Does fake news give brands an opportunity?

The concept of “fake news” is gripping the world the way political propaganda obsessed our forebears. Nowadays the tools used to spread fake news are more numerous and more accessible than ever before: no longer the preserve of media moguls, PR gurus and political parties. And that has many of these old stakeholders running scared, which is why we’re hearing so much about it.

The great utopian dream of social media giving power to the people has turned out to be slightly more dystopian – infiltrated by fake reporting and biased opinions, passed off as fact. But really, how much has changed? After all, Alfred Harmsworth, founder of the Daily Mail is said to have advised his journalists to “never lose your sense of the superficial”. That was over 100 years ago.

Is fake news actually fake news?

Bias and rumour disguised as news is no new thing. Around the world newspapers have been pushing sensational agendas to sell copies and reflect their owners’ opinions for centuries. They are not averse to creating public outcry – the UK MMR scare in the 1990s is a good and far from isolated case in point. Similarly political, ethnic and religious, or indeed product or marketing agendas, often utilise misinformation – which is the old name for fake news.

Think about the diesel fuel emissions scandals, the use of social media to drive anti-immigrant or Islamophobic hype in the Brexit process, and the Russian-driven social media ‘news’ campaigns, supported by advertising, in the run up to the US election. Indeed with Donald Trump’s own obsession with mainstream “fake news media” – effectively anything that disagrees with his view – he even went so far as holding his own Fake News Awards to uncover “dishonesty” and “bad reporting”. This from a President who recently boasted of lying to the Canadian Prime Minister about their countries’ balance of trade.

It’s not one way traffic – really, we’re all participants. Willing or unwilling. That share button is so easy to press…

We’re told we live in a so-called post-fact world, where stories need to be verified, where consumers are desperately searching for content they can trust. But come on, it’s not just one way traffic – really, we’re all participants. Willing or unwilling. That share button is so easy to press. What we consume and what choose to believe is driven more by personal interest, curiosity, titillation or bias rather than actual – and sometimes boring – “facts”. Another quote attributed to Alfred Harmsworth is “if a dog bites a man, that’s not news… if a man bites a dog – now that’s news”. We do love a bit of excitement. Not to mention controversy.

Social media and fake news

It’s not just in the way real people share information but also in the way social algorithms deliver it. As a result of the fake accounts and fake news controversy, high quality, trusted news, particularly news from local sources, has become a much publicised focus for Facebook in 2018, according to founder Mark Zuckerberg. But guess what? Since this policy has been implemented it has negatively hit engagement rates and time spent on Facebook. What does that tell us about the popularity of fact vs fake?

People are just not the willing dupes some media would have us believe we are. A study by Kantar, which surveyed 8,000 individuals across Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, and the USA, reveals that audiences are indeed more informed about the effects of fake news and are altering their behaviour accordingly.

The research reveals that a third of UK news audiences have increased the number of news sources they use – this rises to 50% for those aged 35 and under. And more than three quarters of news consumers claim to have independently fact-checked a story to verify it, while 70% have reconsidered sharing an article – worried that it might be fake news.

Trust in peer-to-peer recommendation has been eroded too with the rise of paid-for reviews and vlogger endorsements

Also, just as consumers face a lack of trust in what they see in their news feeds, trust in peer-to-peer recommendation has been eroded too with the rise of paid-for reviews and vlogger endorsements, as well as fake review scandals on sites like Amazon and TripAdvisor.

Where I’m going with this is that for all of the media obsession with fake news, believability – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. A much more level playing field has been created by this erosion in trust for traditional media, our news feeds and peer recommendations. The currencies of trust and belief don’t just sit just with media or other independent sources any more: For brands and businesses that use content to communicate with potential customers it could be a real opportunity to disintermediate – an opportunity for transparent, honest communications. If you take it.

Another study, by Forbes , of 1,300 millennials, reveals that 43% rank authenticity over content when consuming news: They first have to trust a company or news site before they even bother reading the content that they produce. Is your brand credible? Is it authentic? Then content can be your friend.

What does fake news mean for content marketing?

This requires a change of tack for some brands – towards using content as a key customer communication tool. Not just with expensive, eye-catching advertising campaigns but also with an engaging comms plan and content calendar that delivers affinity – and through that trust, believability and authenticity. Whether it’s on email or social media, via magazines, or through consumer experiences, brands need to stop thinking like product automatons, and look at their communications, products and services from a consumer interest point of view.

Quality content allows brands to have influence over their narrative, rather than letting the media or rivals set the agenda

Brand stories and self-reviews are now more relevant than ever before. If you have confidence in your understanding of your audience, if your content is authentic and honest, and most importantly if your communications are backed up by human experience, consumer reviews, and are open for discussion via social media or forums it will have an impact. Quality content allows brands to really influence their narrative, rather than letting the media or rivals set the agenda.

A two-way, co-creation, approach is also invaluable. Control over a brand’s narrative can be shared with consumers to galvanise the emotional role of content, for example through brand communities. Our research here at Dialogue shows how important a brand community is in customer retention and increased spend. For brands it’s imperative to create content that matters to consumers – content that informs and isn’t always about the next sale. By creating emotional engagement, it moves the strategy into the long term, not just the next click.

The post-fact world has always been with us – but the heightened consumer awareness of issues around trust mean that authentic brands can compete like never before for this trust. It is opening routes for brands to create, make and amplify emotional, authentic and trust-worthy communications.


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We also have a report about brand communities and content, you can download our free report The Benefits of Brand Communities from our website.