Marketing, Journalism, and Truth as Competitive Advantage

I had a very interesting question come across my desk from {grow} community member John Bethune:

In the minds of most people, journalism and marketing were once diametrically opposed. Has that changed in the social media era?

A great question!  And, in fact, I think the social web has brought these disciplines together in a number of surprising ways.

The ideal of journalism is a quest for truth. Marketing is the quest for a product’s “truth.” By that I mean the best marketers are on a journey to know how their company’s goods and services exist in the hearts and minds of their customers. Then, their job is to express that consumer truth to the best of their ability.  So in this way, the disciplines are unexpectedly similar, although the end product is quite different!

But the social web has created an important shift for both disciplines.  What does it even mean to be a journalist today? Through blogging and technology like smartphone video cameras, journalism has been democratized.  Anybody can report, anybody can publish.  Jeff Jarvis of City University of New York recently defined a reporter today as simply somebody who can say, “I was there and you weren’t.”

The democratization of marketing

To a great extent, marketing has been democratized, too. Remember last year when Gap changed their logo and there was such an outcry? I felt empathy for the company because they are probably good marketers who followed a traditional protocol — work with graphic designers, test it, get feedback, and roll.  That system has worked for decades and changing a logo is not an easy or flippant decision for a consumer product company to make. I’m sure they had done their homework … or at least they thought so.

But a few vocal people thought the new logo was stupid (perhaps people who were not even customers!). Through Twitter and Facebook, they created an anti-logo movement. and suddenly it became an embarrassing meme. I can imagine the Gap marketers waking up to this one morning and thinking “Wait … what?”

So something as important as an adjustment to your brand image may not even be in the hands of marketers any more. The Gap’s marketing strategy had essentially been crowd-sourced!  Like journalism it seems, marketing has also been democratized.

Content as power

The production of content has also been an output of the marketing process, usually in the form of advertisements. But now content is at the very centerpiece of many strategies as companies fight to attract attention on the crowded social web.  The journalism schools are full of new applicants. Why? Because content is big business now and the new media channels have an insatiable need for it.  Companies need story-tellers as much as marketing graduates.

I have recently been working with the president of one of my B2B customers on a blog and a series of how-to videos to demonstrate their new robotic technologies. I’ll bet five years ago he never would have dreamed he would be in the publishing business!

So this idea of content and storytelling is another way that journalism and marketing have been brought together.  For both fields, content that moves virally through the social web represents success and power.

Truth as a strategy

I think expectations of “truth” and transparency is another way the social web have brought journalism and marketing together.  For a brand to have integrity and to be successful, it can’t be spinning the truth around any more. There are a million watch dogs out there now and any one of them can sniff out a fake.

A few weeks ago, I was working with some marketers for a hotel chain and we were discussing negative hotel reviews. “We don’t mind them,” they told me. “It makes us more real.”

Interesting. Truth as a marketing strategy.

My hunch is that a few years ago, that is not necessarily what their reaction would have been.  In marketing, truth is the new black.

Maybe journalism and marketing are getting closer than we thought?  What do you think?

Note: John Bethune’s full interview with me can be found here: “Content is Power: A Q&A with Mark W. Schaefer.”

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  • When I attended Drake University’s J-School, the disciplines were separate entities. Although still attached to the foundation of truth,  journalism has emerged as another product to be marketed in the Social Media age.

  • Truth is and always will be the best strategy for both: Marketing and Journalists. 
    Nevertheless the “battle” between these two groups will continue and even become intensified. The quantity even of truthful and quality-rich content is growing so fast, that the “run for the slot” will be a tough one. 
    And via Social Media the contest will be voted by the crowd of customers.
    Kind regards from Germany

  • Anonymous

    I think your observations are right on!  I agree that there is greater transparency in marketing today and the companies that embrace interactive marketing will thrive in getting their message out.  Journalists and the media as an institution are facing changes, too.  Achieving a more “truthful” state in both realms would be ideal, but since truth is often skewered by opinion, I’d like to see honesty prevail.

  • Kathleen Kinser Atkins

    10 years ago, I attended ther University of Tennessee and graduated from the journalism program. Public relations was in the same college, but marketing was across campus in a separate college. If I remember correctly, I was only required to take 1 marketing class to graduate. I see journalism, PR, and marketing blending. There are definitely crossovers, but 10 years ago there were no classes about social media. Since then, I’ve learned 75% of what I do today from blog posts, conferences, webinars, continuing education classes, etc. I certainly hope that university programs are teaching students about today’s social media and the instructors aren’t ignoring it.

