How companies can use top-of-funnel content marketing to build influence and thought leadership.
Many business professionals are wondering: What does brand journalism mean? Should they be doing it? How can they get started? And how will they know if it’s working or not?
We know they’re asking these questions, because many of them are asking us. They’re confused about the difference (is there one?) between brand journalism and content marketing, or even corporate marketing, and not sure whether they’re on the right track. They’re concerned about showing the value of any content investments, but they realize there’s more to tracking success than pure sales numbers.
For professionals steeped in a traditional marketing background, brand journalism can be a tricky thing to wrap your head around. It doesn’t fit so well in an Excel spreadsheet. You need to invest good money in good content, and hope that it will bring you dividends of some form, though you may not be exactly sure what they are.
Brand journalism is a form of content marketing—but more than any other, it’s a type of content where the focus should not be on your product. Essentially, your company builds a set of brand and messaging guidelines that can help shape an editorial calendar, but that should be the end of your role.
For instance, several years ago, we worked with The Atlantic on a series of sponsored content articles for a Fortune 500 financial institution. Not once did we talk to anyone from that company, or use the company’s name within the articles. They simply provided a set of guidelines for the types of businesses to profile, spotlighting key themes that the organization was focused on, such as entrepreneurship and economic innovation. We had full editorial discretion in developing the content, so long as it fit within the scope of the brand guidelines. While the articles were branded with a “sponsored by” message, there was no pitch for the company anywhere in the content, which could have fit just as easily in the editorial section as in a sponsored campaign.
Likewise, AdAge alludes to the importance of the “brand framework” in brand journalism. Writes Larry Light, the brand framework “is the editorial policy that defines the distinctive character of the brand, as well as the boundaries within which the brand stories are created.” Yet, within this structured approach, there is “freedom within the framework.”
Brand journalism is much closer to traditional journalism than it is to ad copywriting, and the same rules apply: In-depth research, a killer hook, thoughtful and careful editing, and alignment with the publication’s overall vision. Articles, videos, image galleries, podcasts, or even live events can all serve as standout representatives of the form. In any case, the goal is to develop compelling, valuable content for your target audience that reinforces your brand’s core values.
Brand journalism is confusing to some marketing teams, because you’re not really marketing at all. If done properly, there’s no product pitch—any affiliation should be as subtle as a company logo, and maybe a newsletter subscription box. It’s not “close-the-deal-today” content.
So why do it? Glad you asked. Here are a few key benefits:
Create positive brand associations
In a recent PR Newswire article, director of online community Maria Perez said, “Consumers want more from companies than just products and services – they want to know companies care about them, about their goals, their dreams, and their lives.” By investing their own resources into creating compelling brand journalism, companies can provide genuine value for their audience, and show that they understand their needs (well beyond their need for the company’s specific products).
Showcase industry expertise
By developing a thought leadership platform around your industry that doesn’t make a point of shilling for your product—and may, in fact, guide your audience to your competitors if they’re the best fit in certain situations—your brand can gain a reputation as a true master of its domain. Look at Lowes as an example: The home improvement center has created hundreds of original video segments and how-to articles on home improvement, renovation, and gardening topics to serve as a valuable resource for its customers and target audience. Your company likewise can gain a reputation for being the top experts in your own industry segment through creating and curating high-quality content that’s relevant to your target consumer.
Grow your audience
Your ideal customer doesn’t want your product shoved down her throat. Instead, she wants to educate herself about the industry and the problems she’s encountering, and, when she’s ready, make her own decision about what to buy. This type of education-based approach helps you nurture top-of-the-funnel leads—they can hover there as long as they want, consuming your valuable industry content. If they like it, they’ll most likely sign up to receive regular email newsletter content from you, which is a much easier sell than signing up for a product demo or making an online purchase. That means, by the time they are ready to think about buying, you’ll be right in their inbox, just a click away.
Today, brands don’t need to sponsor existing media, such as newspapers, magazines, TV and print ads. They have the power to build their own media empires.
For a cost-effective budget, they can develop an online platform filled with compelling content that’s designed to appeal to their target buyers. In contrast to a traditional media buy, where one big spend might give you access to a fraction of your target audience and a lot of irrelevant consumers, you can control and measure the distribution channels for your content, and capture your own subscriber details. Build a media empire based around your customers’ needs and desires, and you’ll often find that your audience makes the journey towards your products without the need to push them.
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