Jonathan Hardy kindly participated in JOBCM academic and industry collaboration co-faciliated by BOBCM’s curator Justin Kirby. He is Professor of Media and Communications at the University of East London and teaches political economy of the media at Goldsmiths College, London. He writes on media industries, marketing and communications practices and policy, and is the author of Critical Political Economy of the Media (Routledge 2014), Cross-Media Promotion (Peter Lang 2010) and Western Media Systems (Routledge 2008). He co-edited The Advertising Handbook (Routledge 2009) and is co-editing the forthcoming edition. He is a member of the editorial board of Digital Journalism (Taylor and Francis) and a contributor to The Routledge Companion to Digital Journalism Studies.
Why do you think a Journal of Branded Content Marketing is relevant?
Changes in the relationship between media and marketing are having a profound effect on communications. Within the convergence of communications industries and cultures, the convergence of media and marketing is gathering pace across the various dimensions of ownership, work practices and values, cultural forms and user engagements. Creativity, communication and commerce are mixing in ways that are exciting, influential, unpredictable and sometimes troubling. New forms of integrated advertising raise a host of policy issues, from securing consumer awareness to safeguarding editorial independence. The new journal will publish topical, high quality research and foster debate. Creating a space for exchange and dialogue between academics, practitioners, policy and civil society stakeholders will, I hope, be of real value to each. I am very excited to be part of this initiative.
What are you expecting to get out of it?
As a media academic investigating and writing about branded content I am interested in the best informed understanding of practices, what people do and what they think about what they do. My interests include the implications of branded content for media financing and content, and the adequacy of regulations for convergent media. I hope that my published work will be strengthened by understanding the challenges and opportunities of branded content marketing for all those involved. I also want to observe and contribute to the way the ‘rules of the game’ develop over the next few years and explore where common ground lies across this emerging field concerning regulation, media literacy, education and training, and research agendas.
Why is it important in this area to have more exchange and collaboration between academics and practitioners?
Most research into marketing communications undertaken by both industry and academics deals with the operational arrangements and data insights that aid effectiveness. Some research is broader and considers how communications are arranged in societies and what influence they have. That work can and often does arise from different agendas to industry effectiveness and includes critical social research. The research agendas of industry and academia are not identical, nor separate, rather they are diverse, sometimes overlapping, sometimes divergent. Not everything and everyone can comfortably co-exist but there is tremendous scope and value in bringing academic and practitioner interests to bear on the range of marketing and communications practices. Each party can benefit from greater scrutiny by, and sharing with, the other. For instance, media academics can show how marketing practices are being adopted and understood by media workers, they can explore the attitudes and behaviour of users, and can map how different stakeholders approach regulations. Academic research can help make connections and synthesise data, and that is certainly needed here, to bring together knowledge and insights about media and marketing convergence from economics, law and policy, creative practice and enquiry into cultural forms, social uses and experience.
Branded content is both an economic and a cultural phenomenon. It marks the development of digital marketing practices and the merging of ‘paid’ (advertising),’earned’ (public relations), ‘owned’ (marketers’ content) and ‘shared’ (social media) communications. The convergence of these modes of sponsored communication is recognised by media scholars, but their implications require urgent cross-disciplinary attention. The need for greater exchange lies behind my work to establish a branded content research network, initially in the UK. The central aim of the network is to facilitate collaboration between academics and industry professionals to explore branded content practices and their communications policy implications. The network will complement and support the new journal of branded content marking and help in bringing together readers and contributors. There are major gaps in research and so academics need to listen and learn from practitioners, to offer insights and relay their findings back, and from such exchanges build up the trust that can foster more sustained collaboration.
Why is a conceptualisation of BCM necessary?
Branded content is sometimes ‘contained’ by institutional arrangements, rules and expectations, but what is emerging also keeps overspilling the containers, and spreading and mutating across communications environments. The discussion of definitions is important in numerous ways, from the meanings that inform practitioners and publics, to regulatory debates, but I don’t believe there will be a simple, settled definition because what is being described is inherently fluid and continually hybridizing. Branded content is the production of ‘owned’ media content, but it is also paying for content carried in other media, and it is communication about a brand through word-of-mouth sharing that can be unpaid and unplanned by the brand’s own marketers. If we include media brands themselves then all professional content is branded; yet not all content contains brand communications, and principles of separating ads and media have endured, so the growth of media content that is produced by or for brands is of huge significance. We can build on previous efforts to distinguish forms of marketing by asking who controls the content, what rules, arrangements and expectations are associated with the channels used, and whether the marketing communications are paid, unpaid, or otherwise transactional.
I think the journal can fulfil a very important role here, in advancing operational definitions, exploring these in relation to evolving practices, and considering why the various terms surrounding branding and content tend to generate buzz, confusion, and rise and fall from favour. Content marketing makes a bold claim to inclusivity: what marketers and media do is essentially the same. I am interested in how, where, and why that term has become favoured by some over branded content with its stress on the communication of brand values and presence.
How do you think academics can help practitioners in general, and what areas do you think they could specifically help them with?
Academics can offer research relevant to all stages of promotional activity from conception to reception, can bring insights from historical, global and comparative media research, and contribute across all the dimensions of communication. I certainly favour close collaboration, dialogue and joint-working and anything that helps promote a better understanding. However, I also want to ensure that higher education remains a space for independent enquiry, including critical enquiry. I think there is a legitimate role for academics to ‘help’ practitioners but that is not the only role. Like news media, academics can fulfil various roles, informing, cheerleading, but also sounding alarms and aiding public debate.
What are the challenges you face or lessons you have learned when working with practitioners on research projects?
I try to follow the advice I give my students which is to make the effort to understand and appreciate the conditions in which practitioners work, as this affects how they can engage with researchers. Students, and researchers, can be too focused on what they want out of the involvement and heap on demands that can’t easily be met by those working in highly mobile, pressurised environments. Good research design, sound ethics, clarity of purpose, and identifying appropriate value for those involved, all go a long way in building trust.