  • There is an interesting blurring, isn’t there? When I was in J School, you could graduate and never even take a marketing class!

  • Interesting take on this Hansjörg.  The results will be “crowd-sourced” too! : )  Good observation!

  • There is the “whole” truth … and then the “public” truth : )  Thanks so much for your comment Liz. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 

  • 18 months ago I wrote a post giving universities an “F” for social media education. Basically they were ignoring it. Today, I see an urgency to get this into the curriculum but problems when they try to find somebody to teach it!  There are no text books. Most educators have not been immersed in these platforms. And the field is changing every day. Not easy. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Kathleen! 

  • Yes! Agreed. Especially as it pertains to branding. Make a promise to your audience, then align your activities to keep that promise. As social connectivity grows, evidence of that promise being broken will be exposed and damage your brand reputation. And the connectivity of social networks means more people are likely to hear about it! 

    Also, I too felt for the Gap marketers, but I’m not sure they “rolled with it” as best they could. The execution was poor in my opinion, and it opened themselves up for comment and criticism as a result. Just my opinion.

    Well said Mark.

  • Superb comments Glenn.  A blog post topic in their own right!  Thanks!

  • Love this. This will encourage one of two things: either more honest business/marketing or a lot more clever ways to spin the wheels. My safe money is on the first one 🙂

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  • Ha!  A very realistic perspective Drew! 

  • Even most marketing efforts fall severely short, sort of a ‘too little, too late’ on college campuses in all honesty. It seems that the average schooling has some of the most outdated and irrelevant teachings in all aspects of marketing, advertising and PR. Sad, but true.

  • I can’t speak about marketing in general, but I do get a pretty wide view of social media education in particular and it is pretty depressing. Thanks, Samantha.

  • Hi Mark,

    Yes, the Gap certainly wasn’t expecting the caustic criticisms they received, huh? Amazing how much controversy that created. I think Tropicana went through a very similar process and went back and changed their packaging as well.

    Marketing and branding have been democratized. Customers can be fickle, but they are paying attention and it seems like it’s now everyone’s birthright to jump in and play critic and it’s open season on brands like The Gap, but at the end of the day this is a good thing, don’t you think? It promotes good design and as several people have mentioned more transparency in the marketing process. People are now way more design / marketing / PR savvy than ever, thus the need for standout marketing AND more creative solutions.

    As a designer I try to get companies focus on copy and the message before anything else. They often try to look past that.

  • You know, I don’t know if it is a good thing all the time.  it only takes a few vocal malcontents to hijack a brand’s online presence.  Companies may spend an inordinate amount of energy and money trying to respond to a vocal few … who will probably hate them no matter what they do.  Hate is part of a democracy too.  But a company is not a democracy.  A brand is a fantasy, not a democracy.  What happens when the fantasy gets popped by a vocal and tenacious band of haters?  Is that good? Does that create value for anybody? I don’t know.

    A good discussion.  Wish we could sit down over a beer on this one Craig. Hopefully I wil get to Seattle soon!

  • But Mark, truth is so very…truthy!!

    What does it mean that you and I have both used Pinocchio as a key image for blog posts in the last month? I think that is something galactically important 🙂

    I think you’re definitely on to something here. The fam and I watched a documentary (fascinating) about the New York Times. It covered a lot of ground – the battle for keeping newspapers alive, the life of the reporter, and the reluctance (or passion) amongst various Times reporters for the online world. The debacle of the lack of truth in some Times reporting was also dealt with, but not to the extent one might expect from such a probing film.

    Here’s the key question though – whilst truth may be a good outgoing strategy, to people REALLY care how truthful you are? How many “is dead” rumors have we seen posted as news on Twitter? That’s not truth, but according to some, it still falls into the journalism family. Social Media is forcing marketers and journalists to deal with the fact that everyone is now competition, too. Telling your friend you like a product can be seen in some circles as more powerful than the most clever marketing campaign.

    Hmm hmm hm.

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  • Mark, I love this post. I wish I had more exposure to journalism (I never took a marketing OR journalism course).

    One thing I would add here is a real focus on serving their audience. With recent noises about funding traditional journalism as competitive pressures erode ith, with non-profit structures and donations or even public funding, it should be clear that journalists are serving a real audience need. 

    Too often still, marketing is not. Even story tellers in marketing can tell the company’s story. It may be emotive, but would we miss it if it wasn’t there? Do WE, the audience, get VALUE from marketing? 

