How to Become a Great Brand Journalist To Augment Your Content Marketing Strategy
After watching The Newsroom recently, I’m getting more excited about journalism. The idealism, the commitment to finding and telling a story, the adventures in getting the word out — the show probably portrays life as a good deal more exciting than your average journalist’s experience. But the core truths are there — a great journalist finds a story, tells it in a way that grabs hold of the audience and won’t let go, and leaves an impression that stays with viewers or readers for a long time.
A new term has recently been emerging — the brand journalist. Brand journalism used to be called custom content. The idea was that a company invested in high-quality stories that offered a closer look at their products, services, customers, employees, or issues that they cared about. This is no longer a slightly covert, highly expensive effort that isn’t talked about in polite marketing circles. It’s de rigueur — if you have a blog, an e-newsletter, or a membership site, you’ve got a content strategy. And as a result, you’re an acting brand journalist.
Journalism 101 — and how that applies to your business
If you took a journalism course in college, you learned that every great story answers five basic, totally intuitive questions:
· Who: Who is the story about? Who are the central actors of the piece, and why do they matter? What’s relevant about them that the audience should identify with?
· What: What are they doing that matters? What’s the story? Where’s the action?
· When: Many editors are known to ask “why this, why now?” What’s the hook that makes this timely and is going to get people to read your content?
· Where: Is there a location angle that’s relevant? What’s the setting and how can you make it come alive?
· Why: So what? It’s great that you found a story, but why does it matter and why should anyone care?
If these questions sound harsh, maybe they are. But they’re also eminently practical when you consider the reality of the news industry. Publishing is incredibly expensive. Advertising revenues are way down compared to what they once were. Audiences have infinite content types to choose from, from mobile devices, to podcasts, to every blog on the Internet.
If a publisher is going to spend time, space, and money on your story as a journalist, it had better be good. So good, in fact, that you’re guaranteed to get traffic and repeat readers out of the deal.
There are also structural elements of journalistic writing that every content writer, marketer, and business owner needs to know. Each of these tenets of good writing finds their roots in journalism.
· How to write a great lede: A lede is the first paragraph of your story. It’s what sets up the piece and what gets people to read beyond the first fifty words. In journalism, your lede is the second most important piece of copy. Brand journalists are going to be held to the same standard by readers. Your piece’s introduction needs to grab your reader by the brain or by the heart strings and not let go until the last word.
· How to craft a show-stopping headline: Entire books have been written about how to create a compelling headline. But this discipline didn’t get its start in online marketing. It comes out of hundreds of years of journalists competing for attention in broadsheets, newspapers, and other formats. Brand journalists need to be able to apply this skillset to their content generation. After all, it’s more difficult to get readers to look at brand content than what they perceive as objective content.
· How to write well: Since journalists often have limited space to tell a story, it’s critical that they learn to write well. Structuring an argument, culling out the most critical facts, and keeping the story moving are a big focus for journalists. The actual writing itself must be powerful, evocative, and action-oriented. If you need to brush up in this area, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a classic place to start.
Putting the journalism in brand journalism
With these basics of good journalism in mind, let’s take a closer look at brand journalism. Things get really interesting when compelling writing and powerful journalism techniques are put to work to help marketers speak directly to consumers. The whole landscape has changed. Forbes has launched BrandVoice, a product that focuses on getting custom content and quality brand journalism in front of a bigger audience.
So how can you approach the development of your own content strategy like a brand journalist? Can you develop your own nose for news, and create content that’s worthy on its own merits? It’s certainly more work than the alternative. But let’s talk about the alternative for a minute:
· “Top-five” pieces that nobody ever reads, because there is no insight there;
· Stale content that sounds too much like the 200 other pieces on the first 20 page of Google for the same and similar titles around the web;
· Dry case studies that fail to capture the spirit of your customers, and really educate the reader in a meaningful way;
· A lackluster publication schedule that doesn’t help you build exposure, increase engagement, or cultivate leads;
· The lack of a compelling brand voice or identity that comes through in your pieces.
I don’t mean to sound dire, but great ideas and high quality writing make all the difference in terms of whether your content marketing efforts thrive or whither. To help you come out on the winning side, I’ve come up with a simple formula that writers can use in their content marketing. By writers, I also mean business owners, employees, and anyone else creating your content.
