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How pervasive is the problem of misinformation, unverified facts and false claims in the current content-marketing environment? To find out, Visme asked the experts.
Fake news. It's the year’s biggest buzz term: We see it all over our televisions, in the paper and on the Web. We even hear it straight from the president’s mouth. Don’t agree with a report? Call it fake news.
The problem is, there is so much misinformation spread around that audiences no longer know what to believe. The concept of fake news, while often used to demean an unflattering report, is also a legitimate problem. The line between journalism and other content has blurred, making it more important than ever for all writers, regardless of their platform, to verify their facts. That group includes content marketers.
“Fake news has been a big problem for some time now, and there are many people out there that will just read a post off Facebook and believe it to be the truth, without finding an original or secondary source,” Laura Varley, a brand journalist at Vertical Leap and author of "Fact-Checking Guide for Content Marketers," told Visme.
Just how serious are the problems with misinformation, false claims and fake news?
What happens when unfounded claims and misinformation are reported as fact? Plenty. Reputations -- of writers and subjects -- can be damaged.
“Fact-checking is incredibly important in any industry, not just marketing,” Varley said in our exclusive interview. “Whether you're promoting a product/service, writing an opinion piece or reporting on a news story, it's vital to get all the facts right. A single mistake, no matter how small, could result in anything from losing your customers' trust to becoming the target of an internet backlash or even legal repercussions.”
"A single mistake could result in anything from losing your customers' trust to legal repercussions.” Click to tweet
Fake news and other invalid content is published for a variety of reasons. Some post it to smear an adversary, others enjoy “trolling” forums to watch others’ reactions, while some post “clickbait” in order to entice potential customers to view their ads. Regardless the motivation, publishing inaccurate reports can have catastrophic results.
Jestin Coler, founder and CEO of Disinfomedia, described the result of one of his “fake news” stories in an interview with NPR. Even the publisher of sites known for fake news was surprised at how quickly a false report could spread after he posted a fake story to NationalReport.net, claiming customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot.
"What that turned into was a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana based on something that had just never happened," Coler said.
Author of “How Well Do You Fact-Check Your Content?” and immediate past ethics committee chairman of the American Society of Business Publication Editors
"Content marketers have eagerly pursued qualified journalists as either full-time or freelance resources to execute assignments. The process of supervising journalists engaged in content marketing assignments has much in common with how B2B editors watchdog article creation.
Fact-checking, of course, is one of those areas. An immediate caveat is the need to put a lid on exaggerated claims of superiority. Also, verify all numbers, even those a client provides. There are cases where even the best sources goof up, occasionally providing figures that don't add up.
Second, content marketers probably need a better handle on supervising article creation. Qualitative concerns usually pass muster. But setting and achieving quantitative goals is another matter. In productivity workshops conducted for B2B publishers, I stress importance of establishing how long it should take to complete every task."
If nothing else, publishing falsehoods can harm reputations, causing brands to lose current and potential customers. They never know when that one incorrect statement will go viral.
“Unfortunately, the art of spinning is nothing new,” Chris Horley, senior account manager at Graymatter, Ltd. and author of “Marketing in a Post-Truth Trump World,” told Visme.
“However, with the growth in social media and ability for the audience to reach their peers instantly, content marketers need to be mindful that misusing information can have a detrimental impact on the campaign and, worse still, the reputation of the content creator.”
Because “fake news” has become such an issue in the journalism arena, audiences have grown more skeptical of anything they read, including marketing content. Therefore, marketers can no longer slide by with engaging, informative and entertaining articles. To increase their ROI, they must create and maintain a relationship of trust with their readers and viewers.
To find out just how pervasive the issue of misinformation and “fake news” might be, Visme conducted an anonymous survey among content marketers. When we discovered there is little factual evidence to be found, we devised the study to take a preliminary look at fact-checking practices in the industry.
Readers should note that questions were answered by 200 respondents, therefore more information is needed to generalize these results to the entire population of content marketers.
Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents said they “always” fact-check their own content, while another 24 percent said they verify facts “usually” and 6 percent check “sometimes.”
We also discovered that fewer content marketers verify other writers’ work before sharing or republishing it. Only 53 percent of those surveyed said they always verify facts in others’ work before publishing it, and 40 percent of survey respondents said they “always” check others’ facts before sharing content.
Fake news and other wrong information can spread exponentially. According to our survey results, for every 1,000 hypothetical content marketers, 60 only fact-check their work “sometimes.” If sometimes equals even half the time, that means about 30 of every 1,000 marketing-related articles may contain wrong information or unfounded claims. Remain mindful, of course, that this is a hypothetical scenario as more information is needed to extrapolate these results to the entire content-marketing industry.
Now imagine that 80 percent of the 1,000 marketers who share those 30 instances of misinformation don’t check the facts first. All of a sudden, 30 pieces of false content may turn into 24,000 claims -- and that’s all within the industry. Once the audiences for all of those posts start spreading the word … you can see how “fake news” can quickly get out of hand.
Misinformation can also lead to invalid sources, too. Content creators should remember that simply referencing the source of information doesn’t make it true. Citing a source without verifying its credibility only leads to the further spread of "alternative information." Unfortunately, fact-checking standards in the content-marketing industry have room for improvement.
Of the content marketers surveyed, 64 percent said that when they cite a source they also fact-check the source. So of our hypothetical group of 1,000 content marketers, those 30 articles that may contain erroneous information can then be used as a source for more than 360 additional articles.
In terms of tools most commonly used to verify facts, most survey respondents rely on Google (85 percent), followed by books (40 percent) and interviews (34 percent).
When asked if fact-checking has always been part of their content marketing practices, 78 percent of respondents answered "yes," while 18 percent affirmed that they started applying it after the recent publicity of "fake news."
