Like any Hot New Marketing Trend™, “content marketing” can be misunderstood – even by its purported purveyors. Take for example the brouhaha over The Atlantic‘s sponsored story on Scientology. The upshot is that The Atlantic ran a breathless elegy for the work of Scientology head David Miscavige with a “sponsored content” header and took it down in the wake of shill comments and reader outrage. (The original can be seen on Scribd.)

That’s led to endless pixels being spilled over the ethics of content marketing. But while I love some productive industry navel-gazing, most folks miss the point, because this particular piece has nothing to do with the burgeoning content marketing movement of which Speakeasy is part. (However, I imagine that such jackanapes are what industry folk like Tim Rogers worried about when we announced our launch as a joint venture with The Dallas Morning News.)

The piece in The Atlantic was simply an advertorial, something that magazines have been running for eons. It’s what it sounds like: An advertising message thinly disguised as editorial content. Most magazines adhere to some basic rules to differentiate this content in terms of labeling and font, but the words are generally slavish praise for whatever soap is being sold.

I’ve always hated advertorials. In my magazine days I used to say that if I ever had access to a time machine I’d go back and stop the first one from ever being published. It’s a format that serves no one – readers tend to discount them as puffery and advertisers therefore at best get little value. At most, they look foolish, even if they aren’t widely parodied. (The Scientology piece has been parodied hilariously by BoingBoing, The Onion and TechCrunch.)

A friend asked me this morning how I could be against this given that Speakeasy is in the business of creating content to help businesses reach customers. That’s because content marketing, at least of the type we produce, is a very different animal from advertorial.

My soundbite to describe content marketing to newbies is “advertorial without all the ‘me, me, me.'” But that may be too flip given the apparent confusion in the market. Here’s some core differentiators to consider:

Content marketing:

  • establishes authority and provides useful information. Its immediate purpose is not an immediate sale.
  • should be useful even to someone not interested in buying.
  • is not disguised as independent editorial.
  • does not have to run in an editorial environment, like a third party magazine.
  • provides value to the reader.
  • is honest and without hyperbole.

Obviously, The Atlantic piece fails all those tests. We would never recommend such a tactic for any of our clients, whether a seller of product or a publisher who might run such a piece.

I’m somewhat unsurprised that “old media” companies are getting this wrong, both as publishers and analysts. Like many other 20th-century mainstays, its day has passed. The Dallas Observer‘s Jim Schutze focuses on whether The Atlantic is desperate or just greedy. The answer is neither: It’s just trying to catch the new old wave and missing the point. Compare its work in this vein to Mashable and Fast Company, for instance. Most of what they’re doing matches my rubrics above. And let’s remember that commerce impacting content is nothing new for myriad media companies. And changing editorial because of business-office concerns, as CBS recently did with CNET’s vote for top products is far more insidious than the worst-produced advertorial.

Coming soon: Why Indians shouldn’t be offended by “Native Advertising.”

Image from BoingBoing.

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