Recently, well-known publications including Rolling Stone, which has been in print for fifty-three years, have caused quite a stir by offering “thought leaders” the opportunity to pay to have original content published on their websites. Many see this as an easy way for publicists to push a brand’s agenda under the guise of entertainment or professional information for the reader. And it might be.
Granted, much of the paid content in publications may be labeled to distinguish it from regular editorial posts—“sponsored content” or “thought leader content,” for example—in an effort not to mislead readers. But the pay-to-be-published offer certainly is raising eyebrows over how editorial guidelines may become even more flexible in the near future.
There’s no denying media outlets are acutely—and understandably—trying to remain relevant and/or stay financially afloat. You can see this reflected in the many changes to their longstanding traditional business models. They’re closing titles, reducing salaried staff, and utilizing more freelancers on a regular basis. In addition to more conventional editorial and news content, media corporations are offering an increase in guest contributor opportunities, as well as paid content, advertorial, and product reviews/roundups with the appropriate affiliate links and or disclaimers.
In fact, there are several thought-leader platforms, such as Forbes Councils and the Entrepreneur Leadership Network (requires annual membership fee), that can serve as valuable and credible options, since it’s virtually impossible to use only earned media to achieve optimal visibility for clients. Perhaps one can think of it as an evolution of advertising, but with more context and insight.
It’s unfair to slam media outlets for offering such opportunities in order to stay alive. And to be fair, sometimes paid strategies are the only opportunities that make sense.
This is especially true given limitations in the cannabis/CBD industry. Like alcohol, hemp-based brands are restricted from traditional advertising opportunities, which forces companies to become more creative and resourceful with regard to paid content and social media channels or use influencers to promote their products and services. While an influencer may get a product seen by a lot of potential buyers, if the product lacks credibility it’s typically destined to fizzle in the long run.
CBD and cannabis companies constantly are looking for new ways to gain exposure since social media channels—LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—implement strict regulations, and many mainstream print and digital publications don’t permit cannabis advertising. Some allow cannabis advertisements if the publication’s proven audience is older than 21. It’s advisable to confirm local laws before running advertisements in any market.
When it comes to credibility, being authentic and transparent are paramount. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as strategies need to be tailored to reflect each client’s unique communications and business objectives. Of course, owned media (website content, blog articles, and social media content) can help establish the foundation of a solid marketing strategy. And, while it’s time to normalize and embrace a mix of both paid (advertising and branded or sponsored content) and earned options (publicity or coverage in media outlets, customer reviews, testimonials, and social media shares) since this is the reality we live in now, such initiatives must be approached in a strategic, intentional manner that reflects honesty and clarity in the messaging and content.
It also helps to evaluate a project’s time span and goals and plan accordingly. If investors or other stakeholders expect to see media exposure right away, select paid opportunities will prove favorable. When timing is more flexible, focus on the longer term and benefit from contacting targeted media outlets on an opportunistic basis to develop earned and owned media content and opportunities that add value and can engage more audiences.
Brands and businesses must understand instant gratification isn’t typically associated with earned media, and it’s always wise to keep realistic expectations.
Here’s where experienced public relations and marketing professionals can be invaluable, as they can assess the options and advise about the most appropriate solutions based on cost, metrics, and optimal return on investment, whether you contemplate a paid/fee-based initiative or the time you might spend working with a consultant on an hourly, monthly, or project basis.
Moreover, a great deal of legwork and variables are involved. Conducting media outreach and follow-up takes a lot of time, as does establishing relationships and a healthy rapport with journalists. The importance of understanding the editorial parameters of the publication—such as editorial calendar, themes, interest, relevance, and timing—cannot be overstated. Flexibility and patience come into play here again, because it’s not uncommon for some sort of big, breaking-news story to erupt, taking precedence and upending a perfectly planned placement.
Keep in mind the reality that all these elements need to align and, even when all criteria are met, sometimes the stars also must align exactly right to produce a fantastic outcome. The key is strategically and thoughtfully applying your voice and unique messages across an available range of media options that work best for your business.
The bottom line is paid content from “thought leaders” is real and here to stay, but credibility derived from an ideal balance of owned, earned, and paid media opportunities always will prove most authentic.
Jennifer Rahn, co-founder of marketing and public relations agency Raize Communications, is a champion of clarity and simplicity, even for the most complex challenges. She summons her seemingly contradictory creative and analytical sides to craft brand presence for clients in technology, finance, architecture, and cannabis.
Roberta Tsang co-founded Raize Communications, a full-service B2B and B2C marketing and public relations agency. For more than twenty years, she has blended strategic and creative expertise to support corporations, small and medium enterprises, and entrepreneurs in the technology, fintech, consumer, lifestyle, and cannabis industries.