A 5-step guide to starting a brand journalism program

It’s time to transform your communications department into a publishing firm. Here’s how.

The idea of creating original content to draw in an audience is nothing new. In fact, businesses have pushed out various forms of this type of content marketing for decades.

However, change is on the horizon. Many big players are already capitalizing and practicing a new style of content marketing, and some do it so effectively that you may not have even noticed.

It’s called brand journalism, and it uses social media to build influence, improve search results, and spread ideas and excitement about a particular industry.

At its most basic level, brand journalism is journalism on behalf of a brand. It involves storytelling that encourages audiences to participate through digital and social media channels.

The future belongs to businesses that become the media, and brand journalism ultimately means you cover your business and industry like a reporter.

The key to success is to produce and host unique content to engage and attract a new audience. It also means transforming your marketing department (even if that’s only you!) into a publishing team that can produce content for readers and reporters.

1. The PR game has changed.

Sure it’s tempting to talk about yourself, but the biggest bore at any social gathering is the person who prattles on incessantly about his own success. The same holds true for content marketing. For decades brands have bombarded consumers with me-oriented messaging: my product, my service, my company, my plan.

“Me” is a losing proposition if you want to build an audience in today’s vast digital landscape. It’s old-school public relations and marketing.

What’s new school? Storytelling designed to attract, engage, entertain and inform your target audience.

Produce great content—articles, videos, infographics—and people will come to you.

This type of content will pull consumers, competitors and media toward your business’s content hubs, like your company website, blog, and important social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

For example, consider HSBC’s website Business Without Borders. The international powerhouse bank is ahead of the curve in brand journalism, and it usually follows its efforts with savvy social-media strategies designed to pull in a larger audience.

HSBC understands it’s not all about the “me” approach.

Business Without Borders is a media hub that often focuses on business tips and interesting global market trends that the bank’s products may touch. But its “journalists” rarely speak directly about any HSBC loans or banking tools. It’s all about creating interest around subjects HSBC is involved in.

For example, a recent article detailed the financing difficulties small businesses can face. However, HSBC never mentions its suite of small business services.

Of course, not many of us have the financial resources of HSBC, but once upon a time people also considered blogging a luxury for the big guys. If you follow HSBC’s storytelling lead and learn how to talk about your company without actually talking about it (or at least not talking about it too much), you’ll attract an audience you’d never reach with old-style press releases.

  • Start small—a couple posts per week—about topics that are interesting to people in your industry.
  • Request feedback and hone your skills from comments. (Add a comment section at the bottom.)
  • Use Twitter, Pinterest and Google+ to pull your audience toward you. Add social buttons on each content page to make it easy for readers to share.
  • Develop interesting and unique content that will encourage readers to learn more about your business.

2. See the media, be the media.

Now that you decided to become a storyteller, it’s best you start thinking like a newsperson.

The first step involves listening: Learn the questions and concerns of your audience and create a discussion around those interests.

“Our goal is to lead the conversation, to spark engagement, to identify trends relevant to our business and the industry,” Karen Snell, social media communications manager at Cisco, recently wrote on her blog.

Cisco Systems’ brand journalism efforts began last year with The Network, a technology news website the company pairs with its social media engagement program.

This means moving beyond push communications, i.e. pushing out email marketing, direct mail, and advertising, in favor of pulling people to your business, which is a better long-term strategy.

Once you start treating content meetings like newsroom meetings, the editorial team will develop an eye for shareable content. Monitor where the content travels to hone your technique and overall voice.

  • Encourage team members to pitch and produce news stories around topics you focus your business on.
  • Develop an editorial calendar that lets readers know they can expect fresh content on a regular basis.
  • Share.Social media is the engine that drives content engagement. Share and encourage everyone to share your storytelling efforts.

3. Campaigns are for elections, not marketing.

Never before have so many people had access to tools that allow for worldwide publication. This evolution of publishing technology is rapidly changing journalism to the point where anyone can create and distribute it to a mass audience.

However, if you want to create a campaign—content you create based primarily on your products or services—forget it. People won’t go for it.

You must share unique experiences, ideas, and strategic thoughts instead of product launch dates and discounts.

  • Create content you can reuse and repurpose across multiple media platforms.
  • Show the world you are an expert in your field, not just a producer of goods and services.
  • The content must have a life away from your product or service. A campaign will make it far across social media.

4. Look, listen and learn.

It is extremely important to first listen to the conversations and learn the questions and concerns of your target audience. This will ultimately help you craft a more effective editorial calendar and lead to a greater understanding of what people yearn to know. It’s the same process reporters undertake when they study their beats.

The best and most effective efforts are designed to engage a wide audience, and you can manage, monitor and continually tweak them based on the feedback and actions (or non-actions) of your target audience.

Let’s say you’re in the maternity clothing business. It is a sensible approach to set up your listening posts in places such as the popular website Café Mom and its community page to learn more about what moms-to-be are talking about.

Learning this new “beat” will help you craft relevant, engaging stories. Once you roll out your first edition, continue to listen to what they say about your content through social media.

When you set up social media listening tools to filter all the chatter on the Internet, you gain a deeper understanding of what people are saying about you and your content. Try a social media search and analysis platform designed to aggregate user’s comments into a single stream of information.

5. Ask everyone to participate.

For many aspiring brand journalists, the goal is to achieve earned content. Earned content is content others create and publish on behalf of your business. Earned content sparks buzz and furthers dissemination. This is a very significant goal that can be hard to achieve.

However, the more you share with others and invite them to participate and share with you, the more visible your content will become.

There are likely many websites in your sphere that welcome quality content. Why not give it to them? Allow others to post your material across their channels, and invite high-quality columnists to contribute to yours.

When it comes to content, especially for smaller businesses, it is extremely helpful to share production responsibilities with others. Not only should your co-workers become contributors, but clients, partners and other people in your space can provide valuable and reusable information. Sharing the responsibility with others can exponentially increase your content’s visibility through social networks.

  • Ask contributors to spread content on all their social accounts.
  • Encourage comments and write articles people will want to comment on.
  • Use calls to action like, “Tell us what you think in the comments.”

Now get reporting!

Tim Gray is content strategist with Blue Fountain Media. He has a background in online marketing and writes about his experiences with SEO, social media marketing, and all aspects of Web design for the company’s blog, The ROI Factor. He often writes about the innovative tools businesses and entrepreneurs can use to be successful.

Topics: PR


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