Strategic Marketing: An Introduction to Brand Journalism with Anthony Reinhart

“Brand journalism is storytelling meant to draw readers to a company’s field of expertise, without laying on the hard sell.” – Ira Basen

Today’s Strategic Marketing Peer-to-Peer session was presented by Anthony (Tony) Reinhart. He’s Director, Editorial Strategy at Communitech, having joined the organization after more than two decades as a journalist.

Tony runs Communitech's news site.

Tony runs Communitech’s news site.

I feverishly took notes as he spoke, and this post is the result. Enjoy!

If you don’t know what brand journalism is, then read on for an intro; if you do know, then read on anyway ’cause you might still learn something =)

What is Brand Journalism?

In a 2012 article published in The Globe and Mail, “Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which?”, Ira Basen explores brand journalism. In the article, he says that “Brand journalism is storytelling meant to draw readers to a company’s field of expertise, without laying on the hard sell.”

So, brand journalism is decidedly not advertising, but it’s still meant to build awareness.

In Tony’s words, “Brand journalism is a strategic communications tool that allows companies to tell their stories directly to customers, without having to rely on independent media to do it for them.”

Brand Journalism vs Content Marketing

Brand journalism is a specialized subset of content marketing. Overall, content marketing seeks to promote; within it, brand journalism seeks to educate, to build trust, and to engage through storytelling.

In brand journalism, there’s no selling, just telling.

Brand journalism is more about people than about product.

Brand journalism keeps the reader, not the customer, top-of-mind. Sometimes they’re the same person, of course, but not always. In brand journalism, you write/create to engage the reader, not to engage a prospect.

Why Brand Journalism?

There are a number of reasons why companies are investigating or adopting brand journalism.

First and foremost, traditional marketing (well, pure advertising) is decreasingly effective in this oversaturated digital age, and brand journalism offers a promising way to tell your story.

Traditional marketing is decreasingly effective in this oversaturated digital age, and brand journalism offers a promising way to tell your story.

Paraphrasing Seth Godin, because I don’t have the actual quote handy, “Ads worked…and then suddenly they didn’t. In the new world, where you can’t get your message out by interrupting people, the only alternative is to whisper your story to people who want to hear.”

Compounding the issue, for many companies (especially smaller ones) media coverage is increasingly tough to get.

On a positive note, though, in the Internet age anyone can be a publisher. This creates an opportunity for companies to tell their own story (and we humanfolk are hard-wired to like a good story). So into this void steps brand journalism.

The Power of a Good Story

The ability to tell a good story is one of those often-overlooked but holy-crap-is-it-ever-important marketing skills.

Done well, brand journalism tells a story in which the reader can see him or herself, or to which they can relate.

When you tell good stories, readers want to associate themselves with you, and they will remember you.

Good stories convert into goodwill. Goodwill converts into loyalty. And, somewhere down the line, loyalty might turn into sales.

Engaging with a Professional Journalist

While anyone can just whip open a laptop and bang away, Tony gave us a long list of reasons why businesses should consider engaging with a professional journalist or hiring people with journalistic experience to tackle their brand journalism goals.

Professional journalists are:

  • Fast: they’re used to turning content around for daily deadlines, so work in hours and days rather than weeks and months
  • Sticklers for accuracy
  • Increasingly available due to media lay-offs
  • Self-directed
  • Attuned to current events/trends: this one’s especially important, as your best way to gain eyeballs is to tie into a current event or hot topic
  • Skilled at research
  • Allergic to jargon that alienates readers

And if that wasn’t enough, they:

  • Have a wide general knowledge (another underrated skill/characteristic)
  • Feel comfortable talking to anyone
  • Listen well
  • Make complex topics understandable
  • Keep the reader top-of-mind
  • Maintain professional distance

Tony expanded on that last point a bit, saying: “That’s an important one, too. Journalists can’t get too close to their subjects. Dealing with people, they have to draw a line, to keep the integrity of the story so that sales messages don’t seep in.”

What could brand journalism mean for your company?

Brand journalism can situate your company in the broader world, reducing the appearance of narrow self-interest. In today’s environment of immediate social media backlash, being seen as thinking beyond your immediate business needs is probably a good thing.

It can also start important conversations that can provide insight into the lives of your customers.

Of course, brand journalism can also position your company as a thought leader.

Common Challenges

Getting going with brand journalism isn’t without its challenges.

For one, how do you measure the success or impact of your efforts, especially over the short term?

Second, most companies struggle with distribution. How can you win eyeballs? What channels work best? The answer varies.

You can also expect occasional tension with the sales team over editorial decisions. What is or isn’t newsworthy? How do you resist pressure to make it salesy?

In the best case, your problem is that you simply have too many stories to tell, but we should all be so lucky.

Additional Resources

In addition to the article linked near the top, Tony pointed us to:

Thanks Tony and Communitech!

My own experiences…

I can relate to much of what Tony spoke about in his session, having helped to build Sandvine’s Global Internet Phenomena program into a widely known industry resource.

When I first took over the program, there was enormous pressure to use the annual reports as a glossy sales brochure.

When I first took over the program, there was enormous pressure to use the annual reports as a glossy sales brochure.

However, I knew that doing so would alienate our readers. Instead, I focused on beefing up the research, solidifying the data foundation, and diving deeply into the trends so that I could present readers with analysis that they couldn’t get from anywhere else in the world.

Perhaps above all, we tried to tell stories about the facts, fads, and trends we were seeing online.

Fortuitously, one of those stories was about the unprecedented growth of Netflix’ streaming service (hint to the kids: Netflix used to only do mail-order DVDs), and I logged on (hint to kids: we used to say that) to the web one day to find my report on the front page of CNN, CBC, BBC, and a whole whack of aggregators.

Since we’d done a solid job with the report, we won those readers over and they come back year after year, and email us ahead of time to ask when the next report’s coming out.

Since I handed off the program to Dan Deeth, he’s taken it to new heights: adding a blog to stay up-to-date with current events, releasing more numerous and focused reports, and building fantastic relationships with journalists and media outlets around the world who are happy to help tell our stories or who ask for our help (i.e., data) when they have their own to tell.

Looking back on it all, I suppose that the Global Internet Phenomena program was my first foray into brand journalism.

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