LinkedIn is my new favorite social network, not least because amid the stories about precocious children, there are some interesting insights to be found. One notable one I stumbled on recently was written by John Bonini, director of marketing at Databox. In it, he laid out what he thinks people don’t need to uplevel their content – and what they do. The post is worth reading in its entirety, but John points out that among the things brands need to have for successful content creation are:
- Clear editorial themes
- Processes/frameworks for developing unique angles
- Better distribution (distribute insights, not links)
- More collaboration (partners, customers, etc. –– tell your story through others)
- More reporters, fewer columnists (more research into your space, less single POV content)
Focusing on quantity can often lead brand publishers down strange paths, and make them likelier to produce thin-value clickbait than truly engaging content. It’s particularly important for publishers to have narrowly defined audiences that are directly engaged by content.
Having processes and frameworks for unique angles, and being able to distribute various content formats through unique distribution channels is also important. Some of this may be obvious, but in speaking to many of our clients and content leaders at top brands, it’s clear that people are still struggling with ensuring that brand publishing isn’t run with the same old marketing or campaign playbook they’ve gotten used to. Namely, brand publishing isn’t a one-and-done project that yields immediate results. And doing more of it, or writing longer stories, or more of them, is unlikely to deliver more ROI.
But I’d argue that the thing most brands overlook, and perhaps should actually begin with before they get into creating processes and distribution frameworks is ensuring they have reporters as part of their content team, not just opinion writers.
Having reporters as part of a brand publishing team can often lead to better outcomes than just opinion writers, leading to a wider variety of stories that are often much more engaging to read and much more valuable. These reporters may also be called on to do some ghostwriting or help in crafting thought leadership, but their main responsibility is to use research, sourcing and interviewing to find, pitch and write original articles.
It can also mean a valuable way to differentiate. One of the byproducts of the hyperfragmented nature of media right now has been the rise of individual opinion, often at the expense of reportage. Opinion can be extremely useful, but there is arguably too much of it. And when it’s done badly, such as by a person who doesn’t have the necessary experience or expertise to have an opinion worth reading, it can be detrimental. By including reported content as a key brand publishing offering, brands can stand out from their competition, and also in general, among a sea of Substacks.
Columnists inside brands usually create, whether ghostwritten or written by them, point-of-view articles or stories. These pieces generally advance a point of view and just include the author’s opinion. In marketing terms, this is often called “thought leadership,” a way to demonstrate expertise in a specific area.
Reporters, by contrast:
Find angles. Columnists or opinion writers generally will approach a topic with a clear angle already in mind. For brands, this can seem, on the surface, helpful. An executive who pens a column with a clear point of view is probably going to be helpful since they can parrot a brand’s own view of the world. But this can lead to one-note publications that strongly showcase a bias. That bias, especially when it’s worn so obviously, can turn off audiences. It’s important to remember that audiences are now intelligent enough to understand when they’re reading brand-funded content. They know this isn’t journalism. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t expect the content to also be engaging and valuable. Reporters are able to tease out the right angles to stories – the lens through which stories are told – which can help make them much more interesting to read.
Interview people. In order to build the best possible story, reporters use interviews to gather information. At brands, reporters can interview internal experts – executives, researchers, analysts – or external stakeholders, such as clients or even customers. Interviews are designed to encourage sources to talk freely, and enable reporters to ask questions to craft the most-well rounded story possible. For brands, interviews can be a good way to showcase expertise and can also lead to more engaging pieces than one-source opinion pieces.
Find supporting information and do research. In order to build a story, reporters have to do research. That research can take the form of original interviews, but also includes finding supporting material. That can include data, case studies, memos, older articles, and so on. Brands often have a plethora of supporting information that can help build stories for publications. For example, one brand we were advising wanted to write “mechanics” pieces that showcased the work it does for clients. As supporting material, the company had case studies that account executives had created, as well as Powerpoint presentations and memos that included tons of data. The brand publishing team was able to dig all of this up to create a compelling, well-rounded story. If the company had simply asked one of its executives to write an opinion piece, it may have included some of the information, but wouldn’t have felt well-rounded, leading to a less engaging and valuable piece overall.
Have beats. If a brand publishing team is large enough, it can be worthwhile to divide it up into beats, and give reporters parts of it to own. One mistake we often notice is where everyone is covering a little bit of everything. In larger organizations, where there are a multitude of topics to cover, this can lead to overcoverage in certain areas – and worse, completely ignoring certain areas. Reporters generally have beats that they own, so they can, over time, understand the subject matter and identify trends and partners.
Have rigorous editorial processes. We often talk about editorial rigor with the brands we work with on strategizing on the grown of their publications. Editorial rigor can be a difficult thing to implement inside brands who are new to creating content. But having reporters as part of a brand publishing team necessitates putting in place processes that ensure fact-checking, analysis and editing (for content, style and grammar).
While thought leaders can be one facet of what a brand publishing operation does, in order to be successful, brands must do the tough work of creating reporter roles and hiring the right people to fill them, then set up processes that can ensure success.