Exploring Seinfeld, Buzzfeed, and the History of Branded Content With Brian Clark

“BuzzFeed is like the porn industry in the ’90s,” says Brian Clark.

“All online marketers watched what the porn people did from a marketing and technology standpoint because they were always on the cutting edge. That’s where a lot of the marketing and advertising techniques that made it into the mainstream in the early 2000s came from.”

The renowned Copyblogger CEO sees many hot new trends as old-school throwbacks. Take Acura’s integration into Jerry Seinfeld’s high-profile web series, Comedians in Cars Get Coffee.

“It’s just a sponsored show like they had in the ’40s,” points out Clark. Back then, all shows had single sponsors until the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when it was revealed that sponsors had too much influence over TV shows, having manipulated them for specific outcomes.

But even before the sponsored shows of the 1940s, brands were producing their own entertainment content. “Proctor & Gamble invented the soap opera in the 1930s with radio because they couldn’t figure out a way to reach housewives,” Clark explains. “Radio was new, and they created stories to appeal to that demographic. And then television showed up and they transferred it to television, and by the 1970s, soap operas are the most profitable form of television.”

Proctor & Gamble wasn’t merely an advertiser or a sponsor — the brand produced over a dozen soap operas, such as Guiding Light and As the World Turns, as pure branded content plays.

In that way, P&G was adapting its content to new platforms, much like brands do today. Except back then, brands only had to adapt to new platforms every 10 years, while now, they have to adapt every 10 months.

Sponsored content, similarly, has old-school roots. Hollywood talked brands into making entertainment that they could sponsor, and that led to the rise of commercials. As brands look to figure out their content strategies moving forward, it might be smart for them to take a trip back through the archives.

“I worry sometimes about the lack of historical perspective,” says Clark. “I think the most interesting thing about the time we’re in right now is that when we look back — say one hundred years from now — at the 20th century, we’re going to say, ‘Wow, that was a weird aberration, where for a little bit there was mass media and it ruled everything, but it wasn’t there before.'”

Objectivity vs. transparency

The concept of journalistic objectivity has only been around for 70 years, before which there was no separation (purported or otherwise) between advertising and editorial content. “Before, journalism was always written from a personal standpoint,” Clark explains, pointing out that readers were supposed to realize they might only be reading one side of a story.

Instead of objectivity, Clark advocates transparency — revealing anything that is pertinent. “If you’re talking about a company and you own stock in them, that’s a disclosure you need to make,” Clark says. “If you’re running a native ad, and it’s brilliantly looking like the rest of the content of the site, it’s got to be clearly labeled. That’s the law. That’s the FTC. It’s not just ethics; it’s all about telling people what’s going on.”

Click-bait content

The Upworthy craze of click-bait headlines might seem like a new phenomenon, but we’ve been here before. In the 1890s days of yellow journalism, newspapers were also ultra-competitive, much like the online environment is now. This led to — you guessed it — deceptive headlines. “They’d have these outrageous headlines bordering on fabrications, which were sometimes completely misleading,” says Clark.

Some argue that yellow journalism is what paved the way for the subscription model, which started when New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs began selling newspaper subscriptions by phone, offering an alternative to sensationalistic publications. In his book Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday writes, ” … all the ills of yellow journalism have swift repercussions in a subscription model: Readers who are misled unsubscribe; errors must be corrected in the following day’s issue; and the needs of the newsboys no longer drove the deadly headlines.”

Holiday points out that there are a lot of benefits to subscription models. “A subscription model — whether it’s music or news — offers necessary subsidies to the nuance that is lacking in the stories that flourish in one-off distribution. Opposing views can now be included. Uncertainty can be acknowledged. Humanity can be allowed. Since articles don’t have to spread on their own, but rather as part of the unit (the whole newspaper or album or collection), publishers do not need to exploit valence to drive single-use buyers.”

Perhaps this is why subscription models are making a comeback online, from old-school publications like The Economist and The New York Times, to fresh endeavors like The Information.

Native advertising

One thing that has changed with the rise of the internet is advertising. “The internet has changed the dynamic so much, where all the power is in the hands of the prospect, not the seller, so [native advertising] is the only thing that works really because they can steer around everything else,” says Clark. Consumers of online content are also most likely to respond to branded content or native advertising.

This view is supported by an October study by IPG Media Lab, commissioned by Forbes Media, which showed that readers viewing branded content were 28 percent more likely to have a favorable view of the brand than a visitor who saw a page without content marketing—and 41 percent more likely to express an intent to buy the brand’s product.

Clark also sees this as a solution for struggling newspapers. Although the sentiment is unpopular with journalists, he believes the best way for writers to make a living without compromising their integrity is to write for people with money — that is, corporations.

While it’s unlikely that brand publishers will ever completely replace advertising-supported media outlets, it’s fair to say that they will struggle with resources, especially when compared to big-budget corporations.

Many reporters with backgrounds in traditional journalism see this as unethical, but Clark thinks the opposite is often true. “A company that can afford to let you publish and not sweat about whether or not it makes money is a better corporate owner than the one who’s sweating its quarterly earnings. When do you start pushing the truth and pushing the boundaries between acceptable advertising and unacceptable? It’s when you’re struggling to make money when things get dicey,” he says.

There are other options for how to save journalism in the digital age. Brands could buy out newspapers (like Jeff Bezos did). Or there is one idea that’s far more ancient than content marketing: Someone with deep pockets can be a patron for a specific writer, a concept which dates back to the Renaissance. There are also websites that do this — including Beacon, a crowdfunding platform for investigative journalism. Individual writers have raised money through sites like Crowdtilt and Kickstarter as well.

“It’s cyclical,” Clark explains. “Everything moves through cycles, and we’re moving through one right now.”

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