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

Posted on August 22, 2011 4:11 pm by | Brands | Marketing | Media | Social Media

Hands OffCall it what you will: content marketing, content strategy, brand journalism, braided journalism or just thinking like a publisher. Whatever you call it, 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 got a rebuke, arguing that marketing departments need to stand back from content strategies was a harsh requirement.

Marketing is what companies do to promote and sell products or services. Organizatons 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, 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, coordinating 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, mind you. 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.



  • 1.Thanks for the great post. I will re-post this (read: cannibalize) ands give you due create and link.

    That said, I have to take slight exception; I don't think we want everyone to be the voice of the brand. Each culture has sales, operations, purchasing and accounting types; I think sales should have the voice.

    Tom Murdoch | August 2011

  • 2.Tom, thanks for your comment, which leads me to the conclusion that I need to write a post explaining the idea of brand journalism and content strategy as I see it. I'm in an airport with a flight boarding in 15 minutes, so now's not the time, but while you wait, you might want to take a look at the resource I'm curating on the topic:

    I will say that sales should convey the brand voice to achieve their objectives, just as everybody else in the organization should. But brand management NEVER resides in sales; it's in marketing, and for good reason. Of course, not every marketing department is good at its job, but as a generalization, let salespeople sell and let marketing create messaging and voice.

    More to come...

    Shel Holtz | August 2011

  • 3.I don't know, this silo-approach sounds pretty old to me. Aren't we embracing the age of marketing communications (marcomm)? There's no reason why the two groups can't get together and discuss hot topics and trade ideas. Marketing should be informed by these communications. These communications should be aware of what else is coming down the pipeline so they can properly connect the dots.

    The hands-off stuff sounds political and un-coordinated. While it might be a solution to a problem with content control, perhaps that problem is a symptom of something larger.

    Davin Greenwell | August 2011

  • 4.Appreciate the comment, Davin. We don't disagree. In fact, in the post, I note that " content produced as part of a company’s brand journalism effort certainly needs to support key marketing strategies." I don't know how you'd do that if the groups didn't talk. I once assembled and managed a weekly meeting of everybody doing any kind of communication at a pharma where I worked -- internal comms, public affairs, government relations, advertising, everybody. The goal was to see where there were opportunities to work together, share information and ensure consistency. But in this context, when the brand journalists pick their stories and write them, marketing shouldn't be able to edit them in order to convert them from journalism into pitches.

    It's the same approach I'd take to internal communications and HR. While employees certainly need HR news and information (heaven forbid they miss a benefits enrollment deadline), HR should never drive internal communications, which is less about comp and benefits and more about alignment of employees with organizational goals.

    Silos sometimes get a bad rap. Without them, grain would spill all over the place and different kinds of grain would get mixed up. In organizations, silos ensure resources are committed to specific objectives and that teams are able to execute quickly. The idea of tearing down silos is silly. It makes far more sense to punch a bunch of holes in them so information and ideas can flow freely between them -- while still allowing teams to get the resources they require to do their jobs.

    Shel Holtz | August 2011 | Miami, FL

  • 5.Brand journalism is still marketing (put it this way, without the need to promote something it wouldn't exist) but it's a subtle, soft sell form of marketing.

    Pat | August 2011

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