Companies have been telling stories in the name of selling products for decades (the old radio soap operas sponsored by laundry detergent companies are an early example). But nowadays, the rapid growth in content marketing has further blurred the lines between content and commerce. Brands can now create and publish “sponsored content” or “sponsored stories” everywhere from Huffington Post to TheAtlantic.com, sometimes sparking controversy in the process.
While this new paradigm is likely to evolve, we don’t expect to see it disappear anytime soon. With that in mind, here’s a look at strategies for creating ethical content without misleading, disappointing, or otherwise frustrating readers.
- Don’t focus on yourself.
Egocentric marketing doesn’t work. Readers want information that’s useful, not overtly salesy, which often means going beyond your company’s happenings or products and services and sourcing ideas from the broader industry. Draw inspiration from a variety credible third-party sources as appropriate, but add your perspectives and expertise to the mix so you’re not simply regurgitating what someone else said (that could border on plagiarism). This will help expose your readers to other points of view and position you as an industry thought leader.
- Credit all content sources and inspirations.
Attributing your sources is a key part of ethical curation or creation. With online content, it’s expected that you’ll link to the sources you cite or those that sparked the idea for your content. These links show respect for the original author and provide your readers with additional resources if they’d like to learn more (sending the original author more traffic!). Don’t bury your attribution links at the bottom of a piece or make them blend in by manipulating the font size or color. Make these links clearly apparent to your readers so they can easily click through.
- Deliver on your headline’s promise.
Sensationalist headlines that are crafted as linkbait (for instance, “50 Crazy Awesome Photos of Cats Doing Yoga” or “The Easy Way to Double Your Website’s Conversion Rates Overnight”) don’t do much good if the content ultimately falls flat. Those types of pieces might gets clicks but they won’t get many shares and they won’t help build rapport with your readers. Strive for a headline that’s clickable but also doesn’t over-promise. Once you’ve written the piece, reread it to make sure that it lives up to the headline.
- Write for readers, not search engines.
Avoid stuffing your content full of your keywords du jour. Striving for a high keyword density can make your content sound stilted or impersonal. Instead, write for real human beings and sprinkle in relevant keywords or phrases when they sound natural. Content that’s authoritative and well-written will naturally rank well in search engines over time, so you can worry less about SEO and more about serving your readers’ needs.
- Follow the values of good journalism.
Content marketers are increasingly thinking like journalists rather than marketers, so they should abide by the principles of good journalism such as crediting sources (see #2) and creating a pieces that are fair rather than one-sided. Concentric Content Marketing created a code of ethics that may provide more guidance on this subject.
The bottom line to ethical content creation is giving readers valuable content that reads more like journalism than marketing-speak. Excel at this, and you’re well on your way to a solid content strategy.
For a 30+ page guide filled with more best practices and graded examples ethical content curation and creation, check out Content Marketing Done Right: The Definitive Guide to Executing an Ethical Content Curation Strategy.
Main image credit: CatamountMarketing.com
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