Confessions From The Dark Side of Content Marketing

Confessions From The Dark Side of Content Marketing
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Lauren Quaintance was an award-winning journalist. Then she joined the “Dark Side” of content marketing.

It used to be when a journalist left to go into PR their colleagues would joke about going over to the “Dark Side” referring to the malevolent force in Star Wars – or worse – snigger cruelly behind their back. After all, PRs were those irritating people who clogged your inbox with press releases and then phoned when you were on deadline to check that you’d received their brilliantly crafted missive on the latest model of vacumn cleaner they were selling.

Back then, PR was just about the only viable alternative profession for journalists (except for a lucky few who reinvented themselves as novelists and screenwriters.) Now, there’s a whole new “Dark Side” called content marketing. Except something has changed.  Instead of disillusioned journalists jumping ship for a better pay cheque, the best in the profession are now looking to reinvent themselves as content marketers, or being headhunted by brands.

In the US some big name journalists including Wired Editor in Chief Evan Hansen, USA Today’s social media editor Michelle Kessler and Newsweek’s Technology Editor Dan Lyons have left the media to work for brands.  Closer to home, Walkley award-winning ex-AFR journalist Andrew Cornell and former BRW publisher Amanda Gome are behind ANZ’s content marketing efforts.

It’s not just that journalists are fleeing the beleaguered media industry (although with 15% of the workforce made redundant in Australia last year good jobs are undoubtedly scarce). Journalists are beating a path to work for brands or agencies because many believe it can be as rewarding – and more lucrative – than writing for publishers.  Amanda Gome from ANZ calls brand journalism a new type of media that is a move away from “soft public relations” to unearthing real news and insights that the audience is genuinely interested to read or watch.

Unlike PR – or advertorial – content marketing does not directly try to sell a product. Brands who use it well are creating content that is useful or inspiring or entertaining so that they can connect with potential customers oblivious to traditional advertising such as TV ads or direct mail. (See GE’s EcoImagination or Microsoft Stories if you’re looking for inspiration.) So, if you’re selling that vacumn cleaner you’d better start a blog with cleaning tips or, better yet if you’re Dyson about innovation or design, because your customers are not likely to be Googling the vacumn cleaner model or sharing stories about its sucking power.

So, what’s it like on the Dark Side? I always count myself lucky to have had a career in journalism. It took me from my hometown in New Zealand to New York where I bore witness to the September 11 attacks. And to the hallowed halls of Oxford University to study the impact of the internet on the media. And to London where I worked for one of the world’s great papers The Sunday Times at a timewhen there was money to spend on considered investigative journalism.

But in recent years as I rose through the management ranks at Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald, some of the most interesting work I did was for clients. I enjoyed the strategic challenge of creating content that the audience wanted that fitted with brand values and helped solve a business problem. Now, via the content marketing agency I co-founded, I help brands to cut out the middle-man and to become publishers themselves. If this is the Dark Side, then I’m happy to embrace my inner Darth Vader. I suspect, however, that it’s just the future of marketing and media as we know it.

Lauren Quaintance is head of content for Sydney content marketing agency Storify. She will be speaking at CommsDirect organised by the Walkley Foundation on August 7. 

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