BRANDING

If You Aren't Telling Stories, You Aren't Getting Through

Why the savviest brand marketers are thinking more and more like journalists.
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For years, social media-obsessed companies have manically sprayed the digital space with short bursts of information. But Tweets and Facebook posts--no matter how copious--can’t do a brand justice. In his upcoming book, Your Brand: The Next Media Company, Michael Brito, urges marketers to create full-fledged editorial teams and processes ranging from story schedules to style manuals. To interest and influence customers, companies must adapt the mentality of journalists, says Brito, group director of content and engagement at global marketing firm W20. And they can hire actual journalists to help them.

Brito spoke recently with Inc. editor-at-large (and actual journalist) Leigh Buchanan.

In the 1990s when the Internet was first being commercialized, the phrase “content is king” quickly became cliché. What is new here?

It’s very easy to say content is king. But if you look at it from a business perspective or a brand standpoint, it’s very difficult to create content. Study after study show that it can take anywhere from three to six months to create a video. The way I look at content is, before you even look at what you want to say as a brand person, you have to have a substantial amount of infrastructure. The business itself must evolve into a content organization. Businesses struggle with content marketing because they are not aligned internally. They don’t have the right financial investments. They don’t have the right team structures.

What are the characteristics of a media company that traditional marketing functions should adopt?

First, media companies are storytellers. If you look at Conde Nast or Gannett, there are different narratives depending on which publication you are talking about, from travel to weddings to golf. For news outlets, the narrative is whatever is happening in the world. Second, media companies are content engines. The last data point I saw, the New York Times publishes 2,500 articles a day, and 400 or 500 blog posts. That’s 3,000 pieces of long-form content. AP is around twice that. Third, media companies produce content that is relevant. The problem from a consumer standpoint is what is relevant today might not be relevant tomorrow. So content has to be recent. It may even be real time. Fourth, media companies’ content is ubiquitous: it can be found in many channels. Finally, media companies are agile. They move very quickly because they have a content supply chain. So between ideation to the time that content is distributed, there is a streamlined process involving editors and writers and designers and maybe video producers. That’s tough for brands because they require approvals. Sometimes they even need legal to approve stuff. 

Media companies aren’t, for the most part, self-reflective. They don’t create media about themselves. And news companies are supposed to be objective. How does a marketing model square with that?

It’s a problem. But brands that only create content about themselves don’t see a lot of engagement. If I post a press release on Facebook, it is going to go nowhere. A portion of the content does have to be about the brand and its products, or what’s the point? But content can also be about what’s important to your customers. Red Bull is the poster child for this. They don’t talk about their energy drink. They talk about really awesome things, like snowboarding and jumping from space. That is their narrative. But they are the exception to the rule. If you are a computer manufacturer you need to find other angles that drive relevance with your consumers.

You advise building editorial teams within the business. How does that work?

These teams used to be committees. You would have people working in their actual functions, and they’d meet once a month. It’s no longer a committee. It is now a full, centralized organization with a variety of roles and responsibilities: digital marketing, PR, customer support, IT. They may report to marketing or to corporate communications-;or they could even be a standalone organization. They create content strategy and they invest in some kind of content workflow management system to facilitate the content supply chain. And they are driving a lot of the editorial, whether that means training employees to be brand journalists or finding influencers to write content on behalf of the brand.

How is the content actually created?

The processes change all the time. It’s different for planned content versus unplanned content. The time frame for creating planned content should be 24 hours to three or four days. With unplanned content or, in some cases, real-time content, that should take less than an hour. Companies can’t just wait for something to happen. You create a central editorial team and you empower and train employees to serve as content contributors. Then you build the processes and the workflows using technology so that you can feed that content engine every single day.

You mentioned “brand journalists.” What’s that?

