Brand Publishing

February 25th, 2014

5 Content Marketing Lessons from Journalists

Journalists have to engage readers. Their livelihood—literally—depends on it. That’s why they’ve spent decades perfecting the craft of making stories interesting to readers. Content marketing involves a similar challenge: engaging prospects or potential clients by telling stories related to their brand and the things their brand cares about.

Here are a few lessons that content marketers can learn from journalists in order to improve their results:

1. Put as much effort into the headline as the rest of the article

In journalism, a good or bad headline can mean the difference between a breakout article or one that falls flat. Journalists carefully craft their headlines to attract reader attention. From the days of yellow journalism to the modern incentive-powered , journalists crafted their headlines to attract reader attention rather than to just sum up an article.

A great headline is an art that journalists perfect by practicing it a thousand times over. Former news writer Gem Muzones explains on the Spiralytics blog that a good title is one that is “informative and catchy enough to let your reader know what the post is about without giving too much away.” In other words, a headline is a promise to the reader that’s fulfilled with the rest of the piece.

If you’re looking for more actionable advice, try out this tactic: as Upworthy Editor-at-Large Adam Mordecai explains on Quora, media companies like The Onion and Upworthy “crap out 25 headlines as fast as possible.” By the time you churn out headline 21, you’ll be so desperate to choose a headline that you’ll produce something unexpected—and that will be the eyebrow-raising headline of perfection.

And if you want to dive even deeper, check out Copyblogger’s advice for writing magnetic headlines.

2. Know your audience well

Journalists are not usually born with a foolproof understanding of their readers. Often, they earn readers’ attention by spending time in the trenches and immersing themselves in the topics that they choose to cover. For example, Hunter S. Thompson became a member of Hells Angels when he was investigating the famous motorcycle club, and he learned firsthand about how they operate. Today, you don’t necessarily need to join a biker gang, but you do need to be wherever your readers are—whether that’s Twitter, sub-Reddits, gamer forums, or SXSW.

Journalists also interview members of their demographics in order to learn what sparks their readers’ interests and what they ache to read. Although its journalistic value is questionable, Cosmopolitan Magazine frequently tested topics and headlines to see if they would resonate with readers.

Content marketers face the same challenges journalists do: both are competing for reader attention. They should therefore treat their readers with respect.

And don’t just find out what your readers want to read; find out how they want to read it. When Financial Times created their fastFT service, they prioritized speed and reaction time because they knew how much their audience valued it.

3. Make it last

Content with a long shelf-life will remain relevant in the pipeline; you can pull it out of your back pocket when you’re in a pinch. Journalists understand the importance of both “hard news” (reports on events and occurrences) and “soft news” (interviews, feature stories, op-eds). As a content marketer, that means you can’t simply focus on breaking industry news; evergreen content is also an important part of the mix.

Posts built for the long haul are much better suited for search engine optimization, because they keep attracting links and shares over time. And this trait isn’t exclusive to blog posts. Check out Wells Riley’s guide entitled, “Startups, this is how design works.” It has attracted over 70,000 shares between Facebook and Twitter.

In order to provide the most value possible, maintain your evergreen content. Update each of these articles at least every couple of months to keep them relevant.

4. Brutal honesty is the best policy

An old Latvian proverb is translated in English as, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Journalists understand the importance of checking their facts and doing their research. The cost of publishing misguided information can be huge. One time, I misheard a company name in an interview and published the wrong name. My unfortunate error dominated the comments in the article, as well as the related tweets. Such an accident will overshadow the rest of the article.

On the other hand, don’t let a fear of mistakes keep you from publishing. Despite my oversight, some readers were still able to acknowledge the merit of the piece, and it gained thousands of pageviews for the publisher. Admit your errors, learn from them, and apologize. (In audio or video interviews, I now Google company names and industry terms before writing about them. I also do my best to find text transcriptions.)

5. Keep your eyes peeled

A large part of journalism training involves finding sources for potential stories. Journalists are always on the lookout for the next article, and they pounce when a subject says something unusual in an interview or when an unexpected event happens. Stay updated on industry news and look out for recurring trends. For example, as he was conducting research, 99U’s Sean Blanda noticed that a lot of successful startups tended to have a founder who was pushed out. This observation sparked a conversation with New York Times columnist and author Nick Belton.

There are a lot of ideas floating around the publishing world every day. When you’re reading industry news or interviews, use tools like Evernote or Delicious to clip quotes and ideas. When you’re stumped for content, jog your memory by digging through these archives for ideas. Give your brain the space and time to develop a unique perspective, which you can then build into a post.

Or tell your story to a friend. See if they ask any questions, where in the story they became confused or particularly inquisitive, and what sparks their interest. If they offer little to no reaction, then your idea may be stale or irrelevant, however, if they seem strongly engage with your narrative, then you may just have figured out a way to turn that coal of an idea into a diamond.

Closing Thoughts

Journalists have mastered the art of sharing relevant information in the form captivating stories, rather than by just reporting dry facts. For instance, how do you tell a story about the creation of the dictionary? When journalist and broadcaster Simon Winchester looked into the histories of the inventors, he’d noticed some interesting events that occurred, and he took the opportunity to reframe the story to be about murder and insanity—two much more exciting topics.

While the original subject remained the same, Winchester used his research to provide an enticing angle and eventually attract more readers. Brands can similarly use these strategies to create compelling stories around their products, and turn excited readers and viewers into loyal consumers.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? It’s something we created at Contently because we believe in a world where marketing is helpful, and businesses grow by telling stories that people love. Take advantage of our tools and talent and come build that world with us.


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