5 Lessons from 5 Years on the Brand Journalism Front Lines

We may no longer be in the figurative “Day One” of the content marketing boom, but it’s still the Wild West out there in terms of tactics, ethics and the all-important return on investment. That’s why it’s essential to pick up a few nuggets of wisdom along the way. Here are a few of the ones learned at Advanced Content over the past five years, applicable whether you are evaluating your brand’s content marketing position or if it’s a brand new idea to you.

1. Create great content, and readers won’t mind that it came from a brand.

Serve the readers first, and you’ll serve the brand best. That seems simplistic, which begs the question: Why don’t more brands follow that advice? Create stories in which customers can see themselves. Publish content that solves their problems or makes their lives better today. In a world where “Like if…” Facebook posts, native advertising and spam-y sales offers pass for content, real stories will stand out, to readers and critics alike.

2. Credibility is king.

Media effects specialists have studied credibility as a concept for decades, and learned that marketers, particularly in the execution of traditional advertising, start with a credibility gap. That gap is the biggest potential blind spot in brand journalism. Closing the gap involves a tightrope walk of solid journalism, careful sourcing (avoid using brand ambassadors simply as testimonial props), narrative-focused design principles and targeted circulation. In other words, it’s hard. But the results can be stunningly effective in key ROI metrics like lead generation/nurturing, brand awareness and involvement, and the all-important credibility, as long as you…

3. Clearly and honestly connect your content to your brand.

Some content marketers believe adopting the appearance of editorial content closes the credibility gap somewhat, but the pushback over native advertising says otherwise. There is an inherent loss of credibility when content apes editorial look-and-feel but lacks editorial values—most specifically the value of being clearly sourced. If the goal of brand journalism is to bring value to the brand, then it makes little sense to hide the source of the content from the consumer. Don’t be deceptive; your customers and prospects will thank you for it, and transfer trust to your brand when the content is solid and serviceable.

4. Print isn’t dead.

There is still something real about print, beyond the obvious tactility. After reviewing years of readership studies from the magazines we produce and comparing them to industry standards for digital engagement, I’ve come to believe that customers find premium value in a well-executed print piece. Is it because digital is an inexpensive platform with a low barrier to entry? Is it because there’s so much noise on said platform? Maybe a little of both. Find me someone who spends an hour with one Facebook page, blog, email newsletter, etc. … that’s something that commonly happens, though, with a solid magazine.

5. Journalists have a new field for great work.

“Don’t let pretentiousness get in the way of making a living.” —Chris O’Dowd, Actor

Besides the requisite career worries that accompany a major change in work, I also pondered the “sell-out” factor when I jumped full-time into brand journalism. I was now using skills and talents honed over 15 years in both digital and print media for single sponsors with a marketing goal in mind. In spite of that, or perhaps even because of it (given the focus and discipline it requires), the last five years have been the most creatively rewarding and professionally satisfying of my career. My colleagues and I create journalism that stands up with the best in the field, under the auspices of clients that trust us to do so (also trusting that great stories will endear them to their stakeholders). Ultimately, that’s where success happens: great work for great brands.

About me: Five years ago, I made a big and very personal bet on content marketing. Having worked for the largest media company in the world, and after that the largest magazine in its niche, I joined some friends in a new business venture aimed squarely at the emerging market for brand journalism. Even my “side work”—a foray into academia via graduate school—had a content marketing flavor. My thesis was called “Audience Reactions to Brand Journalism,” and was eventually published in the field’s top journal. More about my background here.