Brand Journalism

dreamstime_xs_65257404We spend a lot of time talking about, producing and getting client approval on great content here at AHA. We create a range of pieces – from speeches to newsletters, web content, editorial-style articles, infographics, presentations, video series, photo essays, news releases, media pitches, social media content (including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and more), blog posts… and so much more. And – before we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, turn the camera on, or open PowerPoint, Keynote or iMovie… we identify who the targeted audience/community is and work out where the content will be distributed, shared or shown.

We’ve all heard that content is king, but is it really king if it’s not effectively distributed, shared or shown? You can create the best content in the world, but if you don’t share the content in the right place – the place where the targeted individuals, groups or communities are – then it isn’t effective.

For content to work, it has to be seen, be understood and, in most cases, be shared by the influencers, the engagers and the leaders in the target market. By creating content that authentically speaks to them, that resonates and that attracts, and by making sure that it is seen at the right time and in the right medium or network – you are creating the opportunity to ignite the engagement with your stakeholder groups. This is such an important piece of stakeholder engagement and one that is often overlooked when developing a content strategy. It makes a huge difference in the results that you can generate through branded content.

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dreamstime_xs_51748984Early in my journalism career, I applied for a section editor position at a national magazine where I worked. The section editor was responsible for following trends, fads and news, identifying the types of articles that would be written for the section, pitching them at the weekly story meetings, and assigning and editing articles. I thought it would be a good step forward in my career.

During the interview for the job, the senior editor asked me what I thought was more important – understanding which topics our readers wanted to see or going with what I thought we should write about. To me, it felt like a bit of a trick question. While this role demanded that the editor have a clear understanding of what was going on in the world relevant to the areas that the section covered, understanding what our readers wanted seemed crucial to the success of the section and for the magazine overall. And I said so. The senior editor smiled, made a note, and we moved on to other areas of responsibility.

It turned out that I didn’t get the job. The editor told me that he thought I would be happier working as a writer rather than an editor and he wanted someone who had a bit more experience than I had, at that point. He also said that out of the 20 or more seasoned, talented, experienced journalism professionals he interviewed for this role, I was the only one who said that understanding what our readers were interested in was a priority. All of the others got it wrong – they thought they knew better about what their readers would like. He told me to hold on to that attitude and that it would take me far. And I took that advice seriously.

Here at AHA, we have recently been taking a deep dive into creating engaging content with several of our clients. And before any content creation (written, audio or visual) is undertaken, we take three important steps to ensure that what we produce will be relevant, engaging, useful and timely.

Understand Your Stakeholder Group, Target Market or Community

The first step is to understand who you want to engage – who do you want to inform, connect with, update or start a conversation with? Defining your audience is crucial and fully understanding what they are interested in; what their perspective is; what – if any – their bias is; and sometimes, depending on the subject matter, understanding their hopes, fears and dreams are all important too.

There are many ways to do this and social media provides us with a communication channel that makes it easy to see how people are feeling about ideas, products, trends and organizations. It’s not always easy to embrace the criticism or negative feedback, but it is always valuable.

Research How They Consume Information

You will use different communications vehicles or social networks, depending on the audience you want to speak with. It is important to identify where your stakeholder group, target market or community spends time online. Is their demographic active on Facebook? Is Twitter their medium? Is YouTube their favourite place to learn more? Where do they go to get information, to be entertained, or to join a discussion or conversation? Discovering how they consume information is also about what mediums they prefer – video, podcast, article, short blog post…

There are times, depending on who it is that you want to engage, when you may need to create more than one type of communications piece to share your information or message. It may be a blog post, a photo essay or a video series. If your stakeholder group is diverse, it is important to share information in different formats so that you will reach as many people as possible.

Identify How to Share Your Content in a Way That Best Meets the Needs of Your Stakeholder Group

Once you understand the needs, demands and expectations of your stakeholder group, target market or community, then it is time to put together the information that you want to share in a way that will be most appealing to your target market. This has to be done in an authentic, respectful manner. You can’t just wrap bad news up in a pretty package and hope that no one will notice. In undertaking this important step, it is crucial to put together an information package that a) reflects the culture or habits of the community you are speaking with; and b) is produced in a way that will encourage consumption of the information.

Making sure that you balance what you want to share with the needs of the people you want to engage is key. We still see some organizations pushing out information that their target market doesn’t find interesting or doesn’t care about. There is no value in creating content if it isn’t going to be of interest or appeal to the people in your target market.

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On Tuesday, I saw an announcement that the Toronto Star, the largest daily newspaper in Canada, has laid off 60 people – most from the newsroom/editorial side of the paper. This unexpected mass layoff is devastating news for the individuals involved, for journalism in Canada, and for organizations who use media relations and publicity to raise brand awareness, to tell their story, to humanize their business, and to show how they are a good corporate citizen and member of their community.

