The lines between content marketing and editorial independence have become increasingly blurred. Condé Nast opening an internal PR agency was a logical step in publications trying to compete with the chaos of internet content. But with editorial content, in a wide range of forms, now seemingly ‘for sale,’ marketing teams have to assess a publication's value to our brand. After all, what is the point of producing good content if the next article in line is a poorly written, sycophantic advertorial. Just as brands can be built by association with quality publications, so can they be damaged.
However, it was only a matter of time until a publication took a stand for editorial integrity. Unsurprisingly this move was made by a household name, and involved lawyers….lots of lawyers.
Lawyers and similar professionals sell expertise, ideas and commercial knowledge—basically their intelligence. From a marketing perspective, there is no better way to highlight this than through the development of high-quality content. In the world of professional services, this content comes in a number of forms: self-published content (easy but self-serving), sponsored content or native ads (expensive), third-party rankings and endorsements (time-consuming), and externally published non-promotional thought leadership (difficult and time-consuming).
Developing a professional-services brand involves building the reputation of both individual experts and the firm that stands behind them. This is why becoming a sought-after expert is the holy grail of legal content marketing. In this context, endorsements and externally published thought leadership articles are the key to showcasing expertise. Being published or independently ranked by a third party equates to having your expertise and credibility endorsed.
When it comes to individual accolades and firm rankings, professional-services marketing has a love/hate relationship. On the “love” side, these third-party awards are one of the few ways in which firms and professionals can compete head-to-head in public. But anyone who has worked in professional-services marketing knows what usually comes next: extensive deal lists, client referees and lawyer profiles—all of the supporting documents for independent researchers to assess the merits of your firm and people. For the individuals (lawyers) involved, there is a lot at stake, including personal pride. While there are some good ranking directories out there, there also are numerous cowboys.
However, these professional rankings are blurring the lines between content marketing, third-party endorsements and editorial independence. Newsweek recently announced a commercial offer to list lawyers who paid a sponsorship fee as international leaders in their field. While professionally focused publications have been ranking lawyers for decades, this has been a cost-free and relatively transparent process. Newsweek’s move is the professional services equivalent of “buying” an Olympic gold medal.
This all started with an e-mail that I received from Newsweek that targeted Asia-based law firms and offered to include me (not a lawyer!) in a “Best of Asia’s Lawyers” feature on the publication’s home page—provided that I pay a hefty fee.
For the individuals (lawyers) involved with similar rankings and third-party endorsement lists, there is a lot at stake, including personal pride. Most firms put a considerable amount of work into the ranking evaluation process, and the competition is fierce. The Newsweek offer made the rankings process much easier. The publication was offering to list me (again, not a lawyer), or the legal teams that I work with, with an endorsement as one of “Asia’s Best lawyers” for only $9,950, which could put me on the home page of Newsweek.com. There would even be an accompanying profile. My granny would be so proud.
One of the biggest problems with this offer, of course, is the placement of the content, featured on Newsweek’s home page, and the perception that it could foster. Readers and Web users are accustomed to reading “top docs” and “best lawyers” lists in magazines, but such lists carry labels such as “special advertising section.” No doubt Newsweek.com has its bases covered and there will be a “sponsored content” tag somewhere, probably in five-point font.
However, it’s 12:45 a.m., and this is bothering me: the ethics, the misleading titles (mine included), and the potential damage that this does to those individuals (lawyers included) and companies who value good content. It has me wondering if Newsweek, having endorsed “The Best of Asia’s lawyers,” will vouch for the undoubted quality of their legal work?
This also made me wonder who else was paying for content in the form of Newsweek coverage. Was the story about the Saudi Arabia/US rift sponsored by Iran? Uber got a big headline—did I miss the special offer? As a marketer, I always operated under the rule that I would never pay for editorial coverage. I am a firm believer in the importance of editorial integrity, especially for the value of my brand. But now, at least on Newsweek, I can pay for both sponsored content and “independent” recognition of my work.
The advertising/editorial lines no longer are blurred. They seemingly don’t exist. For content marketers, I believe that this is bad. If publications with brands as strong as Newsweek (yes, I know that the company’s finances aren’t great) treat all external content as being of the same $tandard, and all space is for sale, where is the value in developing a commercial relationship?
Newsweek has made a grave error, motivated by quick dollars. The irony is that Newsweek is not misleading the Asian markets, it’s misleading its core dot-com readership—the same people to whom it is claiming to provide in-depth analysis.
For those involved in content marketing, we have to carefully consider with whom we want to be seen associating. Is it now up to us to check which publications meet our strict marketing value statements and ethical guidelines?
Graeme Somerville-Ryan consults on content marketing, digital, and social media in a wide range of sectors.