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The ideas of brand journalism and content marketing are the go-to solutions of late to more deeply engage audiences. But they are not a particularly new concept. In fact, John Deere began its own form of brand journalism in its publication, The Furrow, in 1895 with tips and ideas to help farmers improve their profits. With so much noise today across so many channels and with attention spans now less than a goldfish, it's questionable whether there's any line left between the worlds of journalism and marketing at all.
Back when I was in journalism school (during Netscape's heyday and well before the first Tweet went 'round the world), it wasn't just a line. It was a train track. That's because the journalism program was housed in liberal arts and marketing in the business school (on the opposite side of campus).
The topic of bias was one my professors loved to harp on over and over again. As a journalist, I was trained to sniff out the facts and hunt down the story from an objective point of view. Then, as a magazine editor, I learned how to weave in the power of story to package and sell those ideas. But in making the gradual shift to the other side of the fence well over a decade ago, I put aside my journalistic objectivity in favor of building brands as a marketer. Alas, I became a great navel gazer.
With the emergence of content marketing, however, many of us have encountered a bit of a personality split. We’re tasked with writing great stories to objectively educate and entertain like a journalist. Yet, we must also pepper in our company messages to guide readers through a conversion channel to sell like a marketer. So how do we do that?
Here are a few ideas for how you can begin to rethink your content to let go of corporate bias and create stories that people want to read, reference and share.
Step into the shoes of your target audiences, current customers and partners. Take your team through some exercises to identify who these audiences really are—as people, not just stereotypical groups. Seek to understand what influences them, motivates them, worries them and inspires them. Then look for story ideas to write about on your blog and content to re-purpose on your social sites that speaks to those issues.
Don’t be afraid to step outside your traditional lanes to write about or create a point of view on topics that may be adjacent to your wheelhouse of expertise. When you are writing from a corporate perspective, seek ways to engage those audiences you identified in ways that matter to them (not you). Coca-Cola has figured this out over the years, as their website looks more like an e-zine than a traditional corporate site. Even the site's tagline speaks to their storytelling focus, "refreshing the world one story at a time." By becoming the go-to source of content that educates, inspires and makes your audiences think, you become a trusted adviser and ultimately someone they would do business with.
Over nearly 20 years in this business, I’ve written about some terribly dry subjects (packet switching, anyone?) and some really fun ones (like the guy at Seton Healthcare Family who uses his painting skills on high-tech mannequins to train doctors). But in each type of story, you can still create a story arc. In other words, find the kernel of what’s different, what’s unique, what problem is being solved or person is being helped. Take us on a journey to educate, inspire or simply inform.
This means you must cultivate the craft of writing. It is critical, of course, to know the subject matter well—or have a great expert on hand to support you. But I have come to learn that you can write about most anything if you learn how to write well. That is, knowing how to research, ask good questions and weave in stories and examples that bring home your points. Most of all, write from the head—and the heart. Studying and practicing the craft of creative nonfiction and fiction writing have helped me grow immensely over the years. Take a class or check out the daily writing prompts over at Writer’s Digest for ideas.
“Show, don’t just tell.” I could have retired by now if I’d been handed a dollar for every writing instructor that's also uttered those words. But how do you do that? I would wonder, as I sullenly walked away with my story in hand, massacred with red ink. One of the first ways to begin to show, not just tell, is to think of people as characters (and yes, your CEO, too). Every single one of us has a rich arsenal of characteristics, stories, laughable moments and turning points that have led us right where we are now. We are whole people, not job titles.
That's why it helps to watch and listen from a broader perspective. A good way to practice is to take a pen and notebook, head to your local coffee shop or bookstore and just people watch. Observe their mannerisms, dialect, vocabulary and style of clothes. Write character sketches about them. Then take these same ideas and parlay them to your employees, leadership and customers. Explore how to capture their quotes and describe them within situations that bring them to life and make them human—and you can do this while still building their credibility as leaders with a unique perspective.
The truth is, content marketing only works when your content works—when it speaks to the hearts and minds of your audiences. And from this inspired space, they are more compelled to share, subscribe or call. At the end of the day, when we’re willing to look up from our navels and think beyond our walls, we come to discover we don’t have to be Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. We just have to get out of our own way to tell a good story.