Dispelling the Darkness with Brand Journalism

Guest post by Kyle Monson, a former technology journalist and editor at PC Magazine, is Content Strategy Director at JWT. Follow him on Twitter @kmonson

You probably already know this, but we marketers are the bad guys in the battle of good versus evil. One commonly employed metaphor—“The Dark Side”—is particularly apt: we hunt down Jedi masters and destroy Alderaan. The top guys in marketing might refer to themselves as ninjas, but siths is a better descriptor, depending on whom you talk to.

I hear the moniker all the time; after seven years as a journalist and editor, I defected a couple years ago and took a job at JWT. I’m constantly asked by friends and coworkers “How do you like working on The Dark Side?”

My answer: I haven’t blown up any planets lately, but my work is quite fulfilling, thank you.
JWT brought me on to lead its Brand Journalism practice, working with global clients and the agency itself to adopt the best practices of publishers. At its most basic level, Brand Journalism involves honest brand storytelling that invites the audience to participate.

Brand Journalism as a term has been accused of being typical Dark Side dissembling, but at its best, it can be a powerful combination of honesty, narrative, and audience participation. We tend to target the most intelligent and most savvy audience members—the influencers. These people are not easily fooled, they hate crappy content, and they tune out traditional advertising. It’s tough to reach them, but brands can do so by being real, addressing their information needs, and maintaining relevance in a real-time world.

In other words, we need to act like journalists.

Like journalists, we can create compelling content under extremely tight deadlines, and engage with communities in meaningful ways. Good and fast—that’s what we’re striving for with Brand Journalism. The marketing industry isn’t exactly known for creating good content quickly, but we’re working in a real-time world, and clients and agencies are realizing that they’re struggling to keep up. Brand Journalism can be a tool that helps them optimize for speed.

The marketing industry also isn’t known for its honesty and transparency—it’s The Dark Side, right? When I tell my journalist friends that I’m working to help global brands communicate more openly, they react with skepticism. An advertiser that acts like a journalist could be a mole, trying to trick an unsuspecting audience into consuming and believing whatever crap a brand wants to spew.

I look at it as quite the opposite: I’m a mole, but for the other side. And I’m not alone—JWT has a team of editors and strategists with journalism and publishing backgrounds. Other agencies and campaigns are hiring journalists as well. Together, we infiltrate big companies and convince them that it’s possible to work quickly and openly.

In my Brand Journalism work with Microsoft, we built what is essentially a news organization. Our audience of savvy IT leaders wasn’t interested in hearing from marketers and executives, so we tapped engineers, product managers, and even independent journalists to produce content. After our first year, our top five bloggers were averaging more than 19,000 views per post. By the second year, our best articles were being shared hundreds of times across several social networks.

We did it through speed, human interaction, and relevance. We published same-day responses to hot news stories, supported by ads that we could traffic with a 6-hour turnaround time. We interacted with our audience on Twitter and in blog comments, and we partnered with some of the biggest tech publications and tech journalists. Furthermore, we were always transparent about our relationships with those partners.

I doubt this level of speed and transparency will be a big deal five or 10 years from now; the industry knows it needs to move in this direction. But until it does, a company’s ability to speak honestly and quickly to its customers, fans, and detractors is a huge competitive advantage.

There’s a lot more to Brand Journalism than speed, relevance, and transparency—perhaps in a future post I’ll delve into how we incorporate balance theory and cognitive disequilibrium—but in the meantime think of Brand Journalism as a way of enabling brands and audiences to shine a light on themselves.
In other words, we’re trying to make The Dark Side a bit less dark.

This is part of a series on brand journalism as told by the brands that are paving the way. Please send me a note if you would like to tell your company’s story on its move to what Tom Foremski dubbed EC=MC, Every Company is a Media Company.

Image Credit: JWT

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is principal at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology. A digital analyst, anthropologist, and futurist, Solis has studied and influenced the effects of emerging technology on business, marketing, and culture. Solis is also globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders and published authors in new media. His new book, What's the Future of Business (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold and flourish in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. Prior to End of Business, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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