Earned influence, not brand newsrooms - content marketing's new purpose

The rise of the brand newsroom has resulted in a barrage of content both good and bad. But mostly bad, pointed out Ogilvy PR's global chairman, Chris Graves, in a client talk that took place in Hong Kong last week.

Chris Graves
Chris Graves

"Brand newsrooms are great for companies that have something relevant to say, but for companies that don’t, what do you do in the downtime except create landfill?" asked Chris Graves, global chairman of Ogilvy PR.

In October last year, the US PR Council, of which Graves is chair, found that the concept of brand newsrooms was deemed the most overhyped by 49% of the 56 senior marketing executives surveyed. This was closely followed by native advertising (36%) and social media and social business (34%).

Graves said the hard truth is that very few people in this world are capable of producing great content. "How many of your neighbours are famous novelists? Acclaimed script-writers? Award-winning directors?" he asked the room.

Not only are creative geniuses thin on the ground, brand newsrooms aren’t judging the quality of the content the produce with the right yardstick.

"Great content is not determined by the brand content machine," says Graves. "It’s not even determined by popularity. If I’m a client, I want to know how it impacts my business, not how many likes I have. Are you getting me leads?"

Instead of popularity, shares or volume, the goal brand content generators should be striving for is ‘earned influence’. 

What is earned influence?

Earned influence is a concept Graves has been pushing for the past year and a half on the speaking circuits. In a letter he wrote to the American PR Council in 2014, he wrote that public relations, at its core, is about building relationships.

"When successful, those relationships allow us to engage others with purpose and respect, to share, educate, inform and entertain," he said.

"Through these relationships, we earn the right to try to join conversations and maybe even change minds. We earn that right to influence others."

So how can a brand use the concept of earned influence? First, it needs to determine the type of audience it wants to appeal to.

"There will be segments of the world who like each other and you can get that by listening," advised Graves.

"Then try and build relationships with them. Not an exploitative relationship. They need to know you can be influenced by them as well."

Being influential is also not truly tied to expertise, he continued, it’s tied to cultural cognition, a shared view of the world.

"A study by Mary Douglas determined that there is no such thing as generic experts. Experts are determined by a shared point of view. They found that great, strong arguments don’t work to change minds," said Graves.

"But, say a person sent all the social cognition cues that they were like you. The kind of person you would like to have over for dinner. When that person voices an opinion you disagree with – that rattles you to the core. You will pay attention and it will crack through."

Citing his opinion piece on persuading anti-vaxxers, Graves pointed to a few key mistakes made by the pro-vaccination team. "First, they created a name for their opponents, ‘anti-vaxxers’, and in so doing they pushed them into a corner. They did not find common ground first before attempting to change their minds."

It’s confirmation bias, he said. "Science and evidence don’t matter if it doesn’t align with your worldview. There is even a direct correlation between the prevalence of more information and greater isolation."

The goal instead is to scale one-on-one relationships. "Instead of big demographic slices, you’re looking to relate to a cluster map of dots."

So quit with the fake reviews, fake likes and fake online recommendations, he pleaded. "If you buy people and they don’t believe in what you’re selling, you’ve created a phoney."

Earned influence, after all, must be earned. Not bought. 

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