Before Jersey Shore made hair gel less cool and before any Kardashian broke the internet, there was the Loud family. The run-of-the-mill Louds were the subject of a 12-part documentary series PBS aired in 1973. What started as an exploration of a typical American family quickly evolved into something else as schisms erupted and the parents’ separation became primetime fodder.
An American Family was unique at the time—not just because a regular family was totally fine with a film crew invading their space for weeks while filming their every moment. It was also unique because the producers told the story they wanted through 300 hours of film footage heavily edited to keep television viewers tuning in.
PBS inadvertently set the reality television wheels in motion. (Thanks a lot, PBS.) Today, little has changed. What’s dubbed “reality” ends up being anything but. If it feels like it’s harder to tell what the truth looks like anymore, you’re not alone.
Understanding the lies
For today’s marketers, it’s important to understand the nature of truth and what it means for brand reputation. There are three terms in particular we need to define.
- Misinformation. Often inadvertent. It’s when inaccuracies or misleading claims are shared to sway public opinion or distract from the truth.
- Disinformation. Usually intentional. It’s when lies are promoted to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.
- Gaslighting. Always manipulative. It’s when somebody in a position of power throws truth into question so often that targets begin to question their own judgment and reality.
These terms are important to keep in mind because brand reputation and customer trust both matter. And they’re not going anywhere.
Brands in the fake news era ultimately vie for customer trust in a sea of false truths and false promises. The degradation of trust is a real barrier to content marketing, but there are ways forward.
Have them at hello
Forget SEO and frequency for a moment. Good content marketing is still about good conversations.
Think about it. Every human relationship begins with some sort of “handshake moment,” a snapshot in time when you begin assessing the character of the person standing before you. Are they looking me in the eyes? Is the grip firm? Can I trust this person? Where did he get those shoes?
It doesn’t stop there. Across the different seasons of the relationship, there are opportunities to reinforce those initial assumptions or revert to something else.
Similarly for brands, content marketing begins at the handshake but continues through the entire buyer journey. Your customers are bombarded with half-truths and lofty promises all day. It’s your job to instill trust, create value, and maintain that relationship. Treat them like humans by writing content for humans. Ultimately it’s about them, not you.
This should inform every pit stop in your channel distribution strategy—from the owned content to social channels to paid programs. Make those handshake moments memorable. But more important, make them matter. Make it about them, not you.
Authenticity (still) matters
I know, I know ... the “A” word. Fight every instinct to scroll away from the page. Brand authenticity is about as original a topic as pumpkin-spiced lattes in October. But to build customer trust, creating authentic content is near the top of the list. And to do that, you need to focus on a few things.
Be original. Find your unique angle and stick to it. It’s a content jungle out there, and customers fight a deluge of content noise just to get to you. Make them realize you provide value nobody else can. So while everybody else writes financial content, be the brand that also creates interactive content (like mortgage calculators). And keep users coming back for more.
Leverage subject matter experts. Flaunt your expertise—but in a not-so-annoying way. If you’re a financial institution, for example, create content your internal thought leaders can communicate expertly about. Customers come to you with problems. Give them compelling, specific solutions.
Go further. Sometimes it’s okay to make bold predictions. Trust your instincts—you have an understanding better than most (your customers and competitors included). Create content that shows your customers you’re solving problems today for a better tomorrow.
What not to do
In fighting for digital attention, there are a few things to steer clear of.
Avoid politics. Unless there’s a specific reason to get involved, it’s best to leave politics to the pundits. This doesn’t mean your brand shouldn’t communicate empathetically when your customers feel real hurt. It just means conversations straddling party lines are typically divisive.
Avoid opinions. There’s enough hollow content out there. Stick to verifiable sources, good data, and facts. Share the truth—just share it in a cool, unique way, not just what you think your audience wants to hear.
Don’t waste time. Your customers are engaging with your content when they could be doing just about anything else with their time. Treat that like gold. Give them what they need, when they need it. Have the integrity to deliver on a great headline. And make them believers as well as buyers.
Don’t overpromise. Clickbait is all the rage nowadays. Avoid it. Overpromising and underdelivering runs the risk of alienating your audience and pushing them away from your channels. Forever.
Tell your story before somebody else does
Combating misinformation ultimately comes down to treating your audience like actual humans and not like numbers on a profit and loss statement. Create the value they’re searching for without fabricating the truth or misrepresenting your brand.
As customer trust wavers in the digital era, user-centric content strategy still works. Not just because it focuses on your customers, but also because your brand is crafting value-driven narratives before anybody else gets to.
By being thoughtful about your handshake moments, being authentic, and constantly delivering on promises, your brand can stay top-of-mind for people desperately seeking a consistent source of value. A source of truth.
And that matters because the truth has never been more important.