Five things brands can learn from journalists

This guest post is by Lauren Quaintance, award-winning journalist and head of content at Sydney content marketing agency Storyation.

 

When I started my career as a journalist two decades ago, if you’d told me that brands would become publishers I would have laughed (loudly). We didn’t have email – never mind the internet – so the only way for brands to reach potential customers was by taking out an ad in one of the city’s two newspapers or a 30-second spot on free-to-air TV.

There were advertorials, of course, but these were turgid stories that droned on about a product written by some poor soul in the much-maligned advertising features department.

The internet changed everything. Now brands have their own websites and, just as importantly, social media. And, while they can’t exactly forget about traditional media outlets altogether, they can connect directly with customers through content that entertains, inspires or informs – and aligns with their brand values – without the hard sell.

Still, creating good content is not something that comes naturally to most marketers. And it’s harder than you think. Just like you wouldn’t assume you could pen a best-selling novel or direct an award-winning documentary series, you shouldn’t assume it’s easy to create content worthy of your audience’s attention. But if brands adopt the mind-set of a journalist (or better yet an editor) that’s a great start. Here are five things that brands can learn from publishers:

1. Keep a razor-sharp focus on your audience

While it’s tempting to make your brand and business objectives the centre of everything you do, if you are going to create content that is useful to your audience you need to understand who are they and what they want. Once you’ve figured that out adopt the mindset of an editor: if it’s not worth your audience’s attention – if it’s not going to make them laugh or cry or share an opinion – it’s not worth doing.

2. Don’t deceive – never try to hoodwink your audience

On the whole mainstream publishers treat the line between advertising and editorial as sacrosanct. That means you’ll rarely see advertorial – which talks directly about a product – passed off as editorial. In the same way brand publishers must resist the urge to publish advertising disguised as content and instead focus on creating stories that fulfill a need for their customers. Serve your audience, earn their trust, and the benefits will flow.

3. It’s all about the angle – have a point of view

Few people believe me when I tell them that 80-90% of story ideas proposed on reputable publications never make it into the final product. What works? Having a point of view. When I was head of travel for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the stories that rated best online were those that featured definitive statements such as the ‘fastest, longest, scariest’. A video of a landing at the so-called world’s scariest runway in Nepal, for example, was one of the highest rating stories in one particular year. Data from content discovery platform Outbrain shows that stories with negative superlatives such as ‘worst’ or ‘never’ rate better than positives such as ‘best’ or ‘always’. Be specific. Sharpen your angle. Have a point of view.

4. Respect the art of commissioning

Apart from sifting through story ideas, the role of a great editor has always been matching the writer to the story. Once you’ve found someone who is deeply passionate – and knowledgable – about your subject whether it’s adventure sport or cleaning tips, you need a written brief that gives a broad outline of the subject, the specific angle and the required tone. It’s a good discipline to think: what question should this story answer? How do I want the reader to think or feel or act? Then you need to provide coaching and feedback along the way to ensure that you get the result you want.

5. Use every platform to its best advantage

It’s no great surprise that every platform and device plays a different role in your customer’s daily content journey. Data from publishers suggests that people are on their mobiles during the morning commute, browsing on desktop computers and mobiles duiring their lunchbreak, and on tablets in the evening (probably while watching TV.) Consider, then, how to serve up the right content on the right platform at the right time. Is it short, newsy updates for the morning commute? Entertaining pieces to snack on at lunch? Longer-form video for the evening? Whatever it is, have a ‘time of day’ strategy.

 

So, those are some of the things brands can learn from journalism. If they heed these lessons, if they can combine the craft of journalism with the science of marketing, then there is nothing stopping them becoming great publishers.

 

Lauren Quaintance has a Master’s of Journalism from Columbia University in New York and has won more than two dozen awards for everything from investigative journalism to travel writing. As a managing editor at Fairfax Media she created multi-channel content solutions for major brands and is now head of content at Sydney content marketing agency Storify. She will be speaking at the ecommerce conference in Melbourne next month on ‘The New SEO: Creating Compelling Content to Engage With Your Audience’.