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The role of brand journalism in content marketing

Content creation goes by many names, but one of the most intriguing is a relatively new term called “brand journalism.” The phrase itself is a bit of a head-scratcher to begin with. What would brands be doing in the journalism business? In truth, brands have long been integral to the media as the advertisers who paid the lion’s share of the cost of newsgathering. Now, however, they’re disintermediating the news media just like everyone else and going straight to consumers and B2B prospects with news, information and content. Some of that content is advertising, some of it is marketing materials, and some of it could be classified as “brand journalism.”

At a 2012 SXSW conference panel on the subject, content marketing strategist Erica Swallow offered an excellent definition of the term: “research, storytelling and reporting for a non-media company, in that company’s line of business, with the goal of thought leadership.” The key quality that separates brand journalism from other forms of content creation, in theory, is the absence of a blatantly promotional message.

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The challenge for everyone involved in the creation of brand journalism is managing that thin line between altruism and self-promotion. Creating quality content that your audience finds compelling and memorable simply takes time and resources. But for corporate marketers, it’s hard to justify spending money on the creation of content whose sales message is so faint that the audience can’t tell who paid for it.

How you approach brand journalism depends on who you are and what brand journalism can do for you. Take HSBC, a global investment bank centered around China and Asia but less well known in the English-speaking world. Its Business without Borders is an English-language news web site about international business, clearly sponsored by HSBC but otherwise carrying no blatant promotional message.

The Intel Free Press takes a similar but slightly more promotional approach, highlighting the many aspects of technology powered by Intel chips. Since these products are ubiquitous, Intel can be seen as both an information source and as the sponsor.

Online marketing companies have been quick to adopt brand journalism tactics, as the model may be best suited for this sector. For example, check out The Content Strategist, the blog of Contently, a content marketing platform. It’s almost like a showroom, with articles using all the usual tactics of short-form online journalism (lists, slideshows) to promote content marketing itself.

Another approach is being led by Forbes, the former dead-tree media company that is trying to transform itself into a 21st century enterprise. One of its initiatives is BrandVoice, a platform where brands can post journalistic-style articles that then feed into the mix of content being offered by the overall site. In a sense, it’s the Intel Free Press for companies less integral to the technology platform that we’re all using. Forbes Media Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin has some interesting insights into brand journalism here.

Going back to Erica Swallow’s definition, there’s one thing I would quibble with, and it’s a big one: the notion that brand journalism is done by non-media companies. The other way to look at it was popularized by Silicon Valley Watcher Tom Foremski as EC = MC (Every Company is a Media Company). We simply can’t distinguish between non-media and media companies anymore.

That means brand journalism, in some form, can be a useful tool for any company. Your brand can’t simply be known for pumping out advertising slogans. In today’s world, brands are rewarded when they find seemingly non-promotional ways to engage with their audience, and that’s where brand journalism can play a positive role.

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