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Seven Reasons Your Content Marketing Needs a Brand Journalist

by Ann Handley  |  
March 8, 2012

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.

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Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs, author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules. Ann co-founded, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.

Twitter: @MarketingProfs and @AnnHandley.

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  • by Chris Drinkut Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Kudos and well said. We need more credible writing online (and I know that begins at the individual level; i.e. me). I worked for a year as a correspondent for a local newspaper. There is no doubt in my mind that the reliability of a journalist-type of writing is well worth the peanuts most journalists make. I work now in marketing and agree with you that organizations can benefit from having a professional writer - a brand journalist - on staff. Thanks!

  • by Meredith Blevins Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    I'm a professional writer who has been published by some large NY houses. I work writing content for a travel conglomerate--it feeds my other-writing habit.

    About content: Many people think that because they can speak they can write. Not so, and I agree--hire a writer to present your business.

    When at a party, somebody usually comes over and says, "I know I have a book in me." Some part of me feels like saying, "I know what you mean! I feel like a have a brain surgery or two in me!"

    Best! MB

  • by Dave Young Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Right on! Let's hear it for the journalists.

    With all due respect to Meredith, I know plenty of people who are not at all comfortable writing, yet they are absolute top-notch experts in their field.

    The problem I've had with a ghost-writing approach, whether you want to call it an inside "brand journalist" or not, is that this person is not the expert. They didn't build the brand. They didn't pour their sweat into building the company. There are usually only a handful of people inside a company who have the sweat equity in the knowledge arena required to pull it off well. A ghost-writer will always need to spend (especially in the early days) almost as much time with the experts as the experts would have to spend to write it themselves. The catch-22? They don't have that kind of time...and the content never gets written.

    Shortcut Blogging is our solution. We use those same journalist-types (only ours come from the broadcasting industry) to get the C-Level experts to share their words in an audio interview. We've found that by having the CEO investing only an hour/month, we can get about 5,000 to 6,000 words pulled out of them. We turn those words into Podcasts, transcriptions, re-written articles, ebooks, reports, white papers and on and on. After a year, your CEO will have about 70-80,000 words, enough for a book. Now who's not writing?

  • by gina Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Thank you for framing Brand Journalism and talking about integrity. Computer technology ultimately forces businesses to be honest--and telling the truth allows writers to deliver far more entertaining content that doesn't waste everyone's time.

  • by Chaunce Stanton Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    I didn't realize I was a Brand Journalist until I read this! I may be able to leverage this post for a new job title! I much prefer the title to "Marketing Coordinator" or "Marketing Communications Specialist."

    To Dave, I can assure you as a recently re-titled "Brand Journalist," I am not a ghostwriter: I am immersed in the culture of the company, dealing every day with Subject Matter Experts, connecting the company across departments.

    In my previous position, I was a Brand Journalist for a heavily segmented professional services firm. You would be amazed at how little one department knew what the other was up to! (Cue trumpets) But then the Brand Journalist can even extend the story-telling internally to make sure everyone cross-sells appropriately and informs the company about recent wins, trends, etc.

    The Brand Journalist (love it) speaks the lingo of the SMEs, gets them to be less shy about telling their story, and humanizes the company to the outside world.

  • by Angie Pedersen Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    I completely agree, Ann. I've found that my experience writing articles for trade magazines has vastly improved my web content writing, and helps lend that story-telling aspect you mentioned. With people's web attention of a gnat, if your content doesn't tell a compelling story, your audience is outta there.

  • by M. Sharon Baker Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Thanks for pointing out how much journalists can help companies create compelling content, Ann.

    Id like to add a few more reasons if I may:

    8 ) They know how to juggle multiple projects key to helping marketers get enough content published.

    9) They are great listeners and superior interviewers helping draw information out and frame it beneficially for customers.

    10) They are quick studies and critical thinkers while they may not have the depth XXX states they need, journalists are experts at finding that information quickly and drilling in on important points and messages.

    11) Journalists are resourceful and full of creative content ideas, which is very helpful in solving the not enough, and creating a variety of content problems.

    12) They know how to research and find things quickly, which brings outside perspective and credibility to a companys case studies, white papers and articles.

    13) They are experts at dealing with deadlines.

    14) Journalists know how to keep themselves (and the company) out of their writing.

    15) They often can summarize a story, post, article, case study etc. in a great headline.

    16) Journalists know how to change writing styles to match different audiences and media types.

    I list these and an additional seven more great reasons to hire a journalist to create content on my website, and created a post on my blog about why Corporate Reporter or Corporate Storyteller would be a better title than Brand Journalist.

