Brand journalism strategy boosts Web traffic by 451 percent

Defense contractor Raytheon hired a team of reporters, editors, and video producers and made a big splash on social media as part of its content marketing strategy.


I’m fascinated by organizations that embrace brand journalism, hiring reporters to create content that serves as marketing and public relations.

For almost a decade, I’ve recommended that companies of all kinds model their sites not on their peers’ boring, old, brochure-like approach but rather aspire to becoming like a media site such as Forbes, the BBC, or The New York Times and that they hire reporters and editors, not marketers and copywriters, to produce the content.

One look at the Raytheon home page shows it does exactly that. There are real-time news, images, and a top stories section. And Raytheon is a B2B (and B2G) company.

“You can see our home page is very much a news operation,” says Corinne J. Kovalsky, director of digital and social media at Raytheon. “We’ve got feature stories and trend stories about cool products.”

I’ve engaged with Kovalsky for several years on social networks and recently had an opportunity to visit with her and the team at Raytheon headquarters to learn how they built the brand journalism approach to marketing and public relations.

Kovalsky, a former TV producer, explains: “I did national news up in Canada for the CTV Network for a number of years. I produced the Canadian equivalent of ‘Meet the Press,’ and I have very fond memories of having journalists on staff.”

In early 2011, Kovalsky worked with Pam Wickham, Raytheon’s vice president of corporate affairs and communications to implement the brand journalism approach. Wickham recognized the opportunity to establish a more robust footprint in digital and social media for the company, an idea that resonated to the very top of the organization.

Hiring brand journalists

Once the plan was approved, Kovalsky in early 2012 brought on some very impressive talent including Stephanie Schierholz, who formerly worked as NASA social media manager. Schierholz grew the @NASA Twitter account from zero to more than 3 million followers and helped organize some interesting “firsts,” such as the first live tweet from space and the first Foursquare check-in from space.

Schierholz now works on Raytheon social media, including the @Raytheon Twitter feed. Journalists and Defense Department officials pay attention to the feed and frequently use the content, such as this CNNi tweet of a Raytheon image of a high-tech helmet to guide pilots of the future.

Soon after, Chris Hawley was hired as managing editor of digital content. Hawley joined Raytheon from the Associated Press, where just a few weeks earlier he had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a months-long series outlining the New York Police Department’s surveillance of minority and particularly Muslim neighborhoods since the 9/11 terror attacks. As a brand journalist at Raytheon, he implements the skills he learned at AP.

“I’m helping to build a news operation,” Hawley says. “We are working at Raytheon just like an AP beat to find interesting stories and tell the world about them in a way that engages. We have bureau chiefs in all of our four divisions. They have certain products that they want to talk about so we try to find new and interesting ways of exploring those stories. And we refine the story ideas, assign writers and we’re doing a lot of training on editing and getting those stories out.”

Hawley has also taken on the role of establishing editorial guidelines for Raytheon and teaching staff about journalism. “We’ve tried to codify the writing and editing process,” he says. “We’ve come up with a checklist approach to writing a Web story that goes through everything from selecting if it’s going to be a hard-lead story or a soft-lead story, right down to which scientific study should I pay attention to when I’m evaluating background information for an article.”

Content that drives the media

The content that Kovalsky, Hawley, Schierholz, and the others on the team produce serves to educate and entertain existing and potential clients. But it also serves the news media, which increasingly are using Raytheon content to create stories. For example, Gizmodo frequently writes about Raytheon, so articles published by Raytheon such as Tiny Satellites To Give Warfighters a Bird’s-Eye View of the Battlefield frequently lead to articles such as DARPA’s SeeMe Satellites Are a Soldier’s On-Demand Eye In the Sky on Gizmodo.

The feature packages produced by Raytheon include text and video plus photography, infographics, and animation where possible. Journalists love the video that Raytheon produces.

“We had a plant opening in Huntsville, Ala., and the factory is one of the most state-of-the-art robotic factories in the world, so we focused on the robots in the video,” Kovalsky says. “Mark Thompson, who writes for Time, picked up the video and linked back to our feature, and his headline was Elroy Jetson Is Building Missiles.

Measuring success

Although brand journalism at Raytheon has been live for less than a year, there is evidence the approach is producing results.

“One of our big trade shows is the Association of the U.S. Army annual conference, which happens each October,” Hawley says. “In the most recent one, we decided to go for quality content instead of quantity. We did only three stories compared to more than 20 in 2010, but we really wrote the heck out of them. If you look at them, they’re really well written and capture trends. And we increased traffic 451% over the year before.”

Senior management is noticing, too.

“Bill Swanson, Raytheon’s chairman and chief executive officer, let us build this team, and there are some people within the organization who, perhaps, still question why a defense company is doing social media,” Kovalsky says. “Bill has thrown his support behind this young team and has been incredibly encouraging.”

To thank the CEO, the team presented him with some Twitter cufflinks. “Well, he was so tickled that wore them during a meeting one day in front of Pam Wickham,” Kovalsky says. “She immediately took a photo and tweeted it out. Bill’s cufflinks got 17,000 impressions in 24 hours. Not everybody is that lucky to have a CEO who is so open to new developments and so willing to bring in the right talent.”

David Meerman Scott is a marketing strategist and bestselling author . A version of this story first appeared on WebInkNow.com.

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