No Going Back.

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No Going BackI just ordered my copy of “Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell” by former media exec Mara Einstein.  If you’re not going to do the same, then at very least read Tim Wu’s excellent review of the book from last Sunday’s New York Times.  The basic premise of “Black Ops” is that content marketing – as practiced online – represents a fairly evil and cynical blurring of the line between content and advertising – the old “Church and State” argument dusted off for a new generation.  According to Einstein, we are being sold stuff all the time…even when we think we’re just being entertained or informed.

While I plan to read the book with an open mind, I have a couple of thoughts – OK, ‘biases’ – going in.

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First, we must all recognize that the creation of all that “content” that is so prized by authors and journalists can no longer be supported by the standard spots and dots and pre-roll videos that sit off in the side rail begging to be ignored or blocked.  The old advertising models simply don’t work outside of very narrow circumstances:  media proliferation, ad blocking and unlimited supply have killed that economic golden goose, and she’s not coming back to life.  Any hankering for a better, simpler time is just naïve.

So is asking consumers to pay for content.  They won’t do it.  At least not in any numbers that matter.  And no, Netflix and HBO GO don’t count here.  Those are movies and TV shows, not news articles and feature stories.  And truth be told, the money consumers have plunked down for content in the past – The $2 for a printed New York Times or your discounted subscription to Vogue or Vanity Fair have never put a dent in the costs associated with writing and editing what we read.

My argument in favor of content marketing isn’t just that it’s economically necessary:  it’s that it’s not at all a new thing.   Content and story selection in the vast majority of magazines and newspapers is driven by a cottage industry of publicists and PR mavens.  When you watched Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert last night, their guests were made available and booked because they had movies and books of their own to hawk.  A million years ago I got my college degree in public relations and using the media’s own tools and conventions to help my clients sell stuff was the job I was trained for.  Today the brand studios at media companies like The New York Times and Conde Nast and Refinery 29 and many others are getting paid to help marketers tell better stories to consumers they know in a medium they understand.  Facebook and BuzzFeed and Snapchat are just doing their own version of the same thing.  And as our media and communication lives continue to morph and meld, so will thousands of other companies.

When it’s done well, it will be an art form.  But make no mistake:  content marketing is here to stay.  It always has been.

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