What Content Marketers and Journalists Need to Learn from Each Other

Posted by dan-levy

Attention Content Marketers

I’ve got baggage. I call it J-School baggage, and I’m not the only one schlepping it around. Thousands of people have graduated from journalism school in the years since the financial crisis and the collapse of the “old media” model. Many of us have found our way to the content marketing world, and some of us have struggled with trading the noble ideals of informing the public and holding power to account for “key performance indicators” like building brand awareness and driving new trial starts. But while I still consider myself a (lapsed) member of the ink-stained tribe, plying my trade in the content marketing space has been both fulfilling and humbling. That’s because journalists aren’t just bringing tons of value to the businesses now cutting our checks – we have a lot to learn from them as well.

Plenty of so-called journalistic principles and methods have already infiltrated marketing departments and agencies in recent years (whether this is always a good thing is up for debate). Smart content marketers are maintaining editorial calendars, adhering to style guides (Moz’s is a great example) and building out their teams into bonafide brand newsrooms. The problem is that while this enables brands to pump out content more efficiently, it doesn’t necessarily help them do it more effectively.

This post isn’t ultimately for you. It’s for your audience. Every piece of content you create as a marketer exists to serve a business goal, but it’s guaranteed to fail if it doesn’t ultimately serve your audience in the process.

1. Don’t just link, attribute

I know you know how to link. Command-K is one of my favorite Mac shortcuts, and linking is a huge part of what makes online publishing more efficient than the days where every backwater town had multiple papers chasing the same scoop. As media critic Jeff Jarvis says, “Do what you do best and link to the rest.”


Thing is, linking isn’t enough.
As an editor I love to receive drafts filled with pithy quotes, punchy stats and thoughtful insights. I’d like to assume that unless I’m told otherwise these quotes, stats and insights originated with the author herself. But journalism school taught me me to take a step back before hitting “publish.” Because every idea or fact that has been gleaned from another source has to be properly attributed. Ever notice how every other sentence in a newspaper article includes the phrase “according to so and so” or “so and so said”? That’s attribution. And it’s non-negotiable.

Yet I can’t tell you how often content marketers fail to do this or simply embed a link somewhere in the paragraph without giving any context.
Don’t force readers to click away from the page to get a critical piece of information. If you’re citing a study, say who conducted it. If you’re linking to a New York Times article, include that somewhere in the sentence. I appreciate you trying to stick to the word limit but this is the internet. Real estate isn’t that precious. I’d rather you be generous with your words than stingy with the facts.

Speaking of the facts, please try to get them right. I know it’s hard. Journalists get it wrong all the time. But that doesn’t mean content marketers shouldn’t try to do better. Fact-checking can be especially challenging when you’re covering complex stuff like conversion rate optimization, A/B testing and PPC marketing, which is the space I currently work in. Most of us didn’t become content marketers – or journalists for that matter – because we kicked ass in math class.

I once had a blog post queued up and ready to go live first thing the next morning until our eagle-eyed social strategist recognized one of the case studies cited in the post and noticed that the author had completely misinterpreted the results. This is one of the reasons attributions is so important. In a small industry, examples and starts often get recycled from one blog to the next. The result is a case of broken telephone where the facts get muddled in transit.
Proper attribution makes it easier to track where the breakdown occurred and to set the record straight. You can quote me on that.

2. Reporting is not just an analytics thing

Content marketers go by many names, including brand journalists, content crafters and content strategists (guilty). But I’ve never heard anyone refer to content marketers as reporting. That’s probably because far too few of us do any actual reporting. Not reporting on KPIs, but good old-fashioned shoe leather reporting.

Because you know what’s even better than pulling a pithy quote from another blog and attributing it to the proper expert? Talking to them yourself. Social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn and online resources like HARO and ProfNet and have made thought leaders and subject matter experts more accessible and approachable than ever. But for some reason many content marketers are allergic to doing any original reporting. This leads to an ouroborian scenario where the same bits of knowledge are circulated over and over under different urls and bylines without any added value. No wonder audiences are experiencing content fatigue. I need a nap just thinking about it.

