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High Quality Content Defined

high quality contentThere seems to be a perception that all content marketers have a common understanding of what high quality content is. But do we really? Is there a common definition of high quality content that we can all agree upon? For those of us who started in editorial and became brand journalists, I think there is.

In some ways, I think high quality content is the same as newsworthy. Like porn, I know it when I see it. But unlike porn, I can define it.

High quality content that is also reader-worthy has three core attributes:

  • It’s not an advertisement. Marketers tend to break this rule, thanks to a longstanding tradition of believing that everyone will be as captivated by their products or services as much as they are. But those days are over, as Google and other search engines tinker with algorithms so that they return content that is interesting and relevant to the searcher. It’s why so many content marketers tell us to stop talking about ourselves.
  • It’s new. The best content tells readers something they didn’t already know. It’s one of the reasons that education and how-to videos are so popular.
  • It’s interesting. It’s something that readers want to read – and probably can’t get enough of.

There are other attributes as well – it can be funny, or heartwarming, or emotional – but these three are the common core.

As content marketing evolves into something more robust, we need to take a few lessons from journalists about creating high quality content. It’s not a coincidence that the best types of content originate in traditional media.

Five Types of High Quality Content

Here are five types of content that if you produce, you have a good shot at creating high quality content worth reading or viewing.

  • News analysis. What does a recent event mean to your readers? Analysis is the objective description of the potential implication of change.
  • Interviews. You can’t go wrong with a Q&A. All that’s needed is an interesting guest and 4-5 questions. Most people love to talk about themselves. And you don’t have to be the Larry King of interviewers. Look at the popularity of Reddit’s AMA’s: the questions are asked by everyday people. Good or bad, interviews make for fascinating content.
  • Features and profiles. Here’s your chance to be creative or hard-hitting – take your pick. Choose a leader in your field and write a human interest piece about him, exploring how he structures his day, what he eats for breakfast, how he got to where he is. Or, dig deep into a new development such as a rule or regulation. Investigate the background, interview the players and uncover the real motivators.
  • Opinion. All news outlets stake a position. Some are conservative, some are liberal, but none are neutral. Don’t just regurgitate the facts from “trusted” sources around the Web. The best brand journalists take a stand.
  • Trends predictions. Most of us are busy working in the weeds, so sometimes it’s hard to pick up our heads and see the bigger picture. Your readers need to know where their industry is heading, and what they need to do to head off disaster and seize opportunities. Be their beacon.
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Brand Storytelling Lessons from “Breaking Bad”

Brand Storytelling Lessons from Breaking BadSo, it’s over. Walter White is gone, the “Breaking Bad” story concluded. Pundits and critics will be discussing the series finale for weeks. But I’d like to focus on something altogether different: the long narrative arc, the short story that is each episode, and what marketers can learn from Vince Gilligan to improve their brand storytelling.

Let me start by saying that I’m a latecomer to “Breaking Bad,” having  started the series just a few weeks ago. At least I have the pleasure of continuing on, while many fans now are in the unenviable position of series withdrawal. I’ve still got three and a half seasons to view, which I’ll watch leisurely over the next few months – if I can stand to slow it down.

And I have another advantage: I’ve read ahead. Don’t be shocked! I do this all the time when I read novels. I like to know where the story is going, but I’m also keenly interested in story construction and character development. And I’m always looking to borrow from other disciplines to hone my own brand storytelling skills. So I’m glad I’ve read the dozens of articles about White’s transformation and the eventual end to his story. I now have time to fully appreciate and learn from Gilligan’s talent in storytelling.

There’s much that brand marketers can learn from Gilligan and this series. When we think about how to tell our brand story, we often think in terms of corporate messaging and individual campaigns. In an ideal world, these two types of narratives need to snap together. More realistically, in large organizations and fast-moving markets, that may not always be the case. Consistency of story is always a brand challenge.

Brand Storytelling and the Long Narrative Arc

Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad to the studio with this one line: “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”

That sentence says a lot about what Gilligan sees as White’s brand and direction. It answers the question: What does Gilligan want Walt to be? To support that vision, he weaves a narrative in episodes that turn Walt into a badass.

Every company has a vision for what it wants to be, although it may not exactly want to be known as a badass corporate entity. Nearly every one will want to be known as innovative or the best in their class. How they express that ambition, however, is widely different.