When asked if they had ever been notified of factual errors in their content, 46 percent replied "yes," while the rest responded "no."
Obviously, professional content marketers do their best to present valid information to their audiences. But as our survey results illustrate, one unfounded claim can quickly lead to a wave of misinformation. But mistakes can still happen. We asked content experts how to best avoid spreading misinformation and other “fake news.”
“If you don't have any fact-checking processes in place, it's more important now than ever to change that,” Varley said. “Snopes.com is a great resource for checking the validity of a story, so it's always a good idea to use that before putting pen to paper, especially if the 'fact' you've read sounds a bit off.”
"An immediate caveat is the need to put a lid on exaggerated claims of superiority. Also, verify all numbers, even those a client provides." Click to tweet
Varley also recommends thoroughly checking your sources.
“Everything we produce gets checked thoroughly before being published or sent to the client,” she told Visme in our exclusive interview.
“We're proud to have experienced content marketers and journalists in our content team that are committed to writing high quality, fact-checked content. We ensure that every source we quote in a piece is legitimate and hyperlinked -- unlike a lot of articles I see on the internet!”
Senior account manager at Graymatter, Ltd.
"I think that with any content generating teams -- whether they are politicians, news channels or marketing teams of organizations -- there is going to be a mixture of unverified and verified information. Those that use inaccurate/unverified information are clearly running the gauntlet of being exposed. For me, the fallout is just not worth it.
There needs to be processes put in place that enable teams to produce both quick turnaround and long-term items of content, ensuring factual credibility. For me the need to be seen and respond quickly to events has created an unhealthy notion that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than seek approval. But to what cost?"
Rauch warns of including misleading claims.
“An immediate caveat is the need to put a lid on exaggerated claims of superiority. Also … verify all numbers, even those a client provides,” Rauch said. “There are cases where even the best sources goof up, occasionally providing figures that don't add up.”
And according to Horley, content marketers should equally verify their facts and their sources.
“We live in a fast-paced world and what’s true today from a statistical perspective may not be so tomorrow. In terms of checking, if the client provides the sources, or if they’re found as part of the research process, I will manually check to validate their credibility,” Horley said in Visme’s exclusive interview.
“If you don't have the resources to create content that is not misleading, you probably should not be creating content,” author, speaker and strategy consultant Mark Schaefer, who has been published in prestigious publications such as The New York Times, TIME and The Wall Street Journal, told Visme. “It's OK to make a mistake, but you can't take shortcuts that will ruin your reputation.”
According to Rauch, one problem content-marketing firms can encounter is consistently balancing quality and quantity. He recommends budgeting ample time to thoroughly complete every task.
“In productivity workshops conducted for B2B publishers, I stress the importance of establishing how long it should take to complete every task. For example, how long should it take to write a product review consisting of eight to 10 items of two to three paragraphs? How long should it take to write a round-up article requiring interviews with a dozen sources? Quantitative performance expectations should be expressed in written job descriptions.”
Multiple experts interviewed, as well as survey respondents, mentioned following a checklist to ensure all necessary information is verified. To ensure you've thoroughly checked the most crucial information in your content, you can download this checklist and keep it at hand next time you review an article to be published on your site:
According to our survey, most respondents verify names and titles, followed by dates, statistics, figures and contact details. The least-checked content includes measurements, names of places and definitions of terms.
Considering most content marketing teams don't include a designated fact-checker, only 11 percent of survey respondents said fact-checking is performed by anyone other than writers and editors.
Horley says he would ask a content-marketing team with a small staff to:
“You don't need a designated fact-checker to ensure that every piece of work you do is truthful -- we certainly don't have any at Vertical Leap,” Varley told Visme.
“Fact-checking should be the job of whoever is editing the piece. Look at the sources the writer has used -- are they legitimate? If they've quoted anyone, have they got their name, title, gender and job role correct? Are the brand names spelled and capitalized correctly? These are all things an editor should check, and every piece of content should be reviewed by at least two different people, if possible.”
"If you don't have any fact-checking processes in place, it's more important now that ever to change that. Snopes.com is a great resource for checking the validity of a story, so it's always a good idea to use that before putting pen to paper, especially if the 'fact' you've read sounds a bit off.
I think it seems to be a bigger problem in journalism rather than content marketing, but perhaps that's because it's more commonly reported!
Look at the sources the writer has used: are they legitimate? ... These are all things an editor should check, and every piece of content should be reviewed by at least two different people, if possible."
In a recent TED Talk, Mona Chalabi discussed ways to recognize misleading statistics. Surely, you must ask, hard data can’t be skewed to serve an author’s purpose? Chalabi explained how surveys can be conducted to get a particular response.
“Let's say you hear a claim like, ‘The average swimming pool in the US contains 6.23 fecal accidents,’” she said.
“That doesn't mean every single swimming pool in the country contains exactly 6.23 turds. So in order to show that, I went back to the original data, which comes from the CDC, which surveyed 47 swimming facilities. And I just spent one evening redistributing poop. So you can kind of see how misleading averages can be.”Chalabi also told her audience to examine how survey data is collected. For example, survey responses can take on new meaning when context is taken into account. Did respondents use the same definitions as you, and how did they answer other questions in the survey?
Even statistics can take on new meaning given their context. When referencing unemployment rates, does the formula include part-time workers who would prefer to be full-time, those working in jobs below their skills and experience, and people who have simply given up? Or are those groups omitted? Either calculation is accurate in its own way, but without context the end result can be vastly misstated and misleading to audiences.
Have you ever been notified that your content included factual errors? About half of our survey respondents have. What steps do you take to ensure you don’t publish or share misinformation, false claims and fake news?