Here in the AHA office, we feel terrible for the people who lost their jobs. Not only did I work in the world of journalism for many years, everyone on the AHA team interacts with journalists on a daily basis as a part of our job. These people are our friends and our colleagues and we strongly believe that journalists are a crucial part of a well-functioning society. This is devastating news – and it comes on top of so many layoffs over the past five years. It is clear that something has to change and a journalism 2.0 industry needs to be created – because the old business approach isn’t working.

There are times when I feel like I am a broken record about this topic. With newsrooms and opportunities for media coverage shrinking at a drastic rate, organizations need to step up and tell their own stories through blogs, social media and brand journalism. The opportunity for proactive, positive media coverage is so small these days and many of the best media outlets for this kind of coverage have shifted to a more sponsored-content approach. Here, you pay as a “sponsor” or “partner” to be on their show or included in a promotional article. We used to call them advertorials – now they just appear as editorial coverage, even though they are not produced with the same journalistic integrity as would happen if there wasn’t money involved.

Creating a great website – an online destination for your stakeholders, your customers, clients or other interested parties to learn more about your organization, your culture, your products or services – is an important component of your marketing communications outreach. And having the articles, the videos, the social media content and the blogs produced by professionals is key. Well-written and professionally produced content will engage the people who visit your site, it will entertain and inform, it will help to build a relationship between you and that person, and it will move them to action.

Profiles of the people who come to work at your organization every day, videos of your community’s participation and support, Q&A sessions with your senior team… there are so many opportunities to engage and create positive relationships, to build trust with your customers or clients, and to showcase who you are as a human being, as a good corporate citizen, and as a member of the community. Now you can reach out and ask for feedback and input. You can join conversations and discussions relevant to your industry and your organization and learn what your stakeholders like or don’t like about what you are doing. (And believe me, you can learn a lot about opportunities from actually listening to what people don’t like.)

I have faith that journalism will find its place in this 24/7 wired world, but it won’t be for a few years – maybe even a decade or so. Until then, you had better start telling your own story.

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Question mark imageWhat’s the purpose? That’s a question that we often ask when working with clients to plan proactive, positive PR campaigns, in delivering issues or crisis communication, and in creating any type of content – articles, online, web or social media copy, video, news releases, speeches, presentations, media pitches, brochures, ads and so much more. And it’s one we ask clients over and over again because it’s easy to get sidetracked with what you can do – and the reason for doing it can take a backseat.

The challenge that we, as communicators, face in today’s world is that we have so much opportunity to connect. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of channels and mediums compared to the limited few that existed back in the pre-social media days. There is always going to be a shiny new social media network or channel being promoted, a website being refreshed, or an idea to run a contest in order to build followers, fans or supporters. But before any of these ideas pass beyond the brainstorming session, it’s crucial to ask the question: What’s the purpose?

Clearly defining what you want to achieve is the first step. It allows you to better understand exactly who you want to engage or build a relationship with, identify the channel and/or medium that will work best to reach your stakeholders or target audience, develop effective messaging and positioning, and to set your objectives and campaign goals so that you can measure your success or ascertain what you need to shift or revise, if you aren’t hitting your targets.

Here at AHA, for example, our main purpose in creating content for this blog is to showcase our knowledge, expertise and experience in the areas of strategic communications, such as proactive PR, issues and crisis communication, content creation, speechwriting, brand journalism, social media, media relations, event management, etc. Our secondary purpose is for search engine optimization so that someone searching online for our expertise can find us. When we are writing the blog posts or producing Fast Take Friday video blogs, we always keep our purpose in mind. Our clients tend to come to us through referral, finding us via an online search, or they see us on social media – and want to know more about us. Our website and this blog give them the information they need to drive them to action – to pick up the phone and call us to discuss their needs and find out whether we might be a good fit.

For example, we work with several clients that produce consumer goods. When working with them on publicity, events, social media engagement and content creation, our focus is on engaging potential customers to purchase their products. We use storytelling, brand journalism and great writing and editing to engage potential customers with a call to action to purchase.

Another example of this is when an organization engages directly with potential customers using tools like Facebook contests. They can promote their products in a manner that brings more people to like their Facebook page, they get to provide information about their products in the context of the contest, they help to raise awareness of those products and their company, and it helps them to build relationships with their target market. Contests work for them. But they don’t work for everyone. If we, at AHA, ran a contest – we might get new likes for our Facebook page, but how many of those likes would ever turn into a new client? Not many… The people who may decide to hire us aren’t going to choose us because they might win something. They want an agency that is experienced, skilled and smart. Creating content for this blog helps to showcase this to potential clients.

Asking, “What’s the purpose?” is a big question that can help you to become more effective in your communications efforts. It’s an easy-to-use and important question that should be asked daily.

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