What distinguishes content marketing from brand journalism?

One keys on amplifying the brand identity and building affinity; the other focuses more on the customer’s journey—but which is which? It’s all about the desired outcome.

Today’s fragmented media landscape and information-loaded digital world offer brands new opportunities to communicate directly with their audiences—building visibility, affinity and even search traction along the way.

However, success in the uppermost reaches of the funnel requires organizations to put the corporate agenda in the back seat, adopting instead a more journalistic approach to crafting and publishing their stories.

Enter brand journalism.

Not to be confused with content marketing, brand journalism is an upper-funnel tactic that delivers more than mere brand awareness. Telling the brand’s stories in a compelling, audience-focused way can create affinity, earn media coverage, build brand credibility and (when coupled with search and social strategies) deliver long-lasting online visibility.

The differences between brand journalism and content marketing

There are important differences between brand journalism and content marketing, and they’re best expressed not in terms of content output but in terms of intended outcomes. Content marketing and brand journalism deliver information that is both useful and interesting to audiences. So let’s look at the intended goals of brand journalism and content marketing, respectively. I’ll take a stab, and I welcome anyone else’s additions.

Brand journalism goal: Finding and telling brand stories in order to convey a comprehensive image of the brand and build brand awareness and affinity.

Case in point: The story on the Starbucks newsroom about the art on a holiday mug is an example of telling the story of an employee’s journey within the company. Is this story selling coffee? No. It’s conveying specific information about the brand image. I wouldn’t call this content marketing. To me, this is brand journalism.

Content marketing goal: Influence audience behavior by publishing useful content that supports the customer journey, encourages loyalty and enables amplifications.

Case in point: Marcus Sheridan, the “pool guy” who has presented at Content Marketing World several times, showed how great content that speaks directly to buyer interests can fuel sales, describing content as “a sales tool.” (Related: CMW interview with Sheridan)

“Marketing is the enemy of brand journalism,” Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan said recently at the company’s Brand Journalism for Corporate Communicators workshop in Chicago. “Brands need to master telling their stories indirectly. It’s about the brand, but the focus is always about the audience.”

Brand journalism couples the brand perspective with a journalistic approach, telling stories to create utility for the audience and context for the brand. Many stories published within brand journalism programs make no reference to the brand that’s doing the publishing. Nonetheless, the brand’s expertise is on display when a story provides an industry insider’s look that a legitimate media outlet could have produced.

Content should be designed and deployed with deliberate and measurable goals in mind. If Starbucks was publishing a bunch of employee stories and expecting to see a corresponding lift in store traffic, they would probably be disappointed, and the content budget might suffer in the future as a result.

A symbiotic pair

Content marketing and brand journalism are not mutually exclusive. They can (and should) exist together; furthermore, they should be aligned, in order to position the brand and attract audience members who are likely to value (and act upon) the other content the brand publishes. Integration of brand content across multiple communications channels is a crucial component of driving content discovery.

Sam Huston of iProspect said it well in a blog post this year:

“I want to believe that great creative will always find its way, but it’s difficult in today’s congested and segmented marketplace. Brands are realizing that even the best content can fail to convert consumers and deliver on business objectives. The way of the future, and the game-changer for brands, is in the strategic amplification of a campaign via holistic digital performance marketing.”

The intended outcomes underscore the important difference between brand journalism and content marketing, and marketing teams must pay attention to their relationships to the company’s overall strategy. Failing to do so can stymie a brand’s content programs, rendering them unmeasurable.

We know that measurement and gauging ROI continue to be a challenge for content marketers. I believe that a primary cause of measurement-related problems stems from content that is published with no clear goal in mind.

Benefits of a brand journalism program

The most profound benefit that brands derive from a strong and focused brand journalism strategy is the development of a relevant and engaged audience. Twenty years ago, the only way to reach broad audiences was through advertising or by a mention in a news story.

Today, brands communicate directly with their core constituents, and the audiences they build become important assets. Additionally, branded content creates important context for more targeted and actionable brand messages, developing affinity very early in the buyer’s journey.

On a more tactical level, the stories the organization publishes as part of a brand journalism program deliver other important benefits to the enterprise, including:

  • Internal communications: Stories provide a big picture that data don’t, lending important context to brand messaging. Additionally, stories are memorable. Together, these factors help employees more fully understand and participate in the company’s strategy.
  • Sales enablement: Brand storytelling can also be an important sales and customer service training tool, delivering memorable content that is ideally packaged for conveyance to customers and prospects.
  • Media relations: PR pros who believe that media won’t cover a story that the company develops are missing the point, Ragan said. Story-driven pitches can help journalists grasp nuance and see different potential story angles. As a bonus, artful keyword use generates valuable implied links that bolster search results when the stories run on key media sites.
  • Crisis communications: An organization that has developed an internal news desk function is at a distinct advantage when dealing with a crisis, having honed its storytelling skills, streamlined publishing process and—most crucially—built an audience. “Don’t get scooped by your own crisis,” Ragan advised. “If you have a crisis, you should cover it first.”

Storytelling is the flavor of the day in marketing circles, for several reasons. Again, stories are sticky. They linger in memories and influence behavior.

Brand stories help put human faces on company messages, increasing likability and brand affinity. These factors can trigger additional amplification, as people tend to share content they like within their social networks.

Taking the time to build the brand journalism practice within an organization’s communications teams is no small effort, however, the benefits to the enterprise in terms of lead flow, audience building and search visibility more than offset the investment.

Sarah Skerik is a content marketing and social media strategist, specializing in integrated digital marketing and upper funnel optimization. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik or connect on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/sarahskerik. A version of this article first ran on her website.

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