    You can find the post at

    Jesse Noyes, one of the early pioneers in this new world and on your panel, mentions in the comments of my post that in addition to reporters, companies should look for editors who can not only write but takes charge of the editorial operation, identifies and develops voices internally, and continually refines the editorial product.

    While I cant attend SXSW, Im looking forward to following your conversation about Brand Journalism in the Real World via social media and hearing about the results in the months thereafter.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Thanks, Chris. Do you cover Planning Board meetings, too? : ) Appreciate the kudos!

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    LOL!!!! Love that, Meredith.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    That's an excellent solution, Dave. Good "reimagining," too -- or squeezing every bit of goodness out of your content assets and expressing it in different formats. Love it!

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    You're welcome, Gina. Thanks for chiming in here.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Right. I've also heard the position called "corporate reporter" (which is what Jesse Noyes at Eloqua favors), a "brand content creator," or even just plain old "writer." But I like the term brand journalist conveys a lot in two small words... so I like the title for the punch it packs.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    So true, Angie. You. Me. Same page!

  • by Ann Handley Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Sharon - WOW! I found myself nodding along with all of these, too. Excellent additions. Thank you.

  • by Susan Zakin Thu Mar 8, 2012 via blog

    Journalists are independent. Someone writing for a corporation whose primary mission is not journalism is not a "journalist." Period. Journalism may be going extinct, and that's both sad and dangerous, but let's not demean real journalists with Orwellian doublespeak.

  • by Andrew Barnes Fri Mar 9, 2012 via blog

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. This was obviously written someone with a journalism background - and then applauded by similar people.

    I couldn't believe I was reading "Journalists are the only people, in my mind, who put the needs of the audience (vs. the company) first."

    In my experience the end game for most journalists is being published and read. They are often disconnected from overall marketing strategies and what we want an audience to do and feel as a result of reading the content.

    Good copywriters know that they will be judged by the outcome of their writing, and therefore have to understand audiences motivations and what will and won't turn people on.

    None of the best copywriters I've encountered have journalism backgrounds. So stop with the 'journalists are the only people...'

  • by Dave Young Fri Mar 9, 2012 via blog

    Thanks Ann!

  • by Dave Young Fri Mar 9, 2012 via blog

    Chaunce...for a position like yours, total immersion is the only way to go. For companies just starting out in content marketing, a full-time brand journalist might be a bigger step than they are ready for.

  • by Nasheen Liu Fri Mar 9, 2012 via blog

    Well said Ann. While I do see Andrew's point about good copywriters may not necessarily have a journalism background, I think the moral of this article is about optimizing credibility of the message for your target audience. Reality is people care about what was written as much as who wrote it. The latter puts a stamp of legitimacy if done by a 3rd party, non-biased, highly reputable source.

  • by Ann Handley Sat Mar 10, 2012 via blog

    Thanks for your perspective Andrew. Here's how I see it: Journalists report, copywriters sell. Both might well have the needs of the audience in mind, but they're targeting different needs.

    I'm talking about incorporating a journalistic approach into your marketing, with the end goal of being a resource for your audience (vs. simply selling to them). It's a mental shift for businesses, I believe: To embrace the idea that customers can be earned through providing content they find useful versus promoting products.

  • by Ann Handley Sat Mar 10, 2012 via blog

    Hi Susan -- For the record (and as I said above): I don't want to see brand journalists taking the place of traditional journalists. And I absolutely advocate full disclosure on the part of any brand journalist. I'm NOT talking about a brand journalist pretending to be anything other than somone creating content on behalf of a brand with a specific audience in mind.

    In other words, it's not an either-or proposition. In our world, I think we need both. My point here is only that hiring J-school trained reporters and writers can add value to a brand; because a good story is a good story. And journalists are excellent candidates re how to tell it in a compelling way.

    That said, I'm a little suspect of the idea that Journalist = Impartial. In the history of journalism, journalists have rarely been completely independent--or objective, for that matter. The ideal of "Journalism" taught in j-schools is just that -- it's an ideal. In real life, journalists are called to serve all manner of agendas--and have been since the beginning. Fox Corp. journalists are still journalists, as are journalists at The Nation. But I wouldn't say either are fully objective. Would you?

    I think it's more useful to think of journalism as people who follows a specific set of rules -- presenting two sides of an argument, getting names and dates right, setting context, simplifying the complex, answering the who-what-where-when-why (all the stuff I talk about here, above).

    Those rules ensure common denominator of reporting viability--but they don't ensure any absolute level of independence or objectivity.