    I don’t mean paying lip service to being valuable, producing valuable content, etc, but would our audience really miss us if we stopped? Are we meeting their needs, even when it doesn’t completely align with our interests? If we are not, then as marketers, we are still self-serving, providing “value” ONLY because it is valuable to us, not because we actually value our audiences.

    I unplugged my TV 18 months ago and I don’t miss any of the advertising. I don’t feel that I am less informed than my colleagues, that I am missing out on opportunities, or that I am lacking in entertainment. 

    Marketing still has a lot of work before it can equal journalism in providing real value to the audience, but I do believe it is possible and will be significantly differentiating for companies that do it well.

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  • Hi Mark,

    Agreed there are more than a few belly-aching people out there who like to complain or simply stir things up … in any situation. It’s like an online flash mob that storms in just to knock things down or wreak havoc.

    With that being said, something like the Gap incident is a turning point or change of course. A shift where the consumers have more of a say. There are the very negative people out there you mentioned that do stink up the joint, but overall this kind of policing of large corporations isn’t all bad in my mind. Plus a little snark never hurt anyone. 😉

    And maybe The Gap should have really spent a bit more time on a logo that, well, was a bit of a stinker. Or, maybe they knew it was a stinker and planned it all along 😉 How about that for a conspiracy theory? 😉 I mean, this kind of publicity isn’t necessarily bad, is it! It sure put The Gap brand in the news.

    Yes, a few beers would be great if you make it to Seattle. We do beer well up here! Hopefully you’ll come when the sun is out. 🙂

  • This is a great post and something everyone in publishing should be thinking about. Social media allows PR, marketers and journalists more direct access to what their audience actually believes is important. This creates more of a conversation between audience and publication where the focus can change quickly. PR and marketers have realized that responding to this shift and ensuring that the audience gets the content it really wants is the key to attracting attention in the marketplace. This is a much bigger cultural shift for journalists and many still resist. The smart journalists are using this change to focus their coverage and stay relevant.

  • David

    WE’ve been practicing what we call “Marketing Journalism” for years now. Watch the video here:

    David Allison
    Braun/Allison Inc. 

  • I remember when that Gap thing was happening more than a few people suggesting it was a plot!  I can’t imagine that a brand would make a decision to come under attack like that for publicity though! : ) 

  • Oh this is such a HUGE topic. What a wonderful roundtable debate this would be!  My personal pet peeve on this angle are the bloggers who are loose with the truth and then say “well, I’m not a journalist.”  I think every college student of any major should be required to take an intro to journalism class because we are all publishers … and possibly reporters.

    As for the Pinocchio meme, all I can say is that great minds think alike.  And ours, too! : ) 

    Thanks for the outstanding comment Margie.

  • That is an important distinction and I appreciate the clarification. I did not mean to imply that journalism and and marketing have equal weight.  The democracy depends on a free press.

    Having said that, I am trying to think through your question about what the world would be like without marketing.  I think as long as there are products there is going to be some form of marketing. Everybody is trying to sell something.  I’m sure even in the Medieval marketplaces, some enterprising merchant was touting his lemon-fresh lye or his new and improved gruel!  : )  I think marketing is pretty close to our human nature! 

    Thanks for the great comment Eric!

  • This is a fascinating subject isn’t it?  You would really enjoy a podcast that @mitchjoel:disqus 
     did with Jeff Jarvis a few weeks back.  They covered this very subject.  I looked up the link for you and here it is.  I think you will love this Luis!—jeff-jarvis-shows-off-his-public-parts/

  • Lucca

    I certainly think you are on to something here. There are two things that should probably be addressed as well, and it looks like at least Luis Hernandez and Kathleen Kisner Atkins has pointed one of these things out. 1) Public relations. I see PR in the middle of marketing and journalism. One of my degrees is in PR, which was in the university’s school of journalism. I know how to write an article in AP Style. In fact many PR graduates write for newspapers and magazines. Several blog now. And of course, most are involved in social media. Content is definitely power, and whether you are writing a blog post or a news article, brochure or tweet, readers will be influenced. 2) There is a huge difference between journalism and marketing. Traditionally, journalism reported to and for the people, although this statement is debatable now and certainly news organizations and corporations want to make capital too. Marketing on the other hand aims to sell products for a business. You can further see why, where, and how PR may be in the middle, promoting a wide range of things. The difference seems to be the root of why something is being brought up. Is it for the good of the people or is it to sell a product? It seems that the best realms of marketing cater to both common good and selling the product, and the most effective journalism is for the common good to the people, selling the idea or prominence of an idea or movement.

