Content marketing blurring the line between advertising, news

Originally pulled from BetaBoston (The Boston Globe.)

Last week’s executive shake-up put the HubSpot name in the news, but the high-tech firm’s effect on mass media goes well beyond passing headlines.

HubSpot and other marketing companies like it are helping to reshape the ­media landscape into a place where the ­informational articles and videos people consume online are increasingly produced by corporations selling products, instead of news outlets.

Search for news and advice on the Internet, and some of the helpful results that show up in Google — “The hidden benefits of the office coffee break” or “15 keys to creating your dream hunt” — may be part of marketing campaigns created by HubSpot or one of its competitors. The coffee and hunting examples come from blogs maintained by Office Coffee Co. and Beretta USA Corp., both HubSpot clients.

In an era of on-demand video and ad-skipping software, businesses are eager to make commercial messages look like news in the eyes of readers and, more importantly, in the eyes of search engine algorithms, those mysterious computer programs that determine where so much ­Internet traffic winds up.

The underlying strategy, often called content marketing, is an old one. From IBM’s Journal of Research and Development to Fidelity Investments’ annual New Year Financial Resolutions Study, companies have long produced informational reports and surveys that they believe people will want, not ignore like so many advertisements.

But while such efforts used to be designed as more of a service for existing clients, today they are increasingly intended to drive customer acquisition. Specialty marketing firms like HubSpot and Skyword Inc., of Boston, are helping companies do it better than ever and are reaping the benefits.
The share price for HubSpot has more than doubled since an initial public ­offering of stock last fall, giving the company a market value of $1.74 billion. The Cambridge firm plans to report second-quarter earnings on Thursday.

“People have fundamentally changed the way they shop and research things,” said Kipp Bodnar, who became HubSpot’s chief marketing officer after last week’s announcement that Mike Volpe had been fired for his alleged effort to obtain a book about the company before its April 2016 publication date.
Whether content-marketing tactics actually work depends on the definition of success. The Content Marketing Institute, a trade group that polls marketing professionals annually, reports 83 percent of respondents said generating sales leads was a top content-marketing priority this year, up 20 points since 2010.

But even as some companies report increased sales, many others say content marketing is primarily about fostering a positive public image.

“There are direct and indirect metrics,” said Bodnar, who spoke with the Globe before news of Volpe’s firing broke. “There’s brand affinity, trust — things that are a lot harder to track.”

So how exactly does content marketing work? Enter a parenting question into Google — “Should I let my kids listen to pop music?” — and the search engine will generate a list of advice columns from the likes of PBS, the Huffington Post, and the Telegraph, plus a slew of mommy blogs.

At the top of the pile, however, will be a link to Care.com, which is not a media site, but rather a Boston-based online marketplace for finding baby sitters, dog walkers, and other domestic help.

Care.com, a Skyword client, has blogged its way onto the first page of results in Google searches that have little to do with the company’s core services. Other topics covered on the company blog include homemade Halloween costumes, last-minute vacations, and Gisele Bundchen.

“We know how to manipulate Google or, at least, we’re figuring it out,” said Katie Bugbee, managing editor of the Care.com blog.

Google guards its algorithms closely and refines them constantly, but says factors affecting a website’s ranking include the quality of its content and the frequency with which other sites link to it.

Landing on the first page of a Google search — among the top 10 results — is one of the surest ways to bring people to your site. In 71 percent of searches, browsers visit a website that appears on the first page, according to Advanced Web Ranking, an online data tracker made by the Romanian firm Caphyon LLC.

“The lesson for brand marketers is they can stop interrupting what people love and start becoming it,” said Skyword CEO Tom Gerace. “This is what is underlying the growth of the content-marketing space. It’s why companies are becoming content creators.”

Whatever the business, there is one important rule: Content cannot look like an advertisement or a press release. Many corporate-produced articles do not mention a product or even the name of the company that commissioned them.

The subtlety of this approach has prompted some executives to wonder whether content marketing-efforts are so restrained as to be ineffective. If people really don’t know they’re being marketed to, will anyone know to buy?

“We definitely have a disconnect in terms of the content we create and what we’re getting out of it,” said Karen Guglielmo, content marketing strategist at Boston data-storage company Iron Mountain Inc. “There are certain groups in the company asking, ‘Why aren’t you talking about our solution?’ ”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the executive fired from HubSpot last week. His name is Mike Volpe. 

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.

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