Here’s how to apply the five “Ws” of journalism to your brand journalism efforts.
1. Who: In brand journalism, there are two answers to the question of “who?” The first, and perhaps most important, is who is your audience. An article about fishing takes a very different slant for each of these audiences:
a. Moms looking for summer activities to do with their kids near home on small budgets
b. Sixty-something men with big budgets for luxury trips and a desire to catch exotic fish
c. Fisheries business executives, interested in numbers, market growth, and new opportunities
d. A college-aged backpacker just discovering outdoor travel for the first time
e. A young couple trying to plan a budget honeymoon during the fall
Each of these audiences represents a tremendous opportunity for a unique spin on your product. If you own a fishing lodge, your story angles might be:
a. Day pass experiences — with discounts for kids — and how free lessons help kids cultivate a lifelong passion.
b. Guided trip experiences for high-end travelers to remote pieces of the property for fishing rare species of trout.
c. The story behind the fishing lodge’s growth, including how specific business decisions helped you grow your tourism with certain segments.
d. The fundamentals of what to pack and what to expect for a first time fisher.
e. A guide for combining fishing and other activities with a few memorable activities like romantic riverside dinners for a couple’s escapes.
It’s also important that anyone featured in your story be fully fleshed out and easy for your audience to relate to. Quotes and descriptions that help your reader visualize a few key details about someone help bring pieces about customers, employees, and colleagues alive.
2. What: With a custom content piece, it’s critical that you define your “what” in terms of a story that’s going to be interesting to a broader audience. For example, the fact that your hardware company just released a new external hard drive is hardly going to be a nail biter. Even for people looking at new models of hard drives, this could be a challenge.
Perhaps, though, you’ve just released the world’s toughest external drive. In lab tests, you’ve submerged it in streams and it comes out working. Most of your advanced orders are from the US military. It even survived a weekend with your toddler. With this angle in mind, you’ve got a story that could be of interest to everyone from consumer magazines on what to bring with you when you travel to outdoor enthusiasts who sometimes have to work from their tents. Even if your products aren’t ready for a war-zone, work to find the really interesting angle. This could be the product’s origin story, creative ways its being used, a unique business model, or even how the product is manufactured.
3. When: Stories also perform better when there is a relevant hook. For example, environmental technology stories trend beautifully around Earth Day. Product stories get a lot of attention around the holidays. If you can find a natural fit between the story you’re trying to tell and when you release it, you’ll be best positioned to garner interest.
Sometimes the calendar doesn’t yield a natural fit, but the news cycle will. Any political issue gets a natural bump during presidential elections. Natural disasters raise the profile around discussions of home safety and the like. Being aware of the discussions happening in the broader pop culture and current events world as well as within your industry will help you find the right scaffolding to hang your story on. Just a note of caution here: it’s great to connect your content to something that’s relevant. But don’t hijack a sensitive situation for commercial value. Always use the highest ethics when connecting your content to current stories.
4. Where: If you’re publishing for a local or regional audience, the “where” factor can be critical. This is true for two reasons: many readers are always on the lookout for local information, and this content can help improve your local SEO. If location isn’t a major factor in promoting your content but you do mention it, remember that small details can help bring a location alive. If an entrepreneur works from his home office on the beach with the ever present smell of the ocean, that’s a much more compelling detail than just saying he works in San Diego. Use setting and location as both a storytelling device and to help reach local customer bases.
5. Why: The “why” is the other serious question with brand journalism — specifically, why does a general audience or reader care about this particular issue? Ensure that you don’t just focus on company news or aspects that are internally reflective. It’s critical that your pieces establish the “so-what” with a very clear focus on your audience’s needs. Always be clear: what’s the benefit to the reader after having read this piece? Are they informed or inspired? Did you solve a pressing issue? Did they get a good laugh or the inside scoop from a favorite celebrity while learning about your brand? You always have to create value for them, or people will stop reading and grow frustrated with your brand.
Back to The Newsroom. Maybe you’re not out covering a presidential election or headed to Africa to break a growing international story. That’s okay. Find your passion and tap into the passions of your audience. Uncover powerful stories about your business, and give them to your customers and prospects in such a way that they’re hungry for more. Treat yourself like a brand journalist — someone that’s benefiting not only your business but the people you reach with your information — and you’re likely to find that your content strategy yields a tremendous ROI.