For companies, creating content has long been a key marketing activity. But the conceptualization and execution of content has experienced a dramatic shift in perspective from that of salesmanship (think traditional advertising) to storytelling (think brand journalism). Today, the diversity of content we see from companies and brands is staggering.
But if we accept that the lines between journalism and marketing are dissolving, we need to take tangible steps to make sure our content marketing activities are subject to the same rigorous standards that our best journalism publications submit themselves to. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with companies producing journalistic content, but it is absolutely critical that they be held to the same ethical code of conduct we expect from our most respectable news outlets. (Hint: I’m not talking about HuffPost and BuzzFeed.)
There’s a glaring problem with our shift from print resources to digital technology and the ways it invisibly changes the nature of how we produce and disseminate knowledge. While the diversity of content in format and platform is growing, we’re facing a lack of diversity in our content-creator pools. Let’s look at Wikipedia as an example.
Image attribution: Jan Kahánek
Wikipedia couldn’t be a better example of what’s at stake when our contributor numbers shrink and become homogenous. A survey Wikipedia conducted in 2011 found that 90 percent of their editors were men. In 2015, an Oxford University study found that nearly half of all the edits made to articles about places came from editors living in just five Western countries: the UK, the US, France, Germany, and Italy. It concluded that high-income countries have a disproportionately loud voice, and non-Western local voices rarely even represent and define their own countries. This is a serious problem for the world’s largest and most-used repository of user-generated knowledge.
We assume Wikipedia is open and inclusive, and in principle it is. In practice, it is very far from it. One of the biggest problems is that all this knowledge is contained in a platform that isn’t accessible to everyone. Not everyone has access to the Internet, and not everyone that does have access has the digital skills needed to edit Wikipedia articles.
The technological shift to smartphones seems to be accelerating the abandonment of Wikipedia by many editors who find it too difficult to work with the content platform on a mobile screen, says Andrew Lih writing for the New York Times. Then there’s the network effect “where dense clusters of information about places are highly visible on online platforms, [creating] ‘vicious’ or ‘virtuous’ cycles (depending on where you live),” says the Oxford University news release about the Wikipedia study. These clusters of information increasingly take over space and mind share online, crowding out information about other places, cultures, and perspectives.
As the pool of contributors narrows and homogenizes, our modern day repository of knowledge, mostly unbeknownst to us, is becoming increasingly less representative of diverse people, cultures, places, and perspectives.
So what has this got to do with us and our own online content generation?
The people who can afford to produce content these days are increasingly companies as opposed to news organizations. Companies are responsible for more and more of the digital content we consume regularly. With the emergence of brand journalism and a shift from sales to storytelling content, companies are blending with traditional news outlets when it comes to what we read, watch, and share online. This demands that ethical codes of conduct be adopted by companies as if they were journalistic organizations.
One of these ethical considerations is diversity in a contributor pool. This can help eliminate bias in your content and avoid narratives that may unintentionally reinforce singular viewpoints and cultural experiences. Is your company making sure that a range of voices are being heard in its content creation process? Are you seeking out the right sources to inform your stories, those who have the best knowledge of the reality of a situation, those on the ground, and those with expert-level knowledge of a topic? Are you holding a critical flame to your ideas and testing them to find out where the holes might be? Are you seeking input from all levels and all positions within your organization?
Diversity isn’t just an ethical question. Diversity actually builds the strength and sustainability of organizations. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says of his ailing organization: “The biggest issue is editor diversity.” It’s one of the problems threatening the very future of the journalism industry says Harrison Jones writing for the Guardian. It’s costly to get the education and competitive edge to secure a position, often requiring huge stretches of unpaid interning, and then once you’re in, don’t expect to get paid very much. For the average person without savings or parental support, it’s not at all viable.
Writer Sunny Hundal is concerned that an undiversified journalistic elite skews the news agenda, negatively effects the sources reporters use and the culture of media organizations, while narrowing potential audiences. In order to properly represent the public as a news source, our contributors need to reflect the same kind of diversity as our audiences and potential audiences. This isn’t just a journalism concern. It’s a content marketing concern.
Image attribution: Aravind Kumar
Freelance contributors can help you achieve diversity in content, particularly if your within-organization creative team is relatively small. For example, for their “Priceless Cities” content initiative, MasterCard worked with local writers from cities all over the world to produce travel and lifestyle content as local experts. This resulted in authentic insider content that served the campaign much more effectively than a small number of contributors in a single location writing about places they’d never even been to.
The more voices you have, the more creative ideas you have to work with. Let’s face it: It’s downright hard for a small team to continuously generate new creative ideas. You share a workspace day in and day out, so the realm of inspiration among your colleagues is limited. Freelancers living in different cities and countries bring a wealth of alternative life experiences to your creative team that can often result in ideas you’d never have come up with yourself. They also bring a range of perspectives and cultural sensitivities to the fore, which is a critical part of reaching your diverse audiences in a genuine way.
Producing diverse content with diverse teams needs to be high on the agenda of marketers and content creators in agencies and organizations tasked with any form of brand storytelling or brand journalism. On an organizational level, for long-term growth and sustainability, we need to connect with our diverse audiences in a genuine way by having diverse content creators. On an ethical level, as company-created content comes to dominate our knowledge sources and conversation platforms, we have an responsibility to maintain the kind of diversity in our contributors and our content that reflects the full range of our lived experiences, from our individual cultures to our differing perspectives on important issues.
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Featured image attribution: Providence Doucet