Quick sidebar: Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of “expert roundup” posts, whereby bloggers collect quotes from industry experts and string them into a post. Often this is more about getting these experts to share the post (you may know this as “ego baiting”) than providing your audience with useful content. If you’re going to do an expert roundup post, a) actually interview the experts (don’t just send them the link to share after the fact), and b) Challenge them with thoughtful questions that will spark genuine insights. Here are a couple examples from the Unbounce blog where we reached out to thought leaders in the pay-per-click and Google+ marketing communities and started some great conversations in the process.

3. Pitching (beyond baseball)

Excuse the rant, but this is a huge pet peeve of mine. Way too many of the guest bloggers I’ve worked with expect to be spoon-fed ideas for what to write about. Journalists would never, ever make this mistake. They know that editors are extremely busy and that it’s their job to make our lives easier (#allaboutme). Seriously though, great journalists aren’t just excellent writers and reporters, they’re masters of the pitch. They know that they have to earn an editor’s trust and attention by consistently delivering amazing content on deadline. Only then might they find plum assignments falling into their laps.

Like my former colleagues in the magazine industry, my team has regular editorial meetings where we brainstorm ideas for the blog and assign them to our stable of writers (though if they’re really good, we keep them for ourselves). However, this only accounts for a fraction of the content we produce. We also rely on both new and established writers to come to us with amazing ideas tailored to our platform and our audience. Unfortunately, many marketers who do pitch us bring ideas to the table that make sense for their business and their audience.

Great journalists know how to calibrate their pitch to suit the editorial voice and mission of the publication they’re pitching. You wouldn’t pitch the same article for BuzzFeed (“13 Most Epic Ways to Up Your Grilled Cheese Game”) as you would for The New Yorker (“Annals of Gastronomy: Grilled Cheese, Goethe and the Making of Modern Europe”).
A great pitch demonstrates that you understand what our blog is about and what our audience is looking for. Here’s a real example of a pitch that went into the instant reject pile:

Hi Dan, how are you doing?

I am sending a new Article viz title “Implementing the Right Mix of Customary and Unconventional Content Marketing Ways.” Please review it and let me know when you will publish it.

First off, our blog is all about conversion marketing. What does this have anything to do with that? Second, our editorial guidelines make it clear that top-notch writing chops are a must. What is an article viz? What are Content Marketing Ways? I’ll let you know when I’ll publish it: Never.

On the other hand, here’s a pitch that caught my attention (and led to a successful post) because it instantly communicated to me that the author understood what we’re looking for and could deliver on it:

Hey Dan,

I have a topic that I think may stir some discussion/debate that I haven’t seen anyone actually address, unless I’m just so off-my-rocker that I need to be put away.

Sound interesting?

Here we go.

Now that’s the kind of opening that makes the journalist and the content marketer in me jump with joy. He hasn’t even gotten to the actual pitch but he’s already embraced the sort of cheeky, comedic writing style that’s a hallmark of our blog.

Here’s how he pitched the topic we settled on:

5 Embarrassing Habits That Keep Your Emails From Being Clicked

We celebrate open rates, because that’s our first touch with a reader, but opens aren’t everything. Previews in email program can make open rates artificially high. Plain-text emails aren’t tracked. Several other issues that makes open rates a less-than-stellar metric. Just because your email is opened doesn’t mean your message has been heard.

A much more solid metric to track is click rate.

So, if you’re getting emails opened, but your click through rates are lower than your current savings account interest rate, your email may be guilty of one of these bad habits.

Check out the article that came out of that sweet, sweet pitch.

Okay, content marketers. I’m done lecturing. The truth is, although my J-school baggage still weighs heavy on my shoulders, I’ve spent the last five years working in the agency and startup worlds. And what I’ve discovered is that marketers have plenty to teach even the most experienced journalists about creating content that truly connects.

1. Transparency is the new something

Journalists are notoriously thin-skinned. We thrive on holding power to account but are often reluctant or unwilling to admit our own screw-ups. This is something my friend and fellow journalist cum content marketer 
Craig Silverman has written about. When the digital recorder is pointed at us, we often resort to the same tactics of obfuscation and deflection that drive us bonkers.

Journalists are also prone to leaning too heavily on anonymous sources (notwithstanding instances where protecting them is critical – and indeed, an obligation and right) and to withholding information to thwart competition, even when collaboration and disclosure would be in the public interest.