  • Lucca

    Capitalism is at the root of marketing! Also, we do not always function “democratically”. As I said in my comment, it is debatable now whether every news organization, because of by whom they are owned, are serving the people justly while working to gain as a business. I am interested in what others think of this too.

  • Lucca

     This is so very linked to the ability to write too! What a valuable tool!

  • Lucca

    My! I am commenting all over because I love this discussion! Shari, I also graduated from Drake University’s School of Journalism, and I received my degree in Public Relations. Marketing is in the business school. The J school includes PR. So journalism and marketing are still very separate. As a PR student, I took classes for my PR major primarily in the J school, yet it was, and still is, a requirement to take marketing, like economics and management, in the business school. In the past four years, the PR curriculum has changed to include more online information and social media platforms. This trend is similar to that of other majors in the journalism school too, although I am not sure if News/Internet majors are required to take marketing. Regardless of major within the J school, I have several friends who graduated with me that are working in social media, marketing, or are writing articles for book, online, magazine, or newspaper publications.

  • This is an amazingly insightful comment Lucca, filled with interesting ideas that could probably stand alone as blog posts of their own.

    I like the way you brought PR into the mix. I think my original post would have been richer (but maybe too long!) if I brought that in. So I’m glad you added that important and fascinating dimension.

    Also, this comment was thought-provoking for me. You described marketing as aiming to “sell products for a business.”  Isn’t that another place where marketing and journalism are actually crossing?  How much “journalism” (especially on TV) is designed to attract sponsors? Which stories are told, and which stories are not told based on an ability to sell ads?  So many of these TV news programs seem like slickly-produced reality shows these days. 

    Thanks for the great comment! 

  • The economics of journalism is so messed up right now as the traditional advertising model had been dis-intermediated by the Internet and the lines are blurred between who is a journalist and who isn’t. Let’s not kid ourselves. Capitalism is at the root of EVERYTHING! : ) 

    I think one model that will emerge is independently-sponsored journalists. Sort of a McArthur genius grant so the best journalists can write what they want to write.  Maybe even a foundation will be set up for this type of thing. Fiercely independent journalism is needed … but how?

  • A small world! : )   Love the connections made here on {grow}!

  • Mark,

    This is a very interesting topic. I’ve been watching Mad Men on Netflix recently, and the whole Marketing/PR/Ad industry back in its infancy really intrigues me. Not necessarily because of the sexy swagger that it possessed, but because there was such an asymmetry of information, that 2 identical products could be perceived as dramatically different simply because the effectiveness of the marketing campaign. 

    Now, marketers are compelled to be factual in product representations not just because the FTC is knocking at the door, but because there are literally billions of product whistleblowers out there willing to slam a company that misrepresents its product claims. So for a commodity, differentiation has to come from story telling. By reaching an emotional connection with a would be buyer, a company can set themselves apart from the competition even if the product itself offers no greater value than the one from Company XYZ. 

    You once told me that the greatest asset we have as a company is to be who we are… to stop pretending to be someone that we are not. By nature of the truth existing, it will be discovered. We might as well be the ones to present that truth to the public, and the hybrid nature of marketing/journalism is the way to use that truth for our favor.

    Great post.


  • Thanks Jamey. Love that point … which I made to you … but I still love it! : )  It does connect the dots on this view doesn’t it?  Good addition to the dialogue! See you at Social Slam in 2012?

  • I had all the intentions of being in Knoxville for the inaugural, so I’ll have to arrange the time to be there in 2012. Good to be back here on Grow.  

  • Thanks Mark. This is an idea I want to continue exploring, and more importantly, determine how to communicate my view. I certainly don’t mean journalism and marketing are the same, but as marketing and journalism come closer together because marketing values the skills of journalism, some of the underlying values will come closer together as well. If they don’t, then marketers will not actually see the full benefit they could, because in part, the purpose drives the application of the skills, and from that, the benefit marketers see in moving that direction.

    Ok, more work to do working through my views on this one and how to communicate them! Thanks for letting me share the start here!

  • Look forward to meeting you in real life and catching up! 

  • Look forward to hearing more from you on the topic.  Good blog post ideas here.

  • Anonymous

    Mark, I love that “truth is the new black!” Well said!  It’s just a matter of time until this new black goes from runway to mainstream. A great opportunity for startup entrepreneurs to speak the truth and create new products and services to appeal to this merging shift. 

  • It’s interesting to think through what this “shift” really is. A realization that the truth works? : ) Thanks for commenting Andrea.

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