Content Marketing Pitfalls: 3 Lessons Learned from the Church of Scientology

The recent brouhaha around the Church of Scientology’s advertorial in The Atlantic clearly demonstrated the pitfalls of native advertising for publishers. Sponsored content, paid editorial, “advertorials” – these tactics are nothing new and let’s face it, as consumers continue to tune out traditional ads, the appetite for native ad platforms will only continue – and the lines between editorial and advertising will get blurrier.

Publishers, no doubt, need to stay on their toes in keeping the two pieces of their business distinct. But what can marketers take away from this? From a content marketing perspective, the Church’s strategy (create a long-form article designed to positively illuminate the brand, then find distribution among a specific target audience) wasn’t wholly off-base. But the execution was all wrong.

Here’s why:

They Didn’t Think Like Editors

Regardless of what department you work in or what your title might be, when you start developing content on behalf of your brand, you must think like an editor, not a company spokesperson. That means being true to your readers – not your marketing messages – first. Start by looking at the trends in the industry, and search for data that support a unique point of view, then create a thoughtful story that adds to the conversation while remaining aligned with your brand.

Creating an overly-self serving puff piece doesn’t educate or inspire people – and it certainly isn’t something they’ll want to share across their social networks. Look for the subtle ways to reinforce brand attributes without hitting people over the head.

They Didn’t Know Their Audience

The Church knew it wanted to reach a specific demographic, but they didn’t match their strategy to that audience. How else can you explain their assumption that this piece would endure the intellectual scrutiny of The Atlantic’s readership?

This underscores how critical a cohesive content marketing strategy is, taking into account how you expect content to impact readers (how do you want them to feel after viewing it? What do you want them to do?); who you hope will discover it and, of course, how they discover it.  For your core consumers, perhaps this process is fairly straightforward, but if you’re looking to play outside your comfort zone, as the Church did, if you’ve got to be zealous about understanding a new audiences preferences and reading behavior. In the Church’s case, a thinly-veiled ad in the form of an advertorial backfired with the demo they were trying to reach, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong to try and reach them. Perhaps the Church could have submitted an op-/ed to a news site that covers religion on a daily basis, such as Huffington Post, or they may have embarked on a more traditional branding campaign for the sake of transparency.

If you’re looking to take your message outside your core group of fans, think about where that audience spends time and how they consume content typically. What role do social media or mobile apps play? Do they prefer video formats over text articles? Understanding these nuances can help you devise a strategy optimized for winning them over.

They Weren’t Authentic

Of all the places where the Church fell down in its advertorial strategy, perhaps this was the worst. Most brands know by now that in order to engage online, authenticity is key to survival. Nothing kills a campaign faster than not being real with your audience – and content marketing is no exception.

But the Church made a vital error (in conjunction with The Atlantic) by enabling the comments section following the piece, then editing out negative comments so that there was a greater proportion of positive feedback. As a marketer, the only thing worse than not giving an audience a chance to interact with you is giving them that chance, then manipulating the outcome to better serve your marketing agenda.

So, be it a video on YouTube or a post on your corporate blog, enabling comments is pretty standard. But DON’T open the door for user feedback and commentary if the plan is to delete anything that makes you look bad. User comments are the doorways into a real conversation with the very people you were looking to engage, and how you deal with negative feedback says just as much about your brand as the comments do themselves.

The line between editorial and marketing is becoming harder and harder to define, so, when it comes to content marketing in particular,  it’s more important now than ever to be clear about your goals and painstakingly thoughtful in your execution. Don’t develop your content in a vacuum –otherwise you put your entire strategy at risk.

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