Why Marketers are Not Journalists

Kunur Patel is brand strategist at Percolate, a technology company that helps brands create compelling content at social scale. She was formerly a digital reporter for Ad Age. Follow her on Twitter @kunur.

There’s been so much excitement around native advertising and content marketing, one rapturous post called marketers today’s journalists. Not so fast.

There’s no doubt the two disciplines are coming closer together — and for good reason. Digital media has upended business-as-usual for both brands and publishers and, out of necessity, both camps have been forced to think a bit differently.

I applaud experiments like The Atlantic’s sponsored post that’s drawn such ire this week for putting an advertorial for Scientology in the same package as edit. If native ads like these keep the magazine in business and journalists employed, more power to them. However, there’s still reason this instance of native advertising got so much nasty backlash.

When marketing messages live in the same wrapper as good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting — The Scientology posts don’t look much different than an Atlantic news story — and native ads are the trend du jour, it’s more important now than ever to draw a distinct line between marketing and journalism. They aspire to such different ends that the disciplines are simply opposite.

Let’s start with marketing. After Vivaki’s Rishad Tobaccowala shared this essential definition at some industry conference or other years ago, I’ve kept it scrawled in my iPhone for easy reference: “Marketing is understanding and meeting customer requirements.” Key word: customer. Whether it’s communicating product benefit or brand building or any other of its myriad functions, marketing ladders back to that customer and a potential transaction. The new rules of the road do require transparency and brands taking ownership of their stories but, at the end of the day, their content is about selling stuff.

Then consider a journalist’s daily task. There are, of course, those brave souls risking their lives to uncover inequality in the world and shine light on the little guy. I certainly won’t hold my breath waiting for a packaged-good brand to bring the world’s attention to gender inequality abroad or a politician’s philandering. While that’s only one slice of journalism, even the reporters not exposing social ills or lending a voice to the disenfranchised aspire to one common end: objectivity. A journalist’s stories never have to sell anything but the publication they run in. One day a story can laud Pepsi. The next, it’s hooray for Coca-Cola. The third, it’s a story about how soda is making our country fat.

Recognizing that distinction between journalism and marketing will make stronger content across the board. The reader deserves it. Journalism that sacrifices objectivity for ad dollars will lose its audience. In that vein, you can’t blame The Atlantic for testing a new format or, for that matter, the Scientologists for using the space to sell themselves. Marketing that aims to do anything other than sell a product or build a brand just isn’t.

That’s not to say marketers shouldn’t look to journalism for cues to create compelling content online. Search and social media have made it a necessity. Journalists are pros at creating content quickly and with increasingly tighter budgets. Creating and approving content is a daily task rooted in of-the-moment trends and conversations. Journalists are among today’s most savvy social media publishers. They’re nimble and timely and have strong voices. They are constantly consuming content to learn and test the best art, copy and topics. They’re master storytellers and suss out a narrative with even the most mundane set of facts.

Meanwhile, many brands are still thinking about social content months in advance and are applying old modes of content creation to a digital world that has no time for six-week flights or long production cycles. To keep up with the pace of the Internet, more brands need to start slapping together their social stories on deadline.
Here’s where I’d like to look to a truism from a favorite journalism professor, David Standish: “Journalism is the art of the possible.” Telling stories isn’t precious; it often has to be quick and dirty. And so is social marketing.