Think good-ol' newspaper reporting has gone the way of mimeographed newsletters and newsies shouting on street corners? Hardly. A good story is a good story—whether written on stone tablet, papyrus, or website. And bright, engaging storytellers are always needed to share them.
In his MarketingProfs University course "What Marketing Writers Can Learn From a Journalist," instructor Paul Gillin digs into his 25 years of journalism experience to share seven ways that marketers can wield journalism skills to produce content that grabs attention and encourages conversation.
1. Know your reader
To best communicate with your readers, you need to know who they are. "You can't communicate effectively with an audience you don't know," says Gillin. "What are their passions? What are their fears? What do they worry about when they are driving to work on Monday morning?"
You need to understand all that you can about your readers. Spend time thinking about them and what their needs are. Also, consider what types of readers you have. Is your audience made up of enthusiasts, professionals, peers, novices, competitors, media people?
2. Write in pictures
Create images that stick in the reader's mind.
"Most people don't think in words," says Gillin. "We think in images. It's the most common way people visualize stories. Use words that conjure up images that will be meaningful. These words aren't strange words. We already know them. We just don't think of using them."
For example, use "grizzled" instead of "experienced," "outstanding" for "leading," etc. You don't have to go all Hearst and sensationalize, but use words that add color to your story. Tell a story with the same degree of imagery and detail that you'd like to hear.
3. Focus, focus, focus
Ask yourself, "What's the story about?" Then, say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you just said.
Good writing isn't just about giving details—it's about knowing which details to share. Don't just jot down every point you can think of. Pick and choose the most vital or interesting points.
"Be sure to limit your number of points, so you don't bore the reader," Gillin says. "If you still have material, use that for the next entry."
4. Try different approaches
Avoid becoming formulaic in your writing by varying the tone, style, or format of your writing. Break up one tired piece by polishing it up into several shiny pieces, such as how-to posts, case studies, interviews, quizzes, etc.
"Give your material a new angle," Gillin advises.
5. Tell stories
"Writing is a storytelling process," says Gillin. Good journalists and novelists are good storytellers. When you're writing, imagine writing to one person. Share your experience with her.
"Personal anecdotes are very powerful," adds Gillin. "Use them as much as possible."
Remember that readers are people first. They respond best to stories that make them sit up, take notice, laugh, cry, or react in some other way. "Readers respond to stories that hit them in the gut," says Gillin. "Don't just tell them the facts."
6. Provide context
Share data in a meaningful way. For example, Gillin says, "There are... four-and-a-half million muslims in the United States. That's about twice as many muslims as episcopalians." The common fact is given—there are a lot of episcopalians—and juxtaposed with the lesser-known fact.
You can also use images to make facts feel more real to your reader. Another example Gillin uses is Wikibon's infographic about how much digital info is being produced. Instead of just saying, "the amount of digital information that will be created in 2010 could fill 75 billion fully loaded 160GB Apple iPads," Wikibon showed just how many Wembley Stadiums that data could fill.
7. Write provocative headlines
Capture attention by writing attention-hogging headlines. Be clear, of course (search engine optimization demands it), but be snazzy with your word choices. Make headlines engaging, even a little quirky. But if you have to use straight-forward headlines for SEO purposes, play around with the subhead.
And remember, you can always switch up the headlines. For example, the headline for an email may differ from one on your Facebook wall, or one used on Twitter.
Want to learn more about marketing writing? Check out the MarketingProfs University, Marketing Writing Bootcamp. In addition to Gillin's 30-minute course, you'll have more than 13 hours of content from 16 instructors on demand through May 2012.