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How brands and marketing “gurus” fabricate media coverage

Featured in the Huffington Post… And Forbes… And Inc.com.

Actually, I wasn’t. But for just a few hundred dollars, I could be.

You ever go to a website… maybe it’s a startup, or maybe it’s an online business “guru”… and they display an impressive list of publications that have written about them?

Take it with a grain of salt.

Here’s why:

Not all articles on the same authoritative domain are created equal.

Basically, publications like Forbes, Inc, and the International Business Times have divided their businesses into two parts. One of them consists of articles written by staff writers who get paid a salary to cover… well, whatever they’re being paid to cover. Could be politics, could be current events, could be pop culture, could be business. You get the gist, I’m sure.

Of course, there’s a lot to say about professional journalists and their way of operating, but that’s outside the scope of this article. I would like to bring attention to the other part of these publications’ businesses…

It’s much worse.

Basically, it consists of blog posts written by unpaid “contributors”—who are supposed to be “experts” in their respective fields—but a lot of the time, what they’re writing about has very little to do with contributing their expertise to these oh-so esteemed publications, and far more to do with the money they’re getting paid by whoever they’re writing about.

It used to be that you could find people who promised to get your article onto Forbes or HuffPo on websites like Fiverr. You’d pay them maybe 20 bucks, and lo and behold—some guy named Hassan would magically get your article published.

Nowadays, it seems like Fiverr have cleaned up their act a bit. But it’s still really easy to get your article published on any of these websites. Just join a couple of Facebook groups for “online marketers”, and it won’t be long until you see people offering these very same services. Some of them are of pretty shoddy quality, others seem more legit but are also more expensive.

Some examples

After just a couple of minutes of clicking around on some of these websites, I was able to find quite a few examples of content that’s obviously been paid for by various companies.

First of all, we’ve got G*rdon Tr*dgold, who’s apparently a public speaker from the UK. Now, you would expect him to write mostly about public speaking, or the sort of subjects that his public speaking actually focuses on, right?

But what you actually find is stuff like this.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but do you actually believe the author—again, a public speaker and self-described “leadership” expert—cares at all about the importance of outsourcing your company’s video marketing?

And isn’t it strange that his article happens to conveniently double as a sales pitch for the company mentioned (and linked to) extensively in the article? I mean, come on.

Then there’s this guy: Br*an R*shid.

He describes himself as “one of the world’s top branding and messaging experts”. I don’t know about you, but before writing this article, I had never heard of him. What does it say about your branding expertise when no one (not even in your own industry!) has heard of you?

Anyway, back to the story.

You think the author, a branding and messaging expert, really cares about the “five essential reasons you should be using a responsive website design now”?

Of course, coincidentally the article includes a link to the services page of some random web design shop in Toronto. (The author, meanwhile, is based in New York.)

So what’s my point?

I don’t show these examples to rag on anyone in particular—unfortunately, this sort of thing isn’t rare. There are probably tens of thousands articles just like the ones I pointed out above. As a guest author on some websites I frequently receive cold emails from business owners, SEO agencies, and PR people asking me to write about their service in exchange for money.

My intention is simply to bring this to people’s attention. Getting press coverage from some of the largest publications in the world doesn’t always mean anything. So the next time you see a company or some marketer or “guru” brag about that interview they got in the Huffington Post, take it with a grain of salt and do your due diligence. Often times these blog posts receive zero editorial oversight and authors are free to publish pretty much whatever they want.

Usually, all you have to do is find the article and take a quick glance at some key things.

First of all: what’s the URL look like? If it has the author’s name in it, it’s almost guaranteed to be a guest post. Then, look at what the content is like. Is it long, in-depth, nuanced, and high-quality? Or is it short, generic, and feels inorganic?

Some of these websites also put disclaimers on their guest posts, stating things to the effect of: “The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of our publication”.

Those are some of the things to look out for. Hopefully this article was helpful or at least interesting to you. I’m happy to read any comments you might have, simply shoot me an email.

PS. If you’re interested in reading more about this phenomenon, and how it even extends to staff writers and editors (not just unpaid contributors!), I highly recommend the Outline’s investigative piece.

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Branding, design, and marketing for small businesses. Always by me. Often unorthodox. Sometimes out of line. Never boring.

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