3 lessons in branded content from the Associated Press

Take out your notepads. Many old-school skills can revitalize your tired content strategy. Here are insights from one of the best-received speakers at our PR Daily World conference.

Marketers strive to be great storytellers.

Those looking to improve their narrative skills would do well to take tips from the Associated Press—one of the world’s foremost news sources.

Paul Caluori, Associated Press global director for digital services, says branded storytelling can be a successful marketer’s most powerful tactic.

“Although it might be weird to hear a 170-year-old organization talking about storytelling lessons, there’s a good history between AP and the PR industry that leads up to that,” he said in his keynote presentation at Ragan’s PR Daily World conference Tuesday in New York.

He added:

One of the most basic ways is through pitching business stories to our journalists. Another is through the delivery of press releases, which we’ve been doing since there was an internet to do it on—whether it was with an uppercase or lowercase i.

Over the decades, AP content strategists have used photos, video, press releases and plain text to tell stories. Along the way, they’ve dug deep to find creative ways to put a story in front of an audience.

What have they learned—and how can those lessons help you achieve your branded content goals? Here are some insights.

1. Branded content is still content.

If something you produce is sponsored, branded or a part of a bigger marketing strategy, that shouldn’t give you a pass on delivering quality.

From Caluori:

The same things that work for regular journalism work in brand journalism. [Evoke] Human interest. [Ask] is it emotional? Is it surprising? Is it truthful? Is it useful?

The audience for branded content doesn’t have to be as targeted as many marketers might think. Too strong a pitch won’t sit well with any audience. Although your client might be in control of your reach, it’s up to you to expand that reach through the narrative you develop.

“Tell a wonderful story,” he added. “Good branded content isn’t overly pitchy. Give somebody something that they can relate to with information that is useful to them. Without that, they will be suspicious of its motives.”

2. Don’t lower your standards.

When the Associated Press began experimenting with branded content, executives had to determine how to combat the conflicting identifies of marketing and journalism.

“The AP prides itself on transparency and independence,” Caluori said. “How do you keep that in context of branded storytelling and content marketing? That’s a high mountain to climb.”

If you’re brainstorming in a room full of writers, there’s a good chance someone is holding a pen. Have that person write down guidelines for conduct. If you hold your team to adhering to clear ethical codes, you’ll probably avoid conflict with clients down the road.

Caluori added:

Set up some operating norms. We began a content services guide. It’s a reference work. It’s 14 pages and counting. This allows us to work in a way where we feel comfortable and not feeling like we have to keep answering questions like, “Are you somehow in conflict with your own newsroom?”

The first thing we did was document how we work separately from the newsroom. We don’t have AP’s editorial staff working on this. We use good, high-end freelancers and we have a content development manager who makes sure the content meets AP quality standards. We created a statement that shows up on our articles when it published on an AP property. It’s good to have clarity.

3. Establish a process; then streamline it.

Caluori cites these key takeaways from the branded content his team has created:

  • Rely on action journalism. Have a journalist go out and talk to sources, do research, pound some pavement, talk to people.

  • Push back. Advertorial does not equal effective content. Customers love their own ideas. Hold strategic conversations. Do something useful for a reader, as opposed to just putting an ad out there.

  • Adapt or die. With certain clients, we pitched five different ideas and ended up using one of them. Be flexible. Have open conversations. Be able to move around with regard to how customers are responding and how readers are responding.

To succeed in content marketing, you must be willing to evolve. Even if something has worked in the past, that doesn’t mean it should become a template for all your clients.

Don’t reminisce on your days as a journalist; embody that former version of yourself. Writing well and phoning sources will breathe new life into the content you’re producing.

If the AP can turn a nearly 200-year-old organization into a 21st-century content marketing agency, you can, too.

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