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Renegotiating Content Marketing’s Relationship with the Arts

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All around you are passengers riding the morning rush-hour train, intently glued to their devices. For some, this commute is their sole sliver of free time before the work day picks up speed. Push notifications pounce on the commuter’s consciousness and stack up like a list of chores, all vying for a click: listen to new podcast episodes; watch a video you’re tagged in; stream new releases; read the latest headlines; read newsletters to tell you what to read this weekend.

As a marketer and smartphone owner yourself, you know this predicament all too well. An overabundance of online content creates a cacophony of choices—and people only have so much time to spend reading, watching, or interacting with content on their phones. This is part of why you pursued a story-driven marketing strategy to begin with. Marketers no longer have captive audiences. People have to actually believe and care about your brand story and choose to engage with it over the countless other demands on their time. That’s a tall order.

To meet this challenge, marketing is becoming more akin to journalism and new media arts, posing opportunities for artists from other disciplines to get work in different fields, but also often competing with creative media for an audience. The question then becomes, how do you broker a space for your brand storytelling that doesn’t encroach upon the arts—especially when you need to hire an increasing volume and variety of creative talent to fuel your campaigns? While the relationship between artists and marketers is full of exciting innovations, there are a few major responsibilities that content marketers have to both the artists they work with and their audiences.

Transparency, Transparency, Transparency

This can’t be overstated. In an effort to appeal to customers through less abrasive means than the traditional sales pitch, content marketing has not always been clearly distinguishable from other media forms. A company could bill an off-domain blog as an online publication, for instance, indiscernible from non-branded journalism in many readers’ eyes. These subtle, soft-sell tactics became a trend, but ultimately failed to stick. Non-branded content hubs are on the decline for several reasons: People tend to know when information is coming from a brand, and they respond better to authenticity.

When you’re producing any branded content, it’s important to call it what it is—not the creative discipline that inspired it. Blogs are often inspired by news articles, but marketers can’t call blogs news and expect audiences to read them as such without proper context. It’s better to tell your company’s story more directly, rather than letting the brand presence in your content become a poorly hidden elephant in the room.

brand transparency

Image attribution: Ye Fung Tchen

While the lines between non-branded and branded online content are blurring, it’s important that all content creators respect certain boundaries. For example, the practice of promotional reporting has spilled over from content marketing into the world of journalism in some unfortunate instances.

In 2017, the independent publication The Outline uncovered several cases of brands bribing journalists for positive coverage in publications like Fast Company, Forbes, and HuffPost—without flagging it as sponsored content. The Outline journalist Jon Christian compared the practice to payola—or record companies paying radio stations to play their artists’ songs. It goes without saying, but no matter how content evolves, the line of journalistic integrity should never blur.

Along a similar vein, when you’re recruiting talent to create branded content, ensure you’re transparent with candidates about the project’s business objectives. An artist or writer may not personally agree with a corporation’s stance on the topic of the content—an issue that can lead to significant production delays if not nipped in the bud. It’s worth having those talks early on, and even giving creatives the option of using a pen name for their marketing work, so they don’t have to align their name with the brand’s perspective.

Personal Brand Autonomy

Savvy marketers seek social media influencers to contribute to their content initiatives. It’s great for expanding the content’s reach when the contributor shares their work, and the relationship can be a selling point to stakeholders. This strategy sounds like a no-brainer, right? Not always.

In some cases, social sharing is a win-win scenario, where the contributor and brand both get to expand their audiences. However, as content marketing attracts artistic talent from other disciplines, those artists have to ask themselves whether they want content marketing to be a prevalent aspect of their personal brand. At the end of the day, the content creator has control over how they position their corpus online.

If, for example, you hire a filmmaker with a little clout to create a video series, they may not want to share their marketing work on the same channels as their short films—despite how much you’d like the eyeballs of their 45,000 followers. This is another important conversation to have early on if your project relies on content creators to build social traffic. Never feel entitled to a content creator’s followers; their audience is an asset that you have to negotiate access to. It’s a process built on trust that begins with showing you understand and respect their craft and their fans.

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Space for Creativity

You sought artistic talent for a reason—give them a creative license wherever you can. Even if you can’t shake up your strategy too much right now, you can invite your broader creative team to share ideas by hosting a regular brainstorm. You may never use the brainstorm material, but the practice will help get everyone’s creative juices flowing. It’ll also convey to your creative team that you value their talent and expertise.

creative spaces

Image attribution: Eric Ward

Similarly, don’t assume that your audience isn’t ready for something new. Challenge them. Challenge yourself to give them more of a creative play space while they experience your content. This might entail creating new media to carry your messages. Lean on your creative team to help refine and realize your visions for new content types as the digital landscape evolves.

As the industry expands, content marketers can learn a lot from the arts, and artists can find consistent clients in the content marketing field. Despite branded and non-branded content sometimes occupying the same audience’s attention, there is a symbiosis that artists and marketers can strike. To best coexist with other creative content online, branded art should be transparent. Marketers should also take a step back and appreciate the key differences in their disciplines and negotiate lasting relationships with artists and their audiences.

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Featured image attribution: Parker Gibbons

Abigail White is a writer from Maine currently living in Boston, working as an editor at Skyword Inc. She holds a BFA in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and her new media art installation Flash My Fiction has appeared in galleries curated by First Night Boston, Figment, and Somerville Media Center.

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