Never pretend to be something you’re not.
That’s the lesson of the recent contretemps over The Student Loan Report. For two years, this independent news site and its founder, Drew Cloud, have been go-to experts in trends affecting the college-loan market. In a world of misinformation about financial matters, The Student Loan Report was a breath of fresh air, set up, according to the site, to “provide unbiased coverage on the latest student loan news and information.”
It made news, too. You may have read the site’s recent research report noting that 20 percent of borrowers plan to use student loan money to invest in cryptocurrency. Cloud was quoted extensively, saying it was a bad idea.
Also, very false. Very, very false. As in fake. Phony. Fraud.
The Student Loan Report was not a news site. Worse, Drew Cloud didn’t even exist. Both were the brainchild of LoanEDU, a student-loan refinancing company. LoanEDU set up the site as a content-marketing vehicle. It was established ostensibly to provide content that affected student borrowers. As LoanEDU CEO Nate Matherson said in a widely published mea culpa, it was established “to contribute to the conversation.”
But at no time did The Student Loan Report disclose that it was owned by a commercial enterprise operating in the marketplace of its customers. Nor did it disclose that Drew Cloud was not a real person, but rather a nomme de plume for LoanEDU writers. Both are deceitful practices.
In his apology, Matherson argued that The Student Loan Report was valid. “The thoughts, stories, and opinions come from the actual experiences of our team,” Matherson wrote. “We have always held ourselves to high standards of content quality—all of the data we published on The Student Loan Report was vetted, accurate, and licensed from the related polling companies.”
Yet, the highest standard of content quality is honesty, and here Matherson and LoanEDU failed massively.
What’s worse is that it wasn’t even necessary. Given the rise of strong content commitments by companies, audiences have been more willing to get news and information from brands to augment what they learn from traditional media. Many corporate websites have robust blogs and thought leadership and loyal audiences. These audiences are often customers, or are at least inclined to become customers. Add to this the benefits of social media to amplify content reach and engagement, and you have a perfect formula for both informing audiences and converting them into loyal and appreciative customers.
That formula only works, though, when you are honest. Audiences are savvy enough to consume your content while also knowing that you have something to sell. When content swerves into marketing material, they tune out. When content is objectively creative, they show their appreciation with clicks and commerce.
People do not like being lied to. When you set up a third-party site, funded by a business and staffed with hand puppets, and try to pawn that off as independent news, you should rightly be walloped when your ruse is uncovered. You cannot claim good intentions when you set out to deceive. There is nothing redeemable about LoanEDU’s subterfuge and it has a tough row to hoe to re-establish trust with the media (which does not like to be fooled, particularly in this era of “fake news”) and its customer base (which does not like to do business with a brand it feels are liars). It is possible LoanEDU rebounds, but it will take hard work and redemption, which starts with honesty.
There is a lesson here for all brands: Always tell the truth. Your content is a valuable currency for converting customers–provided you establish a bond of trust. Gaining customer trust takes work. Losing it is easy. But being authentic goes a long way toward having people want to hear your story.