In journalism school, I heard (and helped circulate) a common student thought: transitioning to PR and marketing from the world of editorial was “going to the dark side.” In exchange for a pay increase, you’d sold your voice, byline and soul to a company that would strip your “editor” title and, in its place, leave you with “copywriter.” Young journalists watched their mentors and colleagues grow older and finally make the move, and each of us told ourselves we’d never reach that point in our careers. For us, the only reason to make the switch was if you were about to declare personal bankruptcy.
Years later and I’m in marketing strategy consulting (which I find more rewarding than the magazine journalism job I craved in college) and had to wonder what led an entire generation of young journalists to believe that content produced by a corporation has a lesser effect on the population than that of a publication.
Every corporation has an agenda—but often, so do journalists. The real difference is transparency. Historically, a journalist’s specialty has been information and opinion, and a company’s expertise in a product, skill or service. But nothing about transparency and opinion can or should be limited to journalism. Brands who use journalistic tactics in their content production see increased trust and loyalty from consumers, building individual bonds that eventually create communities of brand advocates.
In the past two years, brands have made great strides in cutting down on “marketing speak” copy in favor of quality content, but even the best brand content can take a lesson or two from journalists.
Take a stance
We’ve all asked ourselves for years: What does the consumer like to read about? Though it seems benign, this system is broken. The motivation to satisfy your reader is right but the question must be adjusted. It’s not about giving the reader what they want. It’s about being what they want.
So much branded content out there can be classified as “vanilla”—and no one will actively elect to read something that bores him. Brands must take a stance, show some personality, and put their values, hopes and dreams on the page. Not all readers will agree with everything, but they’ll be OK with that. Some readers may be turned off altogether, but those are not your consumers.
Readers have never deeply loved a publication that gives them exactly what they want—just as most deep human relationships inspire us to better ourselves, to make better choices, so should the brands we associate with.
Being transparent about brand values and personality makes the brand’s big decisions more easily understood, and it makes the smaller decisions often pleasantly surprising. It is this confidence and understanding that invokes a trust for the brand in your consumer, which will in turn foster loyalty, then brand advocacy. Be patient and put consistent effort into your content.
Produce your own content
Effort means quality content, which requires talent. The first rule of consistency is to internalize content production. Do not hand out assignments to content farms at a penny a word. The brand is a personality, a distinct voice—and that voice comes from your writers. If you have a blog, give them bylines to help them build reader relationships. Bring on freelancers weekly or monthly, whether they be a favorite blogger or industry leader. Ensure your own editors work closely with these contributors to find the commonalities between the brand’s values and the contributors’ values—there lies the story and the angle.
Allow for flexibility
Many know to establish an editorial calendar but often forget the importance of building flexibility into the schedule. News cycles and breaking stories should be allowed to interrupt an existing content calendar to make it feel fresh and relevant. The SEO department should be in touch monthly with the content creators to help define recently most-searched topics to inform content calendars. Editors must be trusted to make final editorial decisions—lengthy approval processes up the totem pole severely limit creativity and timeliness in content.
Encourage creativity & employee participation
The final rule is to foster the right internal company atmosphere. No single part of the company should “own” content creation. In the age of the internet, where everyone has equal access to endless information, we must occasionally remind ourselves of the value of each employee and division in a brainstorm. Anyone is capable of creativity, and a larger pool of idea generators will rarely hurt your cause. Contributors can come from any department, corner office to basement cubicle. While not all contributors will be able to write the story, they can generate creative on-brand ideas that will lend a little additional perspective to the day to day content schedule.
The entire company can and should be restructured around maintaining and growing these communities of readers, fans and followers who choose to interact with the brand on a regular basis. It should touch customer service, marketing, PR, events, in-store, online, product, creative direction, SEO, SEM, display, and everything else. This is your consumer, and it’s your opportunity to show them who you are and what you represent. Listen to them when they give you feedback, and constantly evaluate how you’re presenting yourself at every touch point. It is no longer a one-sided “messaging strategy.” It is a two-way communication strategy. Create. Listen. Revisit. React.