  • by Ann Handley Sat Mar 10, 2012 via blog

    As a post-script, I like what Boeing has to say about its brand journalism program here:

  • by CC Holland Sat Mar 10, 2012 via blog

    Ann, I can't tell you how much I love this post. As a former journalist, I've always advocated for the skills my profession brings to the marketing world, but it's often been a tough sell to people who are used to "marketing" writing (and, as you noted, a company-centric rather than audience-centric style of writing). But inevitably, if I'm able to convince them to give journalism-style content a try, they become huge fans. (And so do their customers.)

    Similarly, I've often had an uphill battle when trying to lure journalists over to the "dark side" -- I think they often equate marketing content with fluff or the hard sell and don't see the value that top-notch writing and research can add to it.

    I agree that there are fabulous copywriters out there who may not necessarily have a journalism background. But in my experience, they share the abilities to find, analyze, simplify, and present information in an elegant, accessible way -- skills that are part and parcel of any trained journalist's arsenal. And I agree with the distinction that you made, Ann, in replying to Andrew: copywriters focus on selling, journalists focus on informing. I think there's a place for both in any content marketing planning, but for the latter, the journalism skills come in extremely useful.

    Thank you so much for articulating a name for this hybrid species! It'll sure make my life easier when describing this role in the future.

  • by Chris Drinkut Sun Mar 11, 2012 via blog

    Yep. Those meetings can be a real snooze-fest, but I agree with you that your boss was right. I really like the phrase, "mind like water". I think approaching much of life that way is not a bad idea.

  • by Meredith Blevins Mon Mar 12, 2012 via blog

    I like the simple term, "writer." I think some readers might feel that, when reading the word "journalist" they have come upon an article, post, etc., by someone who has gone out, looked for a scoop, and created an impartial article. We know journalists are not impartial (as you mentioned). The material any non-fiction writer leaves out is as important in shaping a piece as the material included.

    The ghost writing info (short-cut bloggging) from Dave above is a great way to build content by people who don't have the time or inclination to write.

    "Writer" implies someone who is allowed to use tone, mood, etc., more than a journalist might be able to in the traditional sense of the word.

  • by David Reich Fri Mar 16, 2012 via blog

    Ann, I agree 100%. The task should be given to professionals -- journalists or good PR pros (emphasis on "good," and not hacks or mindless pitchers) who know how to develop and write a good story, make it interesting, weave in, when and where appropriate, the brand's positioning, and have the strength to fight the marketing and ad folks when they try to rewrite with hard-sell messages and words.

  • by Ann Handley Sat Mar 17, 2012 via blog

    Thanks, Meredith. I don't disagree with your assessment here. Like I said above, I'm less married to the phrase "brand journalist" than I am married to the notion of hiring content creators who are customer-driven vs. corporate-driven. In other words, "writer" works, too... as long as the brand is aware of that need to create stuff that engages, and doesn't push products.

  • by Ann Handley Sat Mar 17, 2012 via blog

    Thanks, David. I appreciate your perspective, as someone who I think has been filling this role for a long time, on the PR side!

  • by Cheyanne Atchley Thu Mar 29, 2012 via blog

    Anne - I couldn't agree more and you touched on all of the right reasons. I follow alot of companies that I conside "best in class" and this is exactly how they are approaching the overwhelming marketing "content" needs dilemma. As an add on thought, at Bulldog, we also have partnerships with several large market intelligence firms with the express goal of being able to provide our clients with relevant, targeted content to propel an integrated nuture strategy for example. The key to these relationships is have a third party team with a strong journalistic background - that can bring the continuity of brand expression and integrity to the messages built. And I'm lobbying internally for the need for a "brand journalist" to work with us directly for all of the reasons you've outlined! Great article.

  • by The Content Marketeer Fri Mar 30, 2012 via blog

    Brand Journalists are the best. They make great writers, editors and content strategists. We love ours and we can't recommend hiring on for your own business enough!

  • by Jay Pinkert Thu May 17, 2012 via blog

    I had just begun to write a job description to hire a full-time professional for this very position. Thanks for saving me the time/effort :)

    The challenge now is finding candidates in the Phoenix area. If anyone is interested or knows someone who might be, let me know.

  • by Chris Yates (@chrisyates11) Tue Nov 6, 2012 via blog

    Great article! I've been talking about "Brand Journalism" with our video content. I never knew where the term came from so that is great.

    You are so right about journalists only goal is a great story. I've been a journalist since 1990 and am using those skills now for brands, agencies and small business owners when we create video content.

    Thanks for the article.

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