Thought leadership and paid placement? Meh.

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Professional services marketing is a strange animal.  It’s one of the few disciplines that calls for a constantly evolving understanding of client subject matter: you don’t just get to know a client’s brand, you get to know the issues that drive their success.  Investment firms don’t grow long term because they have a cool logo or run a Superbowl ad; they grow because their clients trust them.  Law firms, CPA firms, consulting firms all share that common thread.  They sell because they’re smart (and some of them are even wicked smaht).

That opens the door to a few of my favorite things…to be good at what we do, we need to study the areas in which our clients play (academic), we need to identify trends (marketing savvy), and we need to be able to articulate the connection between those themes and their brand (storytelling).

Academics+marketing+storytelling=fun.  Oh yes.  You want me at your party on Saturday night, believe me.

I’m taken aback this year, though, seeing an aggressive mash-up of this thought leadership approach and paid placement, which undermines the credibility of clients and the media in one fell swoop.  Paid content has always been a part of the game, but in 2014 it has exploded to new levels of visibility.  The media’s need for content and revenue is outweighing its need to publish objective insight, while providers are pouncing on an opportunity that will eventually erode faith in the depth of their knowledge.

The WSJ has entire online sections with content sponsored and provided by Deloitte (CIO and CFO Journals).  Forbes calls their paid content “BrandVoice,” and the New York Times is following suit with a native advertising platform.

I dig into this a bit in PRNews’ PR Insider (Hey Pay-Play, Get Off My Lawn), and will echo the sentiment here: this is not good.  Brand journalism has a place and can be extremely successful, but intelligent buyers of professional services will quickly grow skeptical of the information they find in these sections.  If it’s paid placement, how accurate is it?  Where is the third party credibility?

I unfortunately predict great traction for the paid content trend in 2014.  But then it will crash, shifting back to true thought leadership.  And I’m wicked smaht, so place your bets now…

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