Brands now have the ability to bypass the traditional press and tell their own story in their own voice in a unique and compelling way. As I see it, good content isn't about storytelling; it's about telling a true story well.
Unfortunately, many businesses don't tell their story well. In our recent survey of more than 1,000 B2B marketers (conducted with the Content Marketing Institute), we found that creating compelling content is the biggest pain point for businesses. Which is why I favor the idea of hiring or contracting content creators who function within your company as embedded brand or corporate journalists.
The phrase "brand journalism" was coined in 2004 by Larry Light, then McDonald's Corp.'s chief marketing officer, who said in a speech at an industry event that McDonald's has adopted it as a new marketing technique. The term has evolved since then, although the basic idea of customer-driven versus corporate-driven marketing remains fundamental.
A brand journalist or corporate reporter works inside the company, writing and producing videos, blog posts, photos, webinars, charts, graphs, e-books, podcasts, and other information that delivers value to your marketplace.
Such content creators will convey your company's true story in a compelling way by uncovering the stories about your brand and how your customers are using your products and services; narrating them in a human, accessible way; and sparking conversation about your company, customers, or employees.
In other words, brand journalists bring a journalist's sensibility to your content. They bring an editorial approach to building a brand.
Here's why I like the idea of hiring brand journalists.
1. They know how to tell a story
Journalists are trained to tell a story using words, images, and audio, and they understand how to create content that draws readers in.
2. They put the audience first
Journalists are the only people, in my mind, who put the needs of the audience (vs. the company) first. Paradoxically, that serves a company's needs far better—because the content they create is customer-driven vs. corporate-driven.
Their innate understanding of audience means that every time they sit down at their desk to create content, there's always a little voice in the back of their head reminding them, Nobody has to read this. That kind of pressure on your content-creation efforts can only benefit your brand.
3. They know how to simplify
Business—like life—can be complicated. Our products can be involved or seem impenetrable. But journalists excel in deconstructing the complex to make it easily understood. They excel at expressing the kind of nuance I first learned from my journalism professors: Assume the reader knows nothing. But don't assume the reader is stupid.
4. They approach content with a Mind Like Water
A lifetime ago, when I was covering town planning board meetings for a local newspaper, I arrived in the newsroom very late one night and told the night editor that there wasn't a single thing to report on; no decisions had been reached by the Board. The editor—who I'm certain ate cigarettes for breakfast—schooled me thus: There's always a story there, he said, even if it's not the one you were expecting to write.
So your boring technology product? Your services firm? Your regulated industry that precludes you from talking about certain specifics? The Mind Like Water content creator finds the crevices where the stories lie. (Also, whatever you sell can't possibly be as dull as town planning board meetings, and I found plenty to say after that night.)
5. They tell the truth
The best corporate reporters care about accuracy and truth, whether they are creating content on behalf of your brand or a traditional publisher.
6. They quote sources
Journalists are trained in backing up opinions and assertions with research and facts, and attributing ideas to proper sources. That enhances your credibility as a voice in your industry.
7. They bring a journalist's sensibility to building a brand
That enhances your integrity.
This might be a good time to ask: But what about that integrity issue? Is a "brand journalist" really a "journalist"? In my mind, it is a kind of journalism, even if it's clearly not impartial. (For example, a brand journalist wouldn't produce anything negative about the company. A journalist working at a traditional publisher would.) Both have a role, and I'm not suggesting that brand journalists stand in for traditional news reporting. They are two different things. We need both in our world.
But, that said, I like the shorthand meaning that the phrase "brand journalist" affords, because I think it's an easy thing for companies and others to grok at a glance. In other words, it immediately suggests what the role does… as well as what it doesn't do.
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There are interesting examples of corporate reporters and brand journalists working inside companies who are doing some solid work building their brands in interesting, engaging ways. On March 12 at South-by-Southwest Interactive (SXSW), I'm moderating a panel that looks at Brand Journalism in the Real World, which includes three panelists (all former journalists!): Jesse Noyes, Eloqua's Corporate Reporter; Karen Wickre, Twitter's editorial director; and Erica Swallow, community manager at Contently. If you're in Austin next week, check it out!