The following piece is a guest post from Anita Malik, chief operating officer at ClearVoice. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
I went to journalism school. The degree gave me authority, in a fish-out-of-water sort of way, when I first stepped into agency life in the mid-2000s. I was there to fix the brand “content” problem.
Brand journalism was just beginning to take shape. While companies like Jello, Michelin and John Deere began producing content to engage consumers in the early 1900s — a cookbook, travel guide and a magazine targeting farmers, respectively — many credit the true, modern arrival of brand journalism to McDonald’s. In 2004, the then global CMO of the hamburger franchise, Larry Light, unveiled a plan to approach communications “the same way an editor approaches the creation of a magazine, with its array of different content aimed at a variety of interests — but with a coherent editorial framework.”
The idea took shape: Expand your brand’s messaging beyond a singular sales focus to speak to audience interests and build connections that drive high customer lifetime values. The concept made sense then and still does today, but over the last decade many companies have struggled to achieve Light’s vision.
In the hustle to create, companies are trying to be something they are not. The story is getting lost. Success lies in understanding what a brand’s content is, what it should be and what it is not.
Why It’s Not Journalism
The content created by or on behalf of a company is not journalism. It is branded content or content marketing. It is naturally biased content. Think of it as the op-ed of the journalism world.
“Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.” – Walter Cronkite
Being the “Playboy” in Cronkite’s analogy is not a bad thing. It’s just different. The takeaway in Cronkite’s wisdom: Pure, unadulterated journalism is not a requirement for building a strong community around content.
You won’t always be able to (nor should you) present a balanced picture. Including a competitor’s view, for instance, would be counterproductive.
Most brands I’ve worked with outwardly champion “balanced reporting” in their guidelines, but internally, they are fearful of the results. The competitor, even when integral to the story, gets edited out 99 times out 100. That’s okay — let’s just save ourselves the time and set the right expectations. Businesses produce content to increase conversions and fatten the bottom line, and there’s nothing wrong with owning that objective.
The Distinction Matters
The American consumer has undergone a significant period of corporate distrust. From the banking crisis and Occupy Wall Street to corporate scandals like Enron and even today’s political landscape, where running as an “outsider” is an engaging strategy, today’s customer has been conditioned to doubt the brand.
Consider the mass popularity of review sites, citizen journalism and user-generated content. We listen to our communities first. Consumers shop with a higher level of skepticism than ever before.
It comes as no surprise, then, that we’ve witnessed content rise up as the darling of marketing strategies. Why? Because it looks like journalism. With display advertising and SEO now regulated to supporting roles, the pressure is on content to deliver. Content is the path to trust, a way to quench consumer demand for greater transparency.
And while brand teams need journalism skills, calling what happens on a corporate blog journalism is counterproductive.
Journalism implies objectivity, balance and originality. The term carries weight with readers. Putting out content under the guise of balanced reporting only feeds into customer distrust.
Own up to the obvious bias in branded content — it goes a long way with readers who are simply searching for authentic, trustworthy voices. Don’t try to hide or mask the subjectivity in your content. Instead, understand the difference and how it affects your strategy.
Build Content Like an Op-ed
It is OK to have an opinion.
In fact, if you are strategic about your opinions, it’s not only acceptable but an effective way to engage readers.
Delve into the topics readers are passionate about that also align with the company’s agenda or stance. Find what differentiates you from the competition and make that a prominent theme on the editorial calendar. Owning that area and building authority on the subject helps a brand cut through the content noise.
Just like the op-ed column of a newspaper, your content should be informed and substantive. Granted, not everything needs to be an “argument,” but following basic op-ed guidelines demonstrates greater authenticity than trying to operate as a journalism outlet.
Start by showcasing a strong voice — the brand voice — and give your message depth and weight, without overtly pushing a product or service. Tell a story, with a strong opening and closing. Focus on quality. People connect to stories and points of view. Bridge them unabashedly to grow an audience.
Tell Stories Like a Journalist
Early in my “brand” career, a client remarked on my magazine, radio and newspaper background with this question: “What do you see as the difference in approach between client work and traditional publications?”
My answer was simplistic, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that as the newbie, I was being naive. After more than a decade in journalism and now a decade on the brand side, this is still how I lead content teams no matter the size of the client, the budget, the platform or the theme.
“It’s about the story. There is no difference in the execution. If we put the story first and foremost, the rest (read: the marketing mumbo jumbo) will fall into place.”
With opinions defined and themes established, borrow from the school of journalism to construct the story. Hire journalists or educate existing teams in the best practices of engaging storytelling. Research, report, captivate and tell them why.
Great stories can still be told. Just don’t call it journalism.
Anita Malik is chief operating officer at ClearVoice, a SaaS software and services company for content development. The product’s streamlined, collaborative workflow is paired with an influencer/creator marketplace and content intelligence tools to help teams of all sizes create better content. Malik previously developed a booking solution for the events and wedding industry, and she was the founder and editor of the award-winning national magazine, East West.