What Journalists Can Learn From Marketers

By Melanie Deziel October 11th, 2016

After returning from Content Marketing World, Contently editor-in-chief Joe Lazauskas wrote a piece addressing the tension between the two ideological camps in branded content: journalists vs. marketers. Immigrants to content marketing from the journalism world push for more editorial content, emphasizing quality and creative, while those with backgrounds in marketing tend to focus on the tactics, numbers, and optimization to meet client goals.

There’s no question that I’m in the former camp. During my time at The New York Times’s T Brand Studio, I saw the impact that a creative mindset can have on the quality of branded content. Since then, I’ve spent the last several years advocating—in writing, during corporate workshops, and from countless conference stages—for marketers to adopt the storytelling skills that make journalists successful.

But the learnings can, and should, flow in the other direction as well. By looking at brands investing in ambitious stories, journalists can benefit from understanding and embracing the skills that marketers use to maximize their returns.

Know your differentiators

One of a marketer’s greatest fears is that the client, product, or service will be indistinguishable from the competition. Successful marketing depends on leaning into uniqueness, and marketers go to great lengths to define and explain their differentiators.

Journalists now have the same task. There’s so much content out there, much of it aggregated. Readers have a lot of options for every story. How can you—as a publication, a department, or an individual—make your content different? Why should someone come to your site instead of looking elsewhere?

As a reporter, you might differentiate yourself through a unique voice, perspective, or level of expertise. If you can break a story, that speed will help you stand out. If your organization has access to certain sources, that could be a hook as well.

A good example of this is Gawker Media’s properties, like Gizmodo or Jezebel. They tend to aggregate stories every other publication is aggregating, but with a unique voice and perspective you can’t find anywhere else. The result is big-time traffic. Same goes for a publication like BuzzFeed, whose friendly, idiosyncratic style is recognizable to just about anyone.

You may be covering the same story as everyone else, but you always need to tell it in your own way.

Nobody is “just a writer” anymore

Creating content is expensive and time-consuming. If brands invest in content, they generally try to maximize efficiency by repurposing their work. Without too much work, e-books can become blog posts, infographics, and webinars.

For journalists, preparing to augment your work challenges you to think about storytelling in new ways and, over time, increases your value to your company.

If you’re compiling statistics for a story, look for other ways to visualize that data, the way Mic did with a video compilation about presidential debate interruptions. If you’re interviewing someone, include the recorded audio as a standalone clip, or pair it with with photos to create a slideshow, which BBC News did for a recent story on an archeological discovery. If you’re on location to shoot photos, grab video as well, then shorten those clips for social posts.

As you’re planning future stories, take a few minutes to think like a marketer so you can offer your audience more ways to interact with and understand your content.

Pull back the curtain

According to a 2015 infographic from Bonfire Marketing, 91 percent of customers value honesty about a brand’s products and services. As content marketing has grown in popularity over the last few years, marketers have emphasized transparency as a way to earn consumers’ trust and showcase what their companies do.

While journalists spend a lot of effort advocating for transparency in stories about elected officials, public companies, and so on, they could still do a better job turning that focus to their own work and organizations. Being open about editorial processes and decisions should give readers a reason to trust your content. Instead of just relying on press releases, companies ranging from GE to Harry’s are reporting on their own corporate developments to give audiences an idea of what’s going on.

A few editorial operations have also started to experiment with these initiatives. The New York Times, for example, launched Times Premier, which shows how big stories and projects come together. Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) does something similar with its “Behind The Story” series. Depending on your budget, you can even just use Facebook Live or other social channels to briefly take your readers behind the scenes.

If you make your readers feel like they’re part of the team, it could lead to deeper relationships and more engagement. So whether you’re a marketer, a reporter, or a hybrid, remember that it pays to be upfront.

Image by Getty Images
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