6 lessons in brand journalism

You don’t need a mass audience to be a success. You do have to keep marketing at arm’s length. And there’s a role for content partnerships with mainstream media.

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Thinking about tackling a brand journalism website? Don’t wait too long.

These days the prairies are wide open for pioneers to stake a claim as the leader in their field, several experts said.

Soon everyone will be doing media-style content marketing, and somebody else already may have assumed a leadership role.

Tom Foremski, author of the blog Silicon Valley Watcher, joined industry guru Shel Holtz and Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan for a panel discussion on the growing form of communication. Companies such as Virgin Mobile and HSBC are investing heavily in media-like stories, photographs, and videos.

Amid the praise for brand journalism, Foremski warned that covering one’s own organization raises concerns in democratic societies that rely on an independent media.

Here are some pointers:

1. Stop stalling.

Many organizations are pondering what they’re going to do in the space, Foremski says. He responds, “Well, think a little bit faster, because you’re going to have to get that strategy in gear and start cranking—or else you’re going to get lost in the noise.”

About two dozen organizations are really doing brand journalism well, said Ragan. But, he added, “Ten years from now, I think we’re going to see this explode.” Every industry will have a dominant player. Could it be you?

2. Hold marketing at arm’s length.

“It’s tough to keep the marketing department out of [the brand journalism] business,” Holtz said.

Good brand journalism differs from old-fashioned advertorials in the approach it takes. Companies including Cisco and Intel are trying to build credibility while reporting on their industry.

“If you read some of this stuff, you’d be hard pressed to find a reference to Intel or Cisco,” Holtz said.

3. You don’t need a mass audience to earn a return on investment.

Cisco’s brand journalism site, The Network, recently celebrated its first anniversary, and Foremski asked one of the bosses how it was going. He said if the site reached the right individual, that was enough.

“If that person controls a $100 million budget, I’ve done my job,” the Intel employee told Foremski. “I’ve covered my costs.”

Foremski mused, “I’m thinking, Oh, my God. I have to get a million readers to pay the rent. He only has to get that one person.”

4. It’s easy to find good journalists these days.

With the media shrinking, journalists looking for work are not exactly a rare commodity. Cisco’s stable of freelancers includes former reporters from The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, Holtz says.

5. Should we lend a hand to the old media?

Though many communicators regard members of the old media as adversaries to fence with, Foremski, whom Ragan credited with inventing the phrase “every company as a media outlet,” suggested that companies have an interest in halting the decline of mainstream media.

“Corporations are trying to become media companies,” he said, “but really they should be supporting the media companies to be independent to be a vital part of society.”

Countries with a free media have better economies, he said, and that’s better for business. What if, Foremski said, every corporation paid into a fund to support the dwindling traditional media?

6. Even big media outlets are open to sponsored content these days.

The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The Huffington Post have all allowed sponsored content, Holtz said. Often this means a brand might publish a story that meets the standards of a legitimate article publication, but organizations pay for the space, and it’s labeled “sponsored content.”

There are risks in this approach for the media, too. A story sponsored by the Church of Scientology created a backlash for The Atlantic, Holtz said. Still, marketers are getting better results from sponsored content than from display ads.

Virgin Mobile set up a newsroom, hired journalists and graphic designers, and partnered with Buzzfeed, Holtz said. “Buzzfeed’s making money, and Virgin Mobile’s drawing attention,” he said.

In a question from the audience, an attendee expressed reservations, saying the line is blurring between editorial and sponsored content. “And that poisons the channel,” Foremski agreed.

Ragan noted that good brand journalism clearly labels its sponsor, such as HSBC or American Express’ Open Forum. They’re just ditching the pushy marketing.

“They’re not telling you to buy the American Express platinum card,” he said. “What they’re doing is giving you useful information on how to [run] a better small business.”



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