The 10 Commandments of Content Marketing

If you’re taking notes via stone tablet, chisel this one in deep.

When the recently-liberated Israelites started wandering around the desert circa 1440 BC, it became clear that if a legitimate nation were to be built, a little order was in order.

Just as Charlton Heston needed to bring the smack down from Mt. Sinai, the nascent content marketing industry needs guiding principles. Those with the most experience clearly get it, but for brands and agencies new to the game of creating editorial strategies as an alternative to ad-buys or advertorial, what “thou shalt not kill” equivalents need to be canonized?

At the recent Social Media Week’s Brand Journalism in Social Media panel, I tasked industry experts from Ad Age, Columbia Journalism School, Tribeca Enterprises, and Hasai with coming up with universal standards for good, effective brand journalism or content marketing.

Based on that discussion, and at the risk of cliche, here are the the 10 Commandments of Content Marketing:

1. Thou shalt understand thy subject matter.

Creating content for content’s sake is pointless. In order to succeed, content must provide value, whether it’s education, entertainment, or insight.

“Stick to the subject matter that you know,” said Amy Vernon, VP at marketing firm Hasai.

Hire experienced editors, writers, photographers, and other talent who know the field and can stay up on the industry.

2. Thou shalt be transparent.

Journalism is independent, third-party, useful information, explained Matt Spangler, EVP of marketing and content for Tribeca Enterprises. The quickest way to sink a content marketing ship is to hide the fact that a brand is sponsoring content. Once people smell a rat, they leave.

And in a social media world, someone always finds the rat.

3. Thou shalt be original.

Only truly original content creators build brands and win fans in the end.

“The pure aggregation approach I don’t think works anymore,” said Matt Creamer, editor-at-large for Advertising Age.

4. Thou shalt remove unnecessary barriers.

Lawyers, bureaucracy, and red tape kill the time-based effectivness of good content – especially social media content. Creamer said brand publishers need to avoid catching content in these “Byzantine” approval processes. Quality checks need to be set, but getting a tweet approved shouldn’t be like going to the DMV.

“I would like to see that on stone tablets,” Creamer said.

5. Thou shalt empower thy creative teams.

Writers can’t write honest articles with bosses breathing down their necks. Videographers and infographickers can’t paint a pretty story without latitude to do the kind of job the subject deserves.

Brand publishers need to be comfortable behaving like media companies and allowing their creatives to tell a story how it is – even if it doesn’t benefit the brand in the short term.

Travel deals site Jetsetter, for example, commissions reporters to review hotels and resorts. Whereas the company wants people to book vacations, it knows that if every review says “This hotel is amazing,” customers who have disappointing experiences will immediately stop trusting Jetsetter as a brand. By empowering its reporters to tell the truth and cut the fluff, Jetsetter has become a content juggernaut in the travel space.

“Hire people you trust, and let them go,” said Duy Linh Tu, Head of Digital Media at Columbia University Journalism School.

6. Thou shalt not just talk about thyself.

Sometimes it’s OK for content to be self-focused. But the other 99% of the time, members of an audience wants to read things that help them. A good content marketer understands winning the game is about building trust, hosting conversations that matter to readers, and not being sleazy or overly self-promotional.

This goes back to empowering staff to produce the kinds of content that users will actually enjoy. “Give your reporters latitude to tell stories beyond just talking about themselves,” said Tu.

7. Thou shalt know thy medium.

One-size-fits-all does not work for content. Creativity is hits-based, uniqueness- and loyalty-driven. A good artist knows what works better in charcoal than in pen and ink. Good content marketers know when a video treatment will work better than a text-based blog post, and that a headline for Twitter may need to be adjusted for length and audience.

A good content marketer knows that an infographic is good for data storytelling, not regurgitating Wikipedia entries in pictures.

“Show motion and emotion,” said Tu. “Fundamentals of journalism apply. Good storytelling understands what [audience] you’re doing it for and what medium you’re doing it in.”

8. Thou shalt plan.

Real publications plan. Publish dates, topics, content strategy. Content marketers should strive to behave like real publications, which means flying by the seat of one’s pants is no longer an option.

9. Thou shalt use sources with integrity.

Journalists are trained to back their facts with sources – primary sources when possible – and to attribute quotes, stats, and any information that is not generally accepted knowledge.

Brand journalists should do the same. When in doubt, include the source. Audiences will respect, and the sources credited will be grateful (and may even become your fans).

10. Thou shalt be authentic.

In his Social Media Week keynote speech, BuddyMedia CEO Mike Lazerow explained people favor imperfection over insincerity.

Both Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods had very public affairs, but the former is still beloved by half of the U.S. “We went after Tiger not because he had an affair, but because he was a phony,” Lazerow said. “He was the quiz show that was rigged.”

People don’t like being duped. For content marketers, that means behaving like real human beings, being honest, and not tricking users with thinly veiled ad copy disguised as editorial content.

Lazerow continued, “If you put out content that is flawed by nature, and you know it’s not the best – but it’s raw and its real – people respond to it. If it’s fake and phony, then they won’t.”

Image courtesy of Flickr, Loren Javier

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