Apple, for example, has built a its reputation for innovation on the idea of originality. Its campaigns (“Think Different”) and product development (Mac, iOS, iPhone) have all supported that broader vision. Another example: Pepsi targets a youthful audience with its soft drinks. And of course it wants its customers to associate the brand with fun and entertainment. Its long narrative arc therefore taps into pop culture.

The long narrative arc is where brand storytellers and strategists must start. It’s ground zero. The questions are:

  1. Who are your customers and what do they think of you?
  2. What products and services do you offer?
  3. What is your promise to your customer?
  4. What does the brand want to be?
  5. What is your big picture story?

Some of these answers are very concrete, but others can and should be aspirational.

Campaigns as Short Stories

Each week, Walter White made another step toward Gilligan’s vision of badass. In season 1, the catalyst was a diagnosis of cancer. The first action toward building his badass brand was to start cooking meth. Each week after, Gilligan unveiled another proof point, whether it was Walt cutting deals with drug lords, abusing Jesse, lying to his wife, or cutting down adversaries.

With every episode, we had more proof of who Walt is. Each installment snapped neatly into the longer narrative arc.

Marketers must align every campaign that they run with their longer narrative arc. If a campaign isn’t consistent with the storyline, it needs to be rethought or even killed. Every campaign must be another building block in the story.

But here’s another thing that Gilligan did very well: He helped his audience become emotionally invested in Walt himself. In literary terms, Walt is an anti-hero, and by the end of the series, fans had divided on what they felt should happen to the man. While this division isn’t quite the fan investment brands desire, we do want our fans do care about us emotionally.

Here are the questions that brand storytellers and campaign managers need to ask:

  1. How does this campaign build our brand?
  2. How do we make an emotional connection with fans?
  3. What is the mini-story we want to tell?
  4. What do we want our customers to believe and feel?

Of course, brands can run campaigns without the bigger picture narrative or an emotional connection, but they’ll never build the kind of loyalty and love from customers that will insulate them from pricing and market challenges. For this, they need to develop that longer narrative arc and support it with proof-point campaigns – over and over again.

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Can Brand Journalism and Ethics Co-Exist?

brand journalism ethic coexistDo ethics matter in business? Do they matter in journalism? How about brand journalism?

Let’s consider a fictional example.

“Did you use exceptional measures?”

“IF we used sarin, here’s how we used sarin.”

This is a pivotal exchange from an episode this season of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, which just ended its second season on HBO. Actually, the turning point is not this interview of a general who is – in the hopes of the questioning TV producer – whistleblowing on the illegal use of nerve gas during a Marine rescue in Pakistan. It’s the surreptitious editing of the clip after the interview to remove the word “if” by the mission-driven producer.

Of course, he was wrong to do that.

It’s easy to sit back in the armchair and throw darts at journalists in the heat of a story. Boo them even. Tell ourselves that yes, they are as devious and evil as we believe them to be.

Not that what the character Jerry Dantana did was right, but we CEOs, marketers, brand journalists, and PR pros all need to take a hard look at our own ethical behavior. How different are we, actually? We use influence every day to earn more revenue. And when we do, how truly honest are we in our drive to land that big contract?

For businesses, whether they are media companies, retailers, food giants or manufacturers, the line between persuasion and truth is fine indeed. But it’s important for us to hold that line. After all, we hold social contracts with our markets. Customers expect businesses to treat them well and fairly, and they should expect us to try to make the world a better place.

One thing I’ve learned from working in big corporate media companies: They are run by people, most of whom are well-intentioned. Yes, there are employees who, like Jerry Dantana, will believe that sliding the line just a little bit is okay if it helps the greater good. And I believe that many people come to work each day convinced that they are making the world a better place.

But when things go wrong – and they often do – it’s because it’s hard to see the big picture when you are just one small cog. The food industry is a good example of this phenomenon. I recently finished reading Michael Moss’s book, Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It would be easy for me to cast the food giants as evil, greedy corporations. After all, they’ve engineered our food to encourage us to eat more calories than we need – literally expanding their market.

But what I took away from the book is that many of the players believed they were doing good, by giving consumers what they wanted or solving the hunger crisis by making food more affordable. Over time, they held onto these beliefs even as they played a role in changing consumer behavior and shifting the problem from hunger to malnourishment (and making quite a lot of revenue and profit).

Journalists and businesspeople aren’t all that different from each other, much as we like to think they are. Both have the same goal: to persuade and influence. (No editor, producer or journalist will admit to this, of course. They’ll say that it’s the truth they’re after. But they do influence, whether intentionally or not.)

