The Editor’s Guide to Working With Brands

Ten years ago, if you told your newsroom colleagues that some of the industry’s most gifted editors would start abandoning their gigs at marquee media brands to join beverage companies, software providers, or a service that delivers pet treats to your home, you would’ve been laughed out of the room (and possibly prescribed some heavy-duty pharmaceuticals). Today, however, having a great editorial leader on staff isn’t just helpful for brands—it’s table stakes.

Telling great stories is always an editor’s top priority, but working with a brand adds an entirely new set of priorities. Suddenly having clients to please and marketing KPIs to hit can make the transition from traditional media to brand publishing a challenge, especially for veteran editors with decades of experience. As head of Contently’s Editorial Services team, I help dozens of editors navigate these challenges every day. My inbox currently features the following questions:

  • “My client’s legal team keeps shredding our stories. How do I solve this for the next round of content?”
  • “We’re almost done with a series of reported stories, but now the client is rethinking their marketing strategy, and they’re not sure if they’re going to want these stories after all. Help?”
  • “My client has six different stakeholders that have to sign off on each story. Can we find a way to streamline that process?”

It’s a different world on the brand side—but learning the rules isn’t really that hard.

Say goodbye to church and state

In the grand old days of media, editorial and revenue-generating teams rarely interacted. Editors—or so they often thought—did the “real work,” while the business folks brought in ad revenue and grew subscriptions. For many editors, it was even a point of pride that they didn’t involve themselves with all that “money” stuff. But when editors work with brand publishers, those silly old barriers disappear. Editorial doesn’t just work with the business side, they’re on the business side.

Condé Nast, a brand that knows a thing or two about the business value of great editorial leadership, just launched 23 Stories by Condé Nast, a branded content studio with a unique editorial strategy. As The Wall Street Journal notes, rather than hiring a separate squad of editors for its brand studio, Condé “will have editors from its fleet of magazines work directly with marketers to produce branded content.” It’s a move that makes perfect sense: Who better to drive your branded content than trusted editors from recognizable publications?

Like all new brand editors, Condé’s staff will face a period of adjustment. After all, brand editors have to be prepared to work closely with marketing, sales, and even product teams to create content that serves larger business goals. Your editorial products will be an integral part of revenue generation, brand building, and growth initiatives. Your content will still be measured by the old standards like traffic, virality, and engagement, but you’ll likely encounter unfamiliar metrics like conversion rates. In short, there’s no more “us” and “them.” You’re all on the same side now, and the business’ goals are your goals.

Making this adjustment can be a real challenge for veteran editors, but it’s hardly insurmountable. Many of the best brand editors around made the jump from traditional outlets to brand work. Daniel Roth, the editor behind LinkedIn’s massively successful content efforts, joined the networking brand after stints on the masthead at and Condé Nast Portfolio. The Red Bulletin’s Robert Sperl did the same after a career in sports pubs in his native Austria.

Quality is key

Here’s the “but” that should’ve come at the end of that last section: Just because you’re under the marketing umbrella doesn’t mean you’re just churning out marketing copy. In fact, the most successful brand editors know that the opposite is true.

If it were possible to categorize all the branded content online into “good” and “bad,” I’d wager that a solid 80 percent of the “bad” content would be self-serving articles, videos, and the like that look useful or interesting but are actually just thinly-veiled product pitches. The “good” content, however, would be brand-agnostic (can we all please agree on a new term for this?) and would deliver valuable information or entertainment to the audience. Bad branded content is everywhere, and your editorial chops can—and should—help your brand’s media efforts rise above the noise.

Be a mentor

Here’s where it gets tricky. Like Sperl and Roth, editors who come from major media outlets bring a fresh perspective and invaluable skills to brand publishing. But once they moved into brand publishing, they almost certainly had to learn a very new skill: teaching.

As I said in a previous piece, many marketers are new to content. As marketers, the very nature of their role requires them to push their products. In your first foray into brand publishing, prepare to encounter questions like: “I don’t see anything in these briefs that mentions our brand. We’re launching our new [whatever] next month. Can we work that in somehow?”

Sure, that’s a terrible idea for a long list of reasons. Rather than getting frustrated, choose to see moments like these as opportunities to educate your new colleagues on core editorial values. Show them examples of gruesome content marketing rife with product pitches, and watch how they respond. “See?” you can say. “It sucks, right?” Lead them to the light. Show them just how much they’ll gain by creating exceptional content that isn’t self-serving. They’ll thank you once the metrics roll in.

Listen and Learn

But just as you shouldn’t get frustrated by questions, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask them, either. The brand is your client—yes, you have a client now—and you have to help them reach their goals. Make sure you understand what they want their content to accomplish. Start by asking these five basic questions at the outset:

  • How is your current content performing? Are readers engaging with more than one piece of content per visit? Are they sharing your content? Are they using it as an entry point to other products or services you offer?
  • What do you want your audience to do after they read or view your content? Do you want them to buy a membership? Sign up for a free trial? Share the content with friends?
  • How do you want to talk to your audience? Are you happy with your content’s current voice and tone? If not, how would you like it to change?
  • How do you want your audience to perceive your brand? As a friend? An authority? A thought leader?
  • Which brands and media outlets do you admire? What do you like about their content? Can you show me content that you specifically don’t like? Why don’t you like it?

The Takeaway

Between a brand and its content goals lies a vast and confusing expanse. They know where they want to go and what they want to achieve. As an editor, it’s your job to get them there. If you’re new to brand editing, remember that it’s the same game you’re used to. The rules are just a little different.

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