How the Right Editor Will Make or Break Your Branded Content

I came of age in digital media. My first paid writing gig was at the Huffington Post in 2005, back when the site was a bunch of kids packed into a SoHo loft. After years of working in the scrappy Internet Wild West, where “make it up as we go along” was every website’s tagline, it finally hit me that pieces of writing are better when someone else—preferably someone with experience in how to produce good writing—reads and edits them.

It took working at established publications like The New York Times and Newsweek for me to learn that the relationship between editor and writer can and should be an invaluable one. The editor is the mentor, the therapist, the Maginot line between the writer and the world at large, as well as the publication’s editorial board.

As a writer, I’ve relied on editors to save me from massive screw-ups and tell me hard truths (“There’s no way we’d publish this paragraph, and you wouldn’t want us to”). As an editor, I’ve had writers call me to cry, send me harsh critiques from their parents, yell that I’m being a tyrant—and then go on to produce incredible work that brings them pride and engages tons of readers.

In short, I’ve learned that great editors work the sidelines to make writers into stars.

Or, at least, that’s what they used to do.

As the media landscape continues its tectonic shift, there’s been a sea of change in what an editor can and will do for a writer. A lot of this has to do with the time constraints of the Internet—many editors are now focused on packaging posts to have the fastest and largest traffic/search/social media impact, rather than on shaping and crafting the content itself. And as posts get shorter and the race to grab readers’ attention gets more intense, the cost-benefit analysis of having a second set of eyes on content grows murkier.

The rise of branded content has thrown another twist into this mix, by adding a third aspect to an editor’s concerns—the business objective behind producing the content in the first place.

Effective branded content has to be as well-packaged as anything mainstream sites produce (or else no one will read it), and it has to be as well-written (or else the people who do read it won’t take it seriously). But it also has to be strategically tied to the business goals of the company producing it—or else the company won’t get value from attracting all those readers.

Who’s the person at the front lines of all of these goals? The editor. Sure, writers often help with packaging their content (writing headlines and social media tags) but the editor is only one who can: 1) effectively oversee the content production; 2) get what is needed from the writer; and 3) champion the business objectives, ensuring each piece of content created adds value to the brand.

A branded content editor needs to juggle being the touch-point for writers, the quality-control police, and the person safeguarding the brand itself. There are constant decisions that don’t come up in strict editorial roles: Should I go for the clickbait headline, even though it conflicts with the brand voice? Should we cover this juicy topic even though it’s outside the scope of the brand’s objectives? Can we sound off on a zeitgeisty issue and still stay true to the brand’s mission?

Plus the tasks of shaping tone and voice grows ever more important with branded content. You’d publish very different versions of one story for The Economist versus Gawker, even if they contained identical facts. Same goes for GE and IBM.

Editors need to communicate these differences to writers in a clear way—and edit each post to keep it consistent with the brand’s voice (which needs to be clearly established at the outset; otherwise, there’s no point in producing content).

If you’re a brand looking to build a successful content division, or just launch a site that delivers ROI, finding an editor who can handle this balancing act is imperative. So where are all these wondrous people? They’re a small but growing segment of the market, a new breed of experienced editors who embrace the melding of the business and editorial sides—and see the opportunity in working for a brand publisher that is willing to put a substantial budget behind content without worrying about chasing pageviews to generate cash from CPMs.

Want examples of who’s killing it out there? Look at Dan Lyons at HubSpot, Hamish McKenzie at Tesla, and Michael Keller at Txchnologist, to name a few. All brands have to do is find and recruit editors like these and give them the tools to succeed—a clear style guide, a cohesive content strategy, and stated business objectives. Creating this foundation is the biggest challenge brand publishers face on their path to success—and that’s why my company Brick Wall Media (self-promotion alert!) focuses so strongly on matching brands with customized strategies, and the right editors to execute them.

That’s good news for brands, but what about writers? Does this mean writers should abandon any hope of getting the late-night therapy and extensive support that editors used to provide? No. Editors simply need to learn the new juggling act of looking out for the editorial and business sides at once. Which isn’t easy—but it’s necessary to keep a content operation moving forward. A brand finding the right editor pays great dividends for writers, too, since the focus on producing lower-volume and higher-quality content (as opposed to endless listicles and quizzes to up pageviews) allows brand editors to invest more time and effort when working with their writers.

Whether or not branded content is the “future of publishing,” the fact remains that it’s hot as hell right now. And if we’re doing it, we should do it well, and apply all the best aspects of journalism to it. The crucial relationship between editors and writers doesn’t have to change. But as with all aspects of the media business, an editor’s role has to evolve in order to survive.

Melissa Lafsky Wall is the founder of Brick Wall Media, which creates customized content strategies and branded content sites for businesses. Her past roles include founding editor of Newsweek’s iPad edition, associate editor at The Huffington Post, editor of The New York Times’ Freakonomics blog, and horror movie columnist for The Awl. She has written for The New York Times, the New York Post, The New York Observer, Gawker, WIRED, and plenty of others.

Contently arms brands with the tools and talent to become great content creators. Learn more.

Image by Marjory Collins

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