As the line between editorial and advertorial continues to blur, so does the public's confidence in content from publications versus brands, as evidenced by new industry research that explores this topic-with some unexpected results. A new study by Vibrant shows that only 2% more of consumers trust content from publications (35%) than from brands (33%); and yet, there are more consumers who distrust content from publications (18%) than there are who distrust content from brands (15.5%). Additionally, the number of consumers that distrust content from media titles they know (12%) is double the number who distrust content from brands that they know (6%).
"The fact that consumers' level of trust in branded content is even on par with editorial is very surprising," says Craig Gooding, founder and executive chairman of Vibrant, in a written statement. "Moreover, the higher levels of distrust in publishers' content than branded content shows far less cynicism about branded content than we expected. We know that good editorial keeps consumers on pages, but we haven't quite understood that brands are now creating excellent editorial."
Other experts were also surprised by the survey's results, including Jake Burns, founder of SouthDirekt. "It shows how the prior church-and-state line between editorial and advertising in publications has nearly completely eroded. This means that, to earn reader trust, digital publishers and marketers should adhere to two simple principles: truth and quality," Burns says. "If we tell a compelling but still truthful story, the reader will listen and be more likely to engage and trust the source, be it a publication or advertiser."
Vicki Kunkel, CEO of Digital Wits, was also taken aback by the survey's findings, but more so by the distrust numbers (12% versus 6%). "I thought that margin would have been higher because studies over the past several years have shown a clear eroding of public trust in traditional publishing operations-and especially journalists," says Kunkel. The reason publications won the trust question-but lost big on the distrust question-is because they have fewer touchpoints than brands, she notes.
"Brands interact with us in so many ways-through products, services, advertising, and content. The more touchpoints we have, the more chances the company gets to earn our trust. With publications, content is pretty much their only game-meaning fewer opportunities for the consumer to interact with and establish close trust ties," says Kunkel.
The study also revealed a number of other interesting results. When consumers want more information about a brand or product after seeing an ad, 33% of respondents said the most useful source of information was the advertiser's own website. This was five times the number of consumers who stated that articles written by journalists about the brand or product are the most useful source of information (6%).
Even advertorials-articles written by the brand advertiser themselves but displayed on a third-party publisher's website-ranked higher than those written by journalists, with 8% of consumers stating that they found advertorials to be the most useful source of information about the brand or product. And 46% of respondents said they were receptive to articles written by brands, while 19 percent reported that they were unreceptive to that format.
Branded content is now as acceptable to consumers as editorial, Gooding says, because consumers are more aware of the biases within the media, regardless of the organization that is producing the content. "In fact, the prevalence of partisan editorial has eased the acceptability of branded content into consumers' media intake. Consumers' cynicism of all content has meant that they don't discriminate as harshly against branded content as might be thought, even though it has an underlying objective to push product," says Gooding.
The depth of relationship consumers have with brands-they eat brands' food, place brands' diapers on their babies, wear brands' clothes, clean their houses with brands' products-may mean they are more inclined to trust content from brands they know rather than media titles they know, Gooding adds.
For publishers to increase consumer faith in their publications, content providers need to be more understanding of people's needs. "Consumers today are savvier and busier, but also bombarded by content and brand messages from every angle, every minute of the day. This means they're more selective about what they choose to engage with and where they ultimately invest trust," says Christian Jorg, CEO of Opentopic. "That's why content should be centered on the needs of the audience versus the product or company. For marketers and publishers alike, this kind of consumer-focused approach is critical to developing relationships and trust with today's consumer."
Simon Slade, CEO and co-founder of Affilorama, agrees. "In your content, sympathize with your readers. Explain why you share their plight and why your product or service will help," says Slade. "When discussing your brand, focus on the product or service's benefit rather than its features."
The key to boosting consumer trust is to focus less on traditional content that merely informs and focus instead on activity that drives consumer behavior change, Kunkel believes. "Content doesn't change behavior; action and involvement does. Active content generates more intense touchpoints. There is so much informational content out there that consumers are experiencing content fatigue," says Kunkel, who also recommends surveying your customers to find out what types and formats of content they want from you.
To achieve integrity in the process of creating and placing content, especially native advertising, Gooding suggests that editorial and advertising teams need to collaborate better. "Both brands and publishers need to be transparent with consumers that the content has commercial objectives. Overt labeling and clear signals should communicate to consumers that native ads are marketing messages," adds Gooding.
To effectively introduce branded content without compromising your relationship with consumers, offer helpful and insightful information that the reader can use. "Include valuable information that provides the answers that users are looking for. You don't want to give away the store, but provide something that makes it clear that your brand is a trusted resource, and put a call to action in your content," says Kenneth C. Wisnefski, founder and CEO of WebiMax.
Ultimately, it's important to remember that consumers want good content, and they aren't that concerned where it comes from. "We in the media industry have to stop thinking of brands purely as advertisers. Brands are creating credible content that consumers are trusting," Gooding says. "These study findings should reassure marketers and publishers that if they act responsibly, they will not compromise their relationship with consumers." Relevance, proportionality, and appropriate placement are the three most important considerations for maintaining that relationship.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)