Content Marketing Needn’t Be an Ethical Quandary for Canadian Freelancers

by Miranda Miller

In my last column, we looked at “following the money;” at the need for Canadian freelancers who want to continue writing and editing as a career to consider new types of clients. The trend towards brands as publishers, coupled with the near-universal gutting of mainstream media writing budgets and the devaluation of writing as a skilled trade, is forcing freelancers to look beyond journals, magazines and newspapers as sources of reliable income.

Enter content marketing, the practice of creating content for a company’s audiences — and a contentious topic in some circles, as it turns out.

When the Professional Writers Association of Canada’s Toronto chapter recently held an educational session on content marketing, the group’s listserv lit up in heated discussion on the ethics of content marketing. As a person who has done a good percentage of my business in content marketing, I was surprised by how some felt about it.

In fact, one person declared that content marketing is “one of the absolute worst things ever to happen to newspapers and magazines because it seriously erodes the distinction between journalism and advertising.”

As the conversation continued, there was much debate over the ethics of accepting payment for what some view as the practice of writing advertorials not clearly labeled as such and therefore designed to fool or trick readers.

But is that all there is to content marketing? Not by a long shot.

What is content marketing, exactly?

Content Marketing Institute defines the practice in this way:

“Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

Further, it says, content marketing may leverage all story channels and be employed throughout the buying process at any stage. It’s comparable to what all media companies, including magazines and newspapers, do as their core business. However, success is measured not by paid content (ads) or sponsorship, but by the sale of products and services.

See, businesses have a vested interest in objectivity, neutrality and transparency, as well. Web content across just about every topic is now hyper-competitive, as individuals, organizations of all kinds and yes, businesses, compete to become reputable, respected sources of information.

Why? Because consumers demand an increasing amount of content to help them make their purchasing decision. People are now accessing an average of 12 sources of content through an average of six different devices daily, according to a recent Adobe report.

Demand for quality is growing

With this increasing reliance on web content, the demand for quality is growing, as well. Adobe also found that consumers increasingly question the authenticity of content, with more than 60% questioning whether a news article is biased, a photo has been altered, or an author paid or incentivized to post a positive review.

This understanding that companies are naturally incentivized to produce high quality, transparent content can help freelancers find writing opportunities that align with their own ethics and values.

“I’m paid by a client to do a job. Even curated content can be delivered in a new way, and as long as it isn’t plagiarized, is correctly attributed, and is not just a click bait hiding as an advertorial, I have no issue with writing content that way,” said Lisa MacColl, freelance writer and editor.

The businesses and the marketers you’ll be working with if you choose to get involved in content marketing don’t want writers producing deceptive, thinly veiled advertorials, either.

Grant Simmons, VP of Search Marketing at, told me he believes that content marketing is a marketing tool, and like any tool can be used for good… or not.

“To some content marketers, content is like cats to a cat lady — there can never be enough,” Simmons said.

“The outcome of both at scale is the same: a pile of crap. If journalists (a generally snobby and protective bunch) only define Buzzfeed-y style content as content marketing then yes, we’re all going to hell. But if content marketing is to educate, entertain, enlighten, inspire and/or inform (which I believe it is) then the degree of crap produced is solely in the hands of the marketer and as they say, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’”

Alan Bleiweiss of Alan Bleiweiss Consulting points to the proliferation of substandard content as an opportunity.

“I think the issue that defines what content marketing is has to do more with whether it’s just glorified link building, or if it’s actually high quality helpful content being provided on trustworthy sites, not unlike guest blogging was before the SEO industry polluted that with toxic junk,” he said. “Unfortunately, most content marketing is the glorified link building variety, and has become the new guest blogging toxic junk.”

Great news for freelancers

This is actually great news for Canadian freelancers, particularly those unwilling to sacrifice their ethics and the quality of their craft to appease clients who emphasize volume over quality and purpose.

There’s a sea change taking place in online marketing, where using the right keywords and publishing as much as you could, as often as possible, was once the golden ticket to the top of Google’s search results. Today, people are searching for information across devices, and across channels, as they make decisions about what to eat, where to shop, which products to buy, and which brands deserve their loyalty.

The volume of content those readers demand is staggering.

But the quality and depth of information they seek calls for professional writers and editors to join in-house and agency content marketing teams. It calls for editorial oversight as an integral component in the marketing process, for every company publishing at any scale.

Don’t think for a second that content marketing is a step down for a serious writer or journalist. We have always been content creators, whether in print, radio, television or online, and the better your content, the more in demand you and your work will be. Content marketing calls for transparency and ethics, as does journalism, and it will be up to each business/publisher and writer to ensure their practices are ethically sound.

Content marketing is another step in the evolution of professional writing and for those willing to take that step, there are unlimited opportunities. Those who can’t adapt will be forced to continue competing with one another for a rapidly diminishing number of traditional writing jobs until, eventually, there is no way left for them to earn an income, ethical or otherwise.


Miranda Miller is a business and marketing writer from Owen Sound, Ontario. You can find her on Twitter at @MirandaM_EComm.


Posted on December 2, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: 

One Response

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  1. Written by Deborah Jones
    on January 5, 2016 at 7:58 am
    Reply · Permalink

    As the CAJ ethics committee says, content is *not* journalism. Taking on “content” jobs is a mine-field for those committed to remaining in journalism in our brutal economy.
    Some useful information here:
    Salient: “… emergence of sponsored content raises two serious ethical issues: deception and conflict of interest. ”

    In the J-Source piece you’ll find a CAJ ethics committee discussion paper.

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