“Brand journalism” is a popular phrase. Yet, what it actually means to consumers, marketers, journalists, and business owners alike is still evolving.
The term is defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is … so let’s start there.
Brand journalism is not:
Traditional journalism — It seems obvious that writing for a brand is inherently different than traditional journalism, which has the dictum to chase and deliver impartial news stories.
Impartiality is, of course, a matter of perspective. What traditional journalists truly function without the boundaries of editorial preference, political sway, and advertiser demands?
Brand journalism should be transparent in its associations but this does not exclude it from finding and reporting on news important to the brand’s audience.
PR — Brand journalism can certainly contribute to a company’s public relations strategy in a positive way. However, brand journalism does not equal or replace public relations. The practice of public relations centers on building and maintaining relationships, often with the media (i.e., media relations). It requires a whole host of different strategies and media implementation. With public relations, you may be relying on others to help tell your story.
Content marketing — “Brand journalism” frequently is used interchangeably with the term “content marketing.” On the surface this seems reasonable, but upon closer inspection this is close, but no cigar. Content marketing refers to the development and promotion of content to educate, entertain, or inform your audiences. I believe excellent content marketing GIVES (short for great content, influence, value, and economy). Brand journalism may support an overall content marketing strategy but serves a very specific function within it: finding and reporting stories.
Content strategy — Take these two observations as examples. The first: “It’s de rigueur,” writes Jayson DeMers in Forbes, “If you have a blog, an e-newsletter, or a membership site, you’ve got a content strategy. And as a result, you’re an acting brand journalist.”
The second: “Brand journalists are content strategists, focused solely on curating volumes of effective, quality content on multiple platforms to boost everything from brand awareness to social media identity to SEO campaigns,” summarizes Marie Alonso of Miles Technologies.
Yes, brand journalists are frequently responsible for all these crucial duties. However, like the phrase “content marketing,” the phrase “brand journalism” should not be used as shorthand for the broader complexity of a brand’s content strategy. Strategy is one thing; brand journalism is one application within it.
These distinctions aside, let’s look at what brand journalism is:
Brand journalism is collaborative.
Brand journalism allows a company and its customers to work together to shape a brand’s identity. This narrative is built by an ongoing collaboration that evolves over time. Consumers expect their voices to be heard. Their feedback shapes future content development. Companies benefit, too. They gain invaluable insight into their greatest supporters. This discovery often leads to the development of new products and services to address the needs of their core supporters.
Brand journalism contributes rather than coerces.
Brand journalism is the softest of sales methodologies simply because it isn’t selling. Making a sale isn’t even part of the brand journalism equation. Selling has changed dramatically in a world where most Americans don’t trust their neighbors, let alone the next sales pitch.
Instead, brand journalism strives to bring relevant stories to a specific audience. This builds authority and trust. Ultimately it is the prospect who determines how and where she spends her money. Brand journalism contributes to this decision-making process but never coerces.
Brand journalism Is transparent and creative.
“Brand Journalism strikes a different tone,” writes Ike Piggott. “It’s not one of empty marketing claims, and should not be considered one-size-fits-all. This requires a level of creativity that we typically avoided in the past, because it’s not easy to do consistently well.” (emphasis added)
The challenge of being simultaneously transparent in association while also creative to the point of engagement is what makes entering brand journalism intimidating for some companies. Custom content has a long and enduring history as a marketing technique. For a long time it relied heavily on “blending in,” hoping to pass as journalistic news.
Today’s consumer is savvy enough to discern the difference between outright sales pitches and so-called “independent” news. Brand journalism doesn’t try to blend in as an advertorial, nor does it present itself as wholly independent. Rather, it aims to stand out by virtue of its stand-alone content. When executed properly, brand journalism is clear in its connection to a business, yet still provides journalistic value to a specific audience.
The evolution of journalism continues at a rapid pace. As more people expect highly personalized content — including news — it will be interesting to watch as brands adjust. For many companies brand journalism will be the way to reach people that provides value to both parties.
Katie McCaskey is SixEstate's content director. She tests real-world application of content marketing techniques using the cafe she co-owns as a laboratory. She was Tech Editor of Chief Content Officer, 2010-2011, and contributes to the Content Marketing Institute. Connect with her on Google+ or @KatieMcCaskey.