What sets journalists apart is a strong code of ethics to tell the truth for the betterment of society. Businesses might also have internal codes of ethics, and they might say that they’re doing good. But they also have a fiscal responsibility to owners, shareholders, and yes, customers. That fiscal responsibility means that brands have an inherent conflict of interest.

Their mission is to make more revenue and to do that they must sell more of their products. Objectivity plays a much smaller role. The only place you’ll find Macy’s Santa directing customers across the street to Gimbel’s is in the movies.

As brands become publishers, though, we need to reconsider the ethics of providing one-sided or incomplete information. There’s good fiscal reason to lean toward objectivity at the risk of sending customers elsewhere. People buy from brands they trust, and socially responsible companies tend to have higher revenues.

As marketing becomes more fact-based and news-driven – more focused on brand journalism – we need to recognize that it might be in our best interests not to edit the clip.

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Tips for Staying Creative Every Day So New Ideas Will Flow

I’m a creative person by nature. But even I − a brand journalist who is faced with the need to generate new ideas for custom content every…single…day −  even I get burned out. You can’t create custom media without fresh ideas.

I do have a few tricks to help me find my creative mojo again.

  • Golden Gate Bridge is reflected in a soap bubbleTroll the Web. OK, admittedly, this sounds like a poor idea. And really, I wouldn’t recommend it as the FIRST thing to try. Maybe not even the last. But there are some amazing things on the Web. Museum websites are great sources of creative inspiration, especially for new types of custom media. Just don’t let yourself get TOO distracted or hours will go by in a flash. Oh…and stay away from Perez Hilton.
  • Watch a TEDTalk. I don’t consider this surfing the Web because I watch these on my iPad while doing the dishes. They either have me running back to the computer with 15 new ideas − or leave me up to my elbows in soap bubbles and tears.
  • Take a shower. Without singing. (I’m banned from singing in the house after a disastrous attempt at the Happy Birthday song a few years ago.) On slow days, I’m squeaky clean.
  • Play the “I wonder if” game. You know, ‘I wonder if this story would be more interesting if told it in Q&A style.’ or ‘I wonder if things smell the same way to cats as they smell to us.’ 
  • Get outside. Take a run along the pond, walk to the local coffee shop, sit outside the local library and people watch. This often brings out the journalist in me, which often leads to new ideas.
  • Welcome the bad ideas. One thing I’ve learned over the years about the he process of generating new ideas or new ways to tell stories is that bad ideas often spark good ones. Don’t be afraid to let the dogs out.

Golden Gate Bridge is reflected in a soap bubble (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Thursday Reads: Annenberg, Content Marketing, Cinemagram

Here are some of the things worth reading, viewing, and checking out this week.

  • USC Annenberg released their GAP VII survey of the PR industry a couple of weeks ago, but PR Squared posted a nice summary of the research by Burghardt Tenderich, associate director of the center. Bottom line: PR has a seat at the table, social media and internal comms are on the rise, marketing/product PR is on the decline.
  • If you haven’t had enough of the iconic Steve Jobs after reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, Fast Company has the legacy tapes, which cover the years between Apple stints. Be sure to check out the quotes.
  • On the importance of headline writing: there’s just too much out there to read, so a headline has got to speak to you. Another reason for hiring a trained journalist for your marketing newsroom.
  • On storytelling: how characters move the brand story forward, from Spin Sucks.
  • Can traditional marketers transition to digital marketing? Personally, I think many will not. Here’s Mike Moran’s view.
  • McKinsey Quarterly discusses how companies can harness social media to shape consumer decision making. My favorite line: “Knowing that something works and understanding how it works are very different things.”

Launch of the Week:

MaryLee Sachs, author of The Changing MO of the CMO, launches her new consultancy to help CMOs deal with the rapidly shifting sands of marketing.

Product of the Week:

Enterprise customer intelligence company, FirstRain, launches FirstTweets, which filters out the junk tweets and delivers companies high-quality, business-relevant tweets. Reviews are promising so far, and I’m testing it out. Look for a future blog post.

Video of the Week:

2.5 million views and more than 30K likes. In 10 days. I think that qualifies as viral.

Design of the Week:

The folks at The Mechanism, who have lots of cool things on their blog (and do cool design work of their own), shared this Aussie site. It meets my (very high) standards for quality and creativity.

App of the Week:

Credit again to the Mechanism blog, but I too am having fun with Cinemagram. My cats, not so much.

Created with cinemagr.am

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