Content marketing, ghost blogging and authenticity: You can have it all

Posted on January 2, 2013 11:10 am by | Content | Blogging | Social Media | Trust

Ghost Blogging
(c) CanStock Photos
Content marketing holds a world of promise for organizations seeking to be visible in a fragmented-yet-crowded media landscape. It also is full of potholes that can rattle your organization’s reputation and landmines that can blow it up entirely.

The need to become a media company, to produce an ongoing stream of quality content despite limited resources, can lead marketers and communicators to make some very bad decisions. One of them is embracing the idea of ghost blogging. On a recent podcast episode, a ProBlog Service writer explained the company this way:

We are primarily content marketers. We’re ghost bloggers. We write blog posts for other companies, and we do SEO through content for these other companies so they basically win search for their chosen keywords.

When asked about the notion of authenticity in blogging, the writer responded, “I can never understand why this one thing, this one last bastion of naivete, people insist that we can’t have ghost writers. “You have to have your own voice.” People who think that don’t work in the real business world quite that much.”

That’s wildly inaccurate. I’ve spent 37 years in the corporate world, with global consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies, then consulting with large organizations, and that’s exactly how I think. And I know I’m not alone. Yet I fear that the rise of content marketing will lead to a resurgence in ghost blogging. Fortunately, this is one of those rare situations where companies can have it both ways.

The point the the writer—Erik Deckers—was making is that we’ve come to accept the fact that someone’s words can just as easily have been crafted by someone else. Few business leaders or politicians deliver speeches they’ve written themselves. Celebrities hire ghost writers to pen their autobiographies. Executives’ letters to shareholders are authored by investor relations specialists. Deckers scoffed at the idea that blogging should be “the last bastion where people question whether you should have ghost bloggers.”

Blogging arose amidst growing cynicism surrounding business and politics. While we accept speechwriters and ghost writers, it does little to build trust in a world in which trust is so deeply prized. Blogs were an antidote to opacity, an exercise in authenticity and transparency. One of the great concerns expressed in the early days of blogging, as the first businesses began to adopt them, was that they would suffer the same corruption as other media. Abusing a medium that gained popularity, in part, because of its authenticity characteristics will only reinforce the cynicism leveled at your brand.

Blogs are part of social media, and social media works when organizations are open and honest. Reports appear regularly about the consequences of deception in the social space. Pure ghost blogging is just that: deception.

While they may work with writers in other media, executives like Bill Marriott (author of the Marriott on the Move blog) understand that the very fact that the blog has their name on it means readers actually believe it’s them. Imagine what would happen to the trust that had been built over years of blogging and engagement with readers if it were revealed that, all along, a copy writer from an agency had been drafting those posts.

It is easy enough, however, to take advantage of talented professional writers like Decker and services like ProBlog Service without violating that trust. Just follow some simple guidelines:

  1. Content doesn’t have to appear in a blog that’s clearly labeled as one person’s point of view. Consider the fact that media properties like Mashable, VentureBeat and ReadWrite all use blogging platforms, while companies like Southwest Airlines have had huge success with multiple-author blogs. As long as the content is compelling, readers won’t care about the author.
  2. If you deem it important to have a single-author blog and still want help writing it, just be honest about it. Disclosure erases a lot of sin in social media. Including a statement on the blog that “These posts convey my thoughts, but I get help writing them” means you’re not trying to pull a fast one.
  3. There’s no rule that says content has to appear in a blog at all. Consider all the feature articles that drive Cisco Systems’ The Network. These articles are by-lined by the freelancers who wrote them. Does that diminish the value of the content originating on the Cisco site? Not one bit.
  4. You could always give your ghost blogger credit. That’s what a lot of celebrities do with the books they’ve “written.” My first boss in the corporate world, back in 1977, was the late Ken Estes, a former newspaperman who (among other things) was the ghost writer for Bill Carter’s autobiography. His name appears in the book’s listing of authors. It’s in much smaller type, but at least the ex-president’s late brother wasn’t trying to kid anybody that he’d done all the writing himself. So why not end a blog post with italicized credit to others who contributed to the work? Again, it takes nothing away from the value of the content but maintains the authenticity readers expect with blogs.

Why wouldn’t an organization adopt these kinds of practices? Is there truly a benefit to deceiving consumers who have embraced social media channels largely because of the belief in their authenticity?



  • 1.Shel,

    Many business leaders have been told they must blog for themselves to have any credibility. If it is learned that a ghost blogger wrote posts attributed to you, that's fraud.

    But as you point out, there is a third option, which is disclosure. We have built a business providing newsblogs for business leaders who are too busy to put in the two hours a day it takes to produce a post worth reading.

    Our bloggers all have degrees in the fields they write about, plus journalism experience. They blog with their own bylines. By providing daily summaries of news in the field, they generate content valuable to an organization's employees, prospects, and customers.

    An example is Polymer Solutions News, a newsblog we produce with a paid writer, editor, and content director. We have helped this scientific company achieve dominant search position by providing original reporting on breaking news in their field.

    Some business leaders are not gifted communicators, Shel. How many are in your league? Should they be forced to blog for themselves or shut up? Using paid writers to produce content is a legitimate and effective marketing strategy. I think it's at the core of your business and mine.

    With Best Wishes for the New Year!
    C.O.O., SixEstate

    STEVE OKEEFE | January 2013 | New York, NY

  • 2.You can always just jot down your thoughts and then get someone else to put them into prose.

    Let's say you're a very busy CEO. You could just record yourself talking, then pass it onto a secretary, or outsourced ghostwriter to transcribe and edit. I don't think there's any shame or dishonour in that.

    Like you say, you can always "come clean" if you feel bad about it.

    Alex Clifford | January 2013 | Canterbury, England

  • 3.Alex, that's what Bill Marriott does, recording his posts on a digital recorder. His posts are transcribed pretty much word for word, which is why they sound so authentic and there's nothing to "come clean" about later. I've heard of other executives who do the same thing. Transcription is not ghost writing. If an executive records thoughts and somebody has to turn them into a coherent post, what's the harm in disclosing that on the "about" page?

    Shel Holtz | January 2013

  • 4.You don't want to be deceptive when it comes to who is creating the content. There's nothing wrong with having a team of writers contribute to a blog. In fact, it's nice to have different voices and opinions.

    Nick Stamoulis | January 2013

  • 5.Multi author blogs are great. To get perspectives from various staff, various levels of the business is a great way to make a small business' blog interesting. And with multi authors it's easier to keep it consistently updated.

    With the rise of Google Author tags, I believe that disclosure of a ghost writer is counter productive. Author tags are for attribution, and if a single person is attributed with writing a post, disclosing it as being written by a ghost writer is in authentic. If you are going to claim the attribution then you have to claim the writing.

    Like the previous comments, I have had clients who spend their commute time recording articles and posts, and have them transcribed into the written word. This is a great strategy for those clients who are cooperative and have a real understanding of the need for content generation.

    Amy Arnold | May 2013 | New Orleans

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