Every year, Edelman does a trust barometer that measures the level of trust people have in media, in industries, in certain verticals. One thing we find every year is that when people are seeking information about products, services or companies, they find employees of a company--people like themselves--and subject matter experts to be highly credible. CEOs are pretty much on the bottom of that list. And they don’t want the PR person putting our press releases. The product manager, the data center engineer--those people are trusted. So brand journalists are employees who are telling stories about the products; they’re telling stories about employees; they’re telling stories about customers. And these are not just Tweets. It’s long-form content. 

So everybody in the organization could potentially be a brand journalist?

You don’t want to just open the floodgates or quality suffers. Start by identifying ten people who have superior writing skills and are smart about what they do. Then build best practices, build that workflow, and then slowly open it up to everybody. If people want to do Twitter that’s fine. But if you’re talking about long-form pieces or video you have to have the quality.

What role do real journalists play?

Companies are spending a lot of money on this. And they are hiring ex-journalists to train people to do it. When I was at Intel we hired an ex-journalist. His job was to go through the organization and interview these really, really smart people and write stories about them and publish them on the Intel newsroom site. What happened was someone from the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or TechCrunch would come to Intel and say, “We want to talk to this guy. This person you talked to who invented the USB port.” We got a lot of inbound media requesting to talk to employees. Sometimes it starts out with the journalist interviewing this really smart engineer. And then when the engineer gets recognition out of it he wants to start writing stories.

What other companies have hired ex-journalists for this?

Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for example. Even some smaller B-to-B companies are hiring ex-journalists to be that kind of editorial lens, so employees can be trained how to write stories. It really raises the level. A few years ago it was, ”Let’s get employees to Tweet all about us!” Or, “Let’s get our employees to re-Tweet us or share our content on their pages!” That’s good, but it doesn’t have an impact. What has an impact is enabling employees to tell awesome stories.

Do professional journalists or even ex-journalists have trouble thinking like brand advocates?

It’s tough. Because journalism is not marketing. Journalists are trained to be objective. So the hard part is finding a good journalist who understands marketing. One of our clients is looking for an editorial director. They’ve gone through rounds and rounds of interviews with ex-journalists and writers trying to find the right fit. It’s a marketing function: it’s not the norm of how a journalist would look at content. But I think kids coming out of journalism school today may be more equipped to take on roles like this.

Someone from Gannett was telling me that she found my book ironic. She said, “We are a media company and we are trying to be more like marketers. We have journalists who write really good content. But they start a conversation and they never come back to it. They don’t Tweet, or when someone leaves a comment they don’t respond to it. From our brand perspective we tell journalists you need to respond to comments. You need to re-Tweet this.” Also, we are seeing the rise of journalists who are building their own personal brands. The CTO of Cisco has two-plus million followers. She’s very influential. She writes really good content. She’s the model that media companies I talk to want to replicate. How do we drive people back to our content? How do we get our journalists to build brands so they can have influence and drive people back to our content?

This sounds like a fairly expensive proposition. How do younger or smaller companies take advantage of it?

Smaller businesses are more nimble, which actually makes it easier to do some of these things. You may not have the quantity but you can have the quality. There is a company here in the Bay Area called Visage Mobile. They have maybe 60 employees. They use an agency to do all their social content. But they also have two or three employees who have been identified as savvy in the social space. They aren’t paid extra. But they raised their hands and said, “I’m an engineer.” Or, “I’m a sales guy. And I love the brand.” And they are happy to spend an hour or two a week writing content. So it’s not expensive to operationalize.

You can also hire a small agency. Or you can use a platform like Contently or Ebyline or Skyword. I think Mashable uses Contently to manage their contributors. It manages workflow and has version control and all this great stuff. They also have a network of freelance writers and influencers. As a brand, you write a brief and say, “I want an article written about this topic.” It’s a marketplace that connects brands with writers. So a smaller brand that doesn’t have an agency or a group of employees who are willing to write can pay people to create quality content.

If companies do all this, then do they still need traditional advertising? 

Absolutely. Consumers need to see, hear, or interact with your content three to five times before they believe it. 

Last updated: Oct 7, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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