Beloved Auntie content

Content marketing hit a new milestone this week as the venerable BBC decided to get in on the act. Its new BBC StoryWorks unit will work alongside BBC Advertising (yes, that’s a thing) in the commercial arm of this famously non-commercial broadcaster, BBC Worldwide.

(BBC Worldwide makes money by selling BBC content internationally and handles spin-offs such as magazines and branded goods. In 2013/14, it generated profits of £157m on sales of £1,042m – topping up the licence fee to a tune of £174m.)

The launch announcement showed that Auntie Beeb is already adept at the language of corporate marketing, promising that StoryWorks “will span the globe offering clients content solutions built on compelling narratives that will engage audiences.” (Perhaps they’re saving the sharpest scribes for the content itself, rather than the press release…)

It’s clear this is a serious business for the Beeb. It’s true that the new “SVP of content” Richard Pattinson isn’t exactly Jeremy Paxman (we can only imagine what his take on all this is) or even Chris Evans. But he does have more than 10 years of journalistic experience, albeit spread quite thinly across a number of outlets. And “newsroom values” is explicitly part of the new service’s tagline.

The BBC is already stressing that it will clearly badge content as commercial. But the fact it’s bringing its considerable brand to bear undoubtedly takes the industry up a notch in terms of facilities, expertise and especially reputation.

Reaction has been mixed so far. Advertising site The Drum has played a straight bat in the wake of the announcement, dutifully reporting the press release and slotting StoryWorks alongside similar ventures from news groups such as the Guardian.

But IT portal Diginomica offered a more cynical take. Veteran reporter Stuart Lauchlan accepts it’s a valid revenue stream, but warns: “From a ‘future of the BBC’ perspective, I think it’s just asking for trouble.”

He might have a point. In the immediate aftermath of a row about what David Cameron might or might not have meant with his joke about closing down the BBC during the recent election campaign, and with BBC Director General Tony Hall warning the licence fee may have had its day, jumping into content marketing starts to feel like a pre-emptive measure to bolster income should the worst happen.

The upside? If the BBC can really maintain standards and values in its content marketing business, it ought to raise the bar for the industry as a whole. Ultimately, clients are better served when they’re willing to pay for quality; and when they accept that they get more value from content that’s popular, engaging, less salesy and more balanced.

And that ought to be good news for writers who are keen to do crunchy and interesting work, rather than pen press releases using words like “content solutions.”

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