Future of Content

June 13th, 2013

What Journalists Can Learn From Content Marketers: Q&A With Erin Scottberg

The web and our digital devices offer new ways to interact with information — but much of our online content still follows the ages-old format of newspaper articles.

Erin Scottberg (@erins)

Erin Scottberg (@erins)

“Technology is creating so many interesting ways to surface data, explain information, distribute content and engage readers,” says Erin Scottberg (@erins), who’s been on both the writing and management sides of content marketing for companies like HowAboutWe, AOL and LearnVest.

She recently dug into data in an analysis for SimpleReach, which tracks analytics for content and how it spreads, finding that the top 10% of articles drive 90% of social referrals.

Increasingly, this most-engaging content is coming in newer, more creative formats, and often from brands in addition to traditional and new media outlets. Some examples of these include Hipmunk’s city guides and HowAboutWe’s “Modern Dating: A Field Guide,” a book that comes with a three month membership to the dating site.

Scottberg notes that each brand will vary on the goals it has for content, but at the end of the day, everyone from journalists to marketers is writing for an audience. Good content can serve brands and readers alike. The Content Strategist spoke with Scottberg to hear more about the opportunities in the space.

How did you first get introduced to creating content for brands?
Looking back, I think my first exposure to creating content for brands came before I even knew that this was that I was doing. My first staff editorial job at a publication that wasn’t tied to a print magazine was at AOL’s Lemondrop.com. Back then, we’d get a request from the sales team saying, “Brand XYZ wants to sponsor ABC category, we need ideas.” Then the editorial team would brainstorm story ideas to run in the campaign, which at the time meant buying the display ads in an editorial existing category. While this wasn’t brand journalism in the current sense, it was the first time I ran into the idea that brands liked associating themselves with certain ideas. It sounds quaint to discuss now, but that was my first exposure to the practice.

While this may sound unacceptable to the journalist purists out there (though let’s be honest, it’s a daily lifestyle destination blog about sex, fashion and beauty, not the New Yorker), it was really great exposure to content as business. Learning to think about web content as what sales can sell against, you’re really thinking about what’s going to get pageviews, which is what all editors, like it or not, are going after at the end of the day — at least while PVs are still our main monetization metric.

What businesses can benefit most from content marketing?
One thing I’ve learned is that content doesn’t just mean reporting and blogging. Content is everything. It’s how companies — startups and huge corporations alike — recruit employees. It’s how conference organizers find panelists. It helps morning show producers fill chatter and book guests. It’s how magazine writers find sources for their FOB stories. It’s how users decide whether to keep letting a brand in their inbox. It informs how beat reporters develop their next trend piece. And it doesn’t just mean blogs — a content strategy can include apps, books (like HowAboutWe’s “Modern Dating: A Field Guide”), emails, etc.

Content doesn’t just mean reporting and blogging. Content is everything. It’s how companies — startups and huge corporations alike — recruit employees. It’s how conference organizers find panelists. It helps morning show producers fill chatter and book guests.

For the first time in history, brands have the opportunity to communicate directly with their customers on their terms, which is a hugely powerful tool. Whether breaking their own news, aggregating content or creating a destination hub, brands have an unprecedented opportunity to own their message and shape their reputation. Why rent when you can buy?

Say someone with a journalistic background is looking into writing for brands — what can they expect? What is different?
I think this is a question for the specific editor as it really depends on how your brand views content. Is it promotional content to drive sales, or are they going a more traditional route in order to create value by providing a service? For example, the editors at LearnVest are some of the toughest (in a good way!) editors I’ve worked with, always pushing to dig deeper to make a piece more serviceable, or find a stronger angle that’ll resonate more specifically with their demographic rather than the general Internet. Everyone’s writing for an audience, brands and traditional outlets alike and it’s all about communicating with that audience. Traditional media outlets are often tied to traditional article formats: Q&As, straight-up articles, slideshows, etc.

But with many brands — particularly startups — there’s more flexibility with formatting and packaging. Check out Hipmunk’s city guides. When you break it down, each city page is essentially just a collection of smartly packaged articles: A map of the neighborhood, a listicle of area highlights, editorially selected “Best Ofs” and vetted reviews. It’s a classic service package, but presented in a way that provides a service to visitors and (hopefully) gets people to book through their site.

What’s something you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?
This was a lot of fun: “How America’s Singles Date Offline: HowAboutWe.com Celebrates 1,000,000 Dates.”

The goal here was to create a remarkable piece of content that tells a shareable and newsworthy story, particularly to local audiences (after all, a successful experience on a dating site depends on critical mass in a local area), and showcases HowAboutWe’s authority on date spots across the US. We’d learned from previous efforts that people like learning about how their city dates — and being able to compare it to others was even better. By surfacing newsworthy nuggets of information, we were able to create a piece of content that got people sharing and the press talking.

I think one of the most exciting things about content right now is how we’re packaging stories. Technology is creating so many interesting ways to surface data, explain information, distribute content and engage readers. I like playing in this intersection of technology, data and story-telling.

Any writing or content pet peeves?
I’ve come across a lot of journalists who like to lament that there are “no jobs out there.” That’s so not the case. Are our jobs changing? Absolutely. But this is a hugely exciting time to be in media. We’ve never had more tools to tell our stories at our disposal, nor have we had more ways to find them. It’s a journalist’s job to cut through the noise and present information — and there’s always a market for those skills.

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