Yesterday’s Contently Summit in New York left me with a lot of food for thought about brand journalism, but I left with one quote top of mind:

“Don’t trick [your audience] and don’t piss them off.”

That bit of wisdom came from Eric Goeres, Director of Innovation at Time, Inc., during a panel about truth in advertising.

The discussion was a wide-ranging one about the ethics and execution of branded content. The panelists and audience dove into many questions, including:

  • How should branded content be labelled?
  • Is it misleading for sponsored content to mimic the layout of the publication?
  • Are readers savvy enough to know when content is sponsored?
  • How can we get them to read it anyway? (Hint: Write about really super interesting stuff so they can’t help themselves.)

The Big Question That Wasn’t Asked

It didn’t strike me until later that one Big Philosophical Question wasn’t broached at all: Should publications be doing branded journalism in the first place?

It seems that now, in 2014, we take it for granted that branded content is not seen as a “necessary evil” anymore; it’s just necessary.  Sitting in the Bowery Hotel yesterday with a room full of publishers, journalists and brands (who are often now publishers by default), it became increasingly clear to me that few people are interested in the “evil” part of that equation anyway. Why? Because editorial sleight of hand is a losing proposition.

Brands are smart enough to know that duping their audiences isn’t going to help them in the long term. Journalists want to do great work that people will read (and yes, we’d like to get paid at the end of the day), but we want to retain our professional credibility. Publications and media outlets want engagement, but they know that risking their audiences’ trust in the name of stabilizing the bottom line is a surefire way to fail faster.

The truth is this: We all want the audience’s attention. We’re not going to get it (or keep it) if they don’t trust us or if we’re slinging shoddy, sales-pitchy content their way.

Brand journalism is still a new concept. Things are evolving. Discussions like the one yesterday are important to ensure that we’re serving our increasingly sophisticated readers and viewers in an honest way.

There are tantalizing puzzles to be solved. Creativity, intelligence and transparency are the watch words.

Or, put another way: Don’t trick your audience. Don’t piss them off.