promoting a product or a company, often these are disguised as news items, when clearly they are advertising material.” (Media Helping Media)
This is likely why our society is often suspicious of marketers and why content marketing was initially such a breath of fresh air to consumers. For generations, marketers have been widely seen as truth-spinners, known for deceptively describing products and services not exactly as they are. Media consumers have grown acclimated to assume that most marketing media is corrupt or biased, paid for by corner-suite marketing executives. At its purest, content marketing serves the same purpose as journalism: to educate, inform, and entertain – without hidden agendas or being dishonest about the facts.
A Changing Marketing Landscape
Now that people all over the globe have access to more information than ever before, these kind of sales-driven, PR-coated marketing tactics aren’t just scoffed at by consumers; they can destroy a company’s credibility, break the consumer’s fragile trust, and have a huge impact on a business’s success. Consumers are researching, making more educated decisions, reading reviews, and seeing through the marketer’s underhanded activities.
The digital era has transformed how marketing materials are created and distributed — and the ways that marketers and customers are engaging with one another. Content marketing was coined after marketers saw a decade of bloggers essentially writing opinion columns about things that they genuinely cared about or took an interest in. Now marketers are seeking out established audiences and curate user-generated media.
Marketers always follow eyeballs and have taken ample notice of the audience engagement with genuine content marketing. This is great for media producers who have gotten to capitalize on this revenue stream, but unfortunately for the consumer, content producers compromise their integrity. To top it off, pseudo-journalists and novice marketers have begun over publishing to get their hands on some of that cold, hard marketer’s cash, too. Many publications have turned into a hot mess of sponsored links, affiliate links, and ads. It is offensive to consumers. They have higher expectations and standards for transparency and accountability.
As product marketers increasingly solicit social media mavens and bloggers with established audiences seeking sales from affiliate links, it’s crucial that we take a stand to serve those who come to us seeking information and education.
So when you have an audience that marketers are willing to pay to showcase their products to, what should you do? You have to make a living somehow, so how do you dance that fine line between selling and educating with finesse?
Editorial Integrity Code #1: Keep It Organic
The best content marketers stay true to the organic opinion column format that the discipline was birthed from. As millions of would-be marketers, podcasters, journalists, bloggers, and other media producers and are throwing in their voices, they are also throwing in the voices of their funders. The endless surge of manipulated content is bringing an even greater cloudiness to the integrity of information in the digital space and doing a huge disservice to the people it is meant to help.
The big idea is that affiliate links and other in-the-media marketing efforts are warranted if they add value to the publication. If you want to drop in an affiliate link or two, think through the purpose of your piece. Why is this information valuable to your audience? Even if your goal is to make a profit or you are aiming to sell something, the link should be editorially justified. Does the link point to further detail on a relevant topic or better educate your reader? Does it feel out of context or salesly to throw it in? If you mention a product, service, or organization that’s not clearly relevant to the information surrounding it or it’s simply promoting a product, it probably feels that way to your reader, too.
It’s difficult to regulate everything that goes out, but we can start with being honest and transparent in our own media publications.
Editorial Integrity Code #2: Be Transparent
Transparency is two-fold. First, there’s the obvious issue of not being dishonest, but there’s also the need to be cautious to not even give the impression of dishonesty. If you are endorsing a commercial product or service, you should always be upfront about it. If you even give the perception that you are, people will assume that’s the case. Get used to using the phrase “full disclosure.”
One way you can lead your readers to suspect you is by using material from advertising campaigns or promotions without revealing the source. Another way publishers are falling short in transparency is with poorly thought-through links. If your link points to a direct and specific page that explain more about your subject instead of just a homepage, you will appear more credible than if you practice the opposite. You should also make sure you’re also linking to sites that are normally free to access and factually accurate.
Consumers also notice when you are repeatedly referencing brand names or logos. They are suspicious of hype, spins, propaganda, misinformation, part-truths, and even full-blown lies. Take care to reference these kinds of particulars sparingly unless you have obvious reasons for focusing on a particular brand. If it’s not obvious, it can come off as deceptive even if it’s not.
Editorial Integrity Code #3: Make Money, But Don’t Manipulate or Be Manipulated
When you’re planning what topics to address in your content, check yourself to make sure your intentions to include it are for your own independent reasons. Be cautious that you don’t spin the facts for the benefit of partisan parties, funding parties, or commercial companies. Your audience will trust you more if you retain control of all your published content and don’t give the impression that you are manipulating the truth for someone else’s advantage.
Also, don’t manipulate the reader for financial or any other kind of gain. If you include links to a commercial site in return for cash, services, or any consideration in kind, be upfront about it. You can enjoy the benefit of earning referral commissions on clicks to e-commerce storefronts without manipulating information to benefit the financier instead of the end user.
Point blank, respect your audience. They can tell what you’re doing.
Do Your Readers Trust You?
Trust is the most important asset and the most fragile element to the future of your business. If you’re getting attention from an audience, it’s only a matter of time before the marketers will show up with their agendas. Trust takes years of laboring to establish and an instant to break. If you can remain honest with your readers and not let the motives of our financiers alter what you communicate to your audiences, you’ll protect your credibility, earn trust with your customers, and pick up a little income along the way — without damaging your conscience.