Unless you’ve been living completely off the grid, you’re probably sick of all the drama about fake news.
But here’s the thing. Fake news isn’t new. And it isn’t limited to news. In fact, it has a special affinity for content marketing.
The more we have to compete for eyeballs and dollars, the more likely we are to be tempted to cross the line into…let’s call it “subjective fact,” shall we? Sometimes we do it on purpose, but, more often than not, we just wake up one day and find ourselves writing something that’s total BS. Because “subjective facts” don’t always call attention to themselves with flashing red lights. Sometimes, they’re dull, dented, and scratched — so blah they don’t even attract attention…but they do hold up an argument or claim that would fall apart without them.
And that’s a problem. Whether it’s stretching the truth to make the facts fit the argument you’re trying to support, ignoring contradictory facts, or employing logical fallacies, these things undermine your credibility more than you realize. While people who already passionately support you will be nodding their heads in agreement, the people you’re trying to convince will be thinking, “Now, wait a minute…”
And you know what they’ll conclude? Either that you’re not smart enough to spot the holes in your own argument, that you think they’re not smart enough to catch you, or that you’re not ethical enough to care. And none of those conclusions are especially helpful to your business goals.
So pull up a chair (and a mirror), take a deep breath, and let’s examine our consciences (I know, I know…but I’m a cradle Catholic, and it’s almost Lent) to see how the scourge of fake news can infiltrate content marketing.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell”
Despite the recent wailing and gnashing of teeth about “alternative facts,” there’s actually something to it. The unemployment rate is a good example. Let’s look at two different methodologies for calculating that number. One includes part-time workers who would prefer to be full-time, people who are working in jobs below their skills and experience, and people who have finally given up. The other leaves those folks out. The two methodologies would deliver vastly different results — and yet both would be “fact.” Alternative facts.
If there are circumstances that are vital to correctly interpreting your conclusions, results, statistics, etc., be transparent. Crossing your fingers and hoping no one asks isn’t lying, but it is sneaky. And misleading. And, if you get caught, your audience won’t trust you anymore.
The same fact can convey very different meanings depending on the words used to modify it. Consider the difference between, “A full 40% of Americans are trying to lose weight” and “Only 40% of Americans are trying to lose weight.” Again, it’s not lying…but it is telling your readers what to think about your “fact” rather than letting them decide for themselves.
Stretching the truth
(what my professors would have called “hyperbole” and my mama would have called “lying”)
I tried to talk myself out of using political examples for this one, but the low-hanging fruit was too appealing:
- Steve Bannon telling the press to “sit down and shut up” is a violation of the First Amendment.
- Trump’s comment about finding Clinton’s emails was a direct invitation for the Russians to hack the election.
This isn’t about inflating a few numbers. I’m talking about drama on hyperdrive. In other words, one tiny, wispy cloud turns into, “The sky is falling!” In the content marketing context, it could be something like, “Social media ruined the internet!” You could certainly make some valid arguments about the negative impacts of social media, but last time I checked, the internet was still doing just fine.
Here’s the bottom line: Don’t exaggerate the implications of a situation to make your point more interesting. People see right through it and stop trusting you. They also conclude that your real argument must be pretty weak, so you end up undermining your own message. It’s fine to guide your audience through context and implications, but don’t overdo it.
Not telling the whole truth
(also known as “Yes, but…”)
This is another situation where something can be factual without being “true.” One example would be waxing rhapsodic about your “gluten-free” peanut butter. Sure, your peanut butter may be gluten-free, but so is everybody else’s (excluding the unlikely instance of cross-contamination, of course).
Including only the facts that are favorable to your position is a cheesy move, and it undermines your credibility even more than lying, because it tells people that fact-checking your claims isn’t enough. It reminds them that they also have to dig deeper and try to identify any facts you may have left out. You might as well come on out and admit that you don’t have any real ammo. It’s far more effective to proactively defuse objections by bringing up the unfavorable information yourself and then explaining why it doesn’t matter.
Conflating correlation and causation
This is one of my favorites. Just because two things seem to be related doesn’t mean that one caused the other. Bored statisticians regularly discover correlations between some pretty crazy things:
- The consumption of sour cream and the number of motorcycle riders killed in accidents
- The quantity of beef that’s purchased and the number of people who die from being struck by lightning
- The cost of potato chips and the number of people who are killed falling out of wheelchairs
- The number of movies Nicholas Cage stars in and the number of people who die from falling into swimming pools
Those are all interesting correlations, but don’t expect Nicholas Cage to announce his retirement in the interest of saving lives.
There are, of course, correlations that are very real. Sales of car batteries increase during extremely hot or cold temperatures. Where I live, if there’s snow in the forecast, you can be certain that the grocery stores will have a run on milk. And then there’s a company called Skymosity whose entire business model is based on identifying the effects of weather on a particular business and helping them make the most of that knowledge with targeted emails.
But keep it real, folks. Don’t try to convince people to eat chicken instead of beef so they won’t get struck by lightning.
Using questionable sources
Let’s be honest…you can find a source to cite for just about anything you want to say. But not all sources are created equal. And with today’s emphasis on “fake news,” people are getting a lot savvier about vetting sources — especially sources that have an agenda. If you’re trying to convince people that they should drink wine instead of beer, don’t use a vintner as your source. Same goes for sites using lots of red text, capital letters, and exclamation points. Or atrocious grammar. Or too many superlatives. You get the picture.
Pushing the boundaries like this has never been good for credibility. But in a time when you’re likely to be called out for saying the sun rose in the morning (the sun, after all, didn’t move), it’s riskier than ever. People are feeling extremely skeptical and are more unlikely than ever to take things at face value. In times like these, transparency, honesty, and credibility are a competitive advantage you don’t want to waste.