Marketers, keep your hands off of your company’s brand journalism

The surest way to kill your company’s brand journalism efforts is to let the marketing department interfere.


Call it what you will: content marketing, content strategy, brand journalism, braided journalism, or just thinking like a publisher. Just don’t call it marketing.

I’ve been making this point—one I thought was fairly benign and obvious—to clients and at conferences and workshops where I speak. But when a participant in my workshop in Sydney last week tweeted the sentiment, it drew a rebuke that said telling marketing departments to stand back from content strategies is a harsh requirement.

Marketing is what companies do to promote and sell products or services. Organizations produce plenty of it. Brand journalism, though, is different. This is content that could be inspiring, clarifying, funny, useful, or just plain interesting. Because it has these characteristics, people will want to link to it, share it, and talk about it precisely because it’s not trying to pitch something.

As soon as it begins to smack of The Pitch, it loses its appeal.

The whole idea behind undertaking a content strategy is simple: If people aren’t talking about your company (or product or service), you don’t exist. You need content that will get people talking. Three conditions are compelling companies to create this ever-increasing stream of non-marketing content:

• The declining number of stories news organizations are producing that used to cover your company, industry, and marketplace;
• The increased amount of content available in general (the content published to the web in 2011 alone, burned to DVDs, and stacked one atop another, would reach halfway to Mars);
• The increased production of compelling content by your competitors.

The companies that get this—and there is an ever-growing number of them—have taken to hiring content strategists and journalists to execute the strategy.

At Intel, three full-time journalists produce the content. At Cisco Systems, the content comes from a host of freelance journalists, coordinated by social media staff, many of whom come from journalism backgrounds. Dell has brought outside journalists in who are pitched by brand managers, but the journalists make the ultimate decision about the topics they’ll address.

This kind of content is, at its core, interesting. What makes it interesting is the degree to which it is useful, entertaining, funny, inspiring, motivating, sometimes even infuriating. But it loses all that as soon as it’s clear that it’s designed to sell.

Look at Best Buy On, where videos address tablet security, but not the latest cool tablet you can buy from Best Buy. Or consider a Cisco Network story on cloud computing in education. The story cites a Cisco program, just as a feature story from a newspaper might, but never argues that schools should buy their networking equipment from Cisco.

In a podcast interview I conducted with the editor of one of these sites, keeping company marketers from interfering with the content was cited as a major issue.

I’m not anti-marketing. The content produced as part of a company’s brand journalism effort certainly needs to support key marketing strategies. It would do little good for Intel to gain visibility and get people buzzing about content focused on shoes. But for marketers to insist on control over brand journalism just doesn’t make sense. In fact, smart marketers will want to keep their fingers out of this content, focusing instead on strategizing the kind of visibility brand journalism should attract, then leaving the brand journalists to do their jobs.

After all, if the material pushed gets people talking and sharing, it’ll drive traffic to the places where marketers have placed their material, ultimately driving the kinds of results for which they’re held accountable.

Marketing-hands-off of brand journalism is a sound policy marketers ought to embrace.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. He blogs at a shel of my former self, where a version of this story originally appeared.

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