Content marketing, on the other hand, is transparent by its very nature. Our cards are all on the table. Putting aside shady forms of “native advertising” where an article’s branded provenance is intentionally buried, our audience is fully aware that our content exists to drive brand exposure and, ultimately, revenue. Making our content relevant and delightful enough that they consume it anyway is our great challenge and opportunity. Journalists have to make sure to separate church and state. Content marketers are tasked with making theocracy awesome.

In the startup world, transparency has become a badge of honour. SaaS companies like BufferGrooveMoz and Unbounce have made a habit of sharing – and creating actionable content out of – their metrics, strategies and even their salaries with the world.

With so many newspapers, magazines and formerly independent blogs being acquired by corporations rife with potential conflicts of interest – and native advertising all the rage in traditional publishing circles – journalists can learn a thing or two about how to transform transparency and disclosure from a burden into an asset.

2. Getting up to code

Journalists have drunk the big data Kool-Aid, with web native “data journalism” sites like Nate Silver’s 
FiveThirtyEight (now part of ESPN) and The Upshot (from The New York Times) leading the way, but many journalists I know remain squeamish about getting their hands dirty with basic HTML or inputting content into a simple CMS like WordPress. I knew a “web editor” for a print magazine who would email the dev team whenever she wanted to change a sentence or fix a link in “the back end” (even her chosen euphemism shows how mysterious and icky it seemed to her). The lines are much greyer between editors, designers, writers and project managers in the marketing world. When you’re a small team it’s “all hands on deck” for every campaign; roles are more fluid and people are less precious about what’s “their department.”

A related problem is that many online editors have never logged in to their website or blog’s Google Analytics account, delegating that responsibility to the folks on “the business side.” That means they often have little idea of who their audience actually is. Sometimes this ignorance is willful and convenient since publications (lifestyle magazines in particular) often create content not for any real audience but an aspirational one that they can sell to the most lucrative advertisers. Which leads me to my final point…

3. Know your audience, or the people formerly known as that

I said up top that this piece is about your audience, not you. But even though journalism is ostensibly a public service, many journalists remain wary of their publics. For decades journalism was a broadcast medium, a one-way conversation. Many journos held out on social media for as long as they could and maintained love-hate relationships with comment threads, partly because they weren’t used to having the people formerly known as the audience (as J-school prof Jay Rosen famously put it) talk back to them.

Content marketers – at least the smart ones – know that it’s all about their audience, that every blog post, ebook, webinar and tweet needs to be aimed a particular segment, persona or phase of the customer lifecycle. Even SEO-driven practices like keyword density – when not abused – stem from an audience-first mentality. Headline writers often make the mistake of sacrificing clarity for cleverness; I used to joke with my fellow magazine editors that we essentially made up puns for a living.
In marketing, clear and concise always trumps cute. We’ve actually proven this at Unbounce! For an email blast promoting a webinar with our cheeky Scottish co-founder Oli Gardner we A/B tested the following two subject lines:

Variation A: [Webinar] Some Call Him the Scottish Chuck Norris of LPO…


Variation B:
[Webinar] The 3 Landing Page Mistakes 98% of Marketers Are Making

Guess which won? Variation B, the clear and descriptive headline, kicked ass with a 3% higher open rate and a 34% higher click-through rate.

Sorry, but your audience probably doesn’t find you as cute as your mother does.

Caveats, conclusions and a personal anecdote

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe the line between editorial and advertorial is sacrosanct. Journalism is journalism, and content marketing is, in the end, just a form of marketing. But I also believe that part of the reason the media industry (like the music, entertainment and book publishing industries before and after it) failed to see the digital disruption coming and adapt accordingly is that they lost sight of whether their content was providing actual value – and not just powering their bottom line. As data-driven marketers, we’re all too aware of our content’s performance. But we do a grave disservice to our audiences when we discard tried-and-true journalistic principles like fairness, accuracy and attribution.

I continue to carry my J-school baggage with pride. But lately my shoulders have been less weighted with guilt about “going to the dark side.” Before leaving my last job, I told my boss about the new opportunity that was beckoning me and admitted that I was conflicted. Was delving deeper into the marketing world and further away from traditional journalism the “right move for my career”? His response, even though it was in his interest to persuade me to stay, was “Screw your career, do what’s best for your craft.” It’s the best advice I’ve ever received, because working in content marketing has made me a better editor, strategist, storyteller and – yes – journalist.

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June 19, 2014  Tags: , , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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