Creative Thinking

How Should Brands Tackle the Consumer Literacy Gap in Their Content Marketing Strategy?

By Nicola Brown on October 10, 2018

A key trait of good content marketing is the ability to educate and inform the reader about how our products and services can impact their lives. Yet how much should we also be educating audiences about the marketing landscape itself?

For all the work we do as marketers to home in on ever more specific trends and opportunities, we tend to skip over the more fundamental considerations of our audiences' ability to critically evaluate media and marketing messages.

How often do you stop to consider consumer literacy in crafting your content marketing strategy?

The Consumer Literacy Gap in Media and Marketing Is Widening

As both a journalist and a content creator, I like to think I'm fairly savvy when it comes to critically evaluating the content I consume. But there are plenty of sobering instances where I've been caught off guard, which has left me more skeptical than ever before as I try to cautiously yet efficiently navigate the immense digital content world.

What I know of media literacy these days is self-taught, a matter of chance encounters and realizations. How much am I missing?

MindEdge conducted a study this year that found that 59 percent of respondents were "very confident" in their own critical thinking skills. However, "[w]hen confronted with a nine-question quiz designed to gauge their ability to detect fake news, a majority receive a failing grade."

One of the biggest challenges to media literacy is the speed at which our digital technologies and media platforms evolve. It's hard to keep up, and it's hard to take the time to thoroughly understand a new platform and assess the validity of its content.

Then there's the growing convergence of traditional journalism and content marketing that can make it difficult to tell if news is coming from a brand or traditional publisher-not to mention the proliferation of fake news. Even as marketing leaders, we can have trouble distinguishing different types of content sometimes. And if we have trouble, we can be sure that our audiences have trouble.

MarketingTech's 2016 report found that one measure of media literacy had actually gone down since their 2014 study. Whereas 38 percent of people said they could distinguish between marketing and non-commercial content on social media in 2014, that number dropped to just 19 percent in 2016.

What Are the Implications of the Media Literacy Gap for Consumer-Brand Relations?

Thoughtfully crafted content marketing is an excellent way to provide value to audiences, and we often prefer when a brand's presence can fade into the background and we're not pummeled with constant calls to click, sign up, and buy.

But as marketers and content creators we ought to be careful that we're not going too far to bury our brand in a way that feels dishonest or misleading to our audiences. Consumers don't like in-your-face advertising, but they also won't tolerate what they perceive as deliberate obfuscation.

A recent study from Sprout Social found that "[i]n today's social, connected society [. . .] 86% of people say transparency from businesses is more important than ever before."

This means content marketers are challenged with finding the right middle ground. Both too much and too little brand presence are problematic, and both can harm our consumer-brand relations. Getting the equation right relies on a better understanding of just how media literate our audiences are.

consumer marketing knowledge

Image attribution: Stacey Rozells

What Are Our Ethical Obligations to Consumers?

We've now come to understand that ethical marketing isn't just a question of doing what's right; it's also a question that impacts our businesses' bottom lines.

When we engage in unethical marketing practices, we risk legal ramifications, as well as our brand's trusted reputation with our audience. The problem is, sometimes the line between what we understand is ethical conduct and what our audiences understand to be ethical conduct is a little fuzzy. We may think a certain video series or email campaign is clearly presented as coming from a brand, but the traits that allow us to identify common marketing language and targeting tactics are not as familiar to people outside of the trade.

It all comes down to the challenges of media literacy in a constantly evolving digital landscape.

When a brand's presence is subtly integrated throughout a work of media, as is usually the case with content marketing, the reader's job of critically evaluating the source and intention of the message becomes more challenging. When we're bombarded with ever-higher volumes of content stretched across increasing numbers of digital channels, our cognitive capacity to effectively critique and analyze information is spread thin.

What might ordinarily be an above-board piece of content marketing to the marketer who has spent weeks on it can seem dishonest to the reader who only had 30 seconds to view it among 10 other pieces of content.

Add to this the notable rise in the amount of intentionally dishonest "fake news" being spread, and we can see how distrust and skepticism are running higher than ever. Amid this concerning cacophony, creating ethical content today requires more than just good intentions. How can marketers use an understanding of media literacy challenges to strengthen their brand-consumer relationships?

Finding a solution starts with developing a greater awareness of the struggles we all face when it comes to media literacy. From there, we can pursue strategies to strengthen brand-consumer relationships in the long term.

Be Obvious and Intentional with Brand Transparency

Audiences don't have a lot of time to dig through your content for answers. Make it as easy for them as possible to understand what type of content they're reading.

This could be as simple as a line at the beginning of your article indicating it's a branded piece, or a caption on social posts that simply says "sponsored content." Drawing these connections is especially important when using a more fragmented, multichannel distribution approach. If you've created microsites for your campaigns to live on, the design and formatting can help make it clear who you are and where the content is coming from.

brand transparency

Image attribution: Henri Pham

Consider drafting a content or ethics policy, and make links easily accessible to those who are looking for further information. As marketers, if we want to step into the journalistic ring, we need to play by the same ethical rules.

Adopt a Design Thinking Approach

Design thinking is a strategy to help us take a closer look at the individual people we are marketing to to better understand and involve them at every step along the way. If we assume every time we start work on a new marketing initiative that we know nothing about our audiences and their media literacy and consumption habits, we can avoid bringing many of our own biases and assumptions to the table.

We need to go beyond research methods like mass surveys and sit down in person, one-on-one, with the real people we're trying to reach to understand exactly who they are, where they're coming from, and how they really feel about the content they consume. This is as much an information-gathering technique as it is a psychological technique to allow marketing teams an environment in which they can truly begin to get outside their own heads and develop an intimate, personal understanding of their audiences.

Invest in Media Literacy Training for Your Teams

One of the best ways we can tackle media literacy challenges is to better educate ourselves about the complex digital landscapes in which we create and distribute our content. Part of understanding general media literacy is recognizing where our own knowledge gaps are.

The learning is never done when it comes to media literacy. It's easy to assume that because we work in the media and marketing fields, we all have an expert level of knowledge. However, you should always be seeking to expand your own marketing awareness throughout your organization.

Hosting a lunch and learn is an informal way to allow individuals to share new insights with the rest of the team. You may even want to consider creating a database of "right" and "wrong" when it comes to marketing ethics examples that can be updated regularly.

As the media literacy gap widens in the face of evolving technology, marketers have a growing responsibility to help mitigate some of the negative consequences for their audiences by making brand transparency a priority, listening closer to individuals within their markets, and staying educated themselves.

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Featured image attribution: Joseph Gruenthal


Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at