David Kirkpatrick

Content Marketing: Should you lure a journalist over to the “dark side?”

As a longtime writer of both journalism and corporate communications, the idea of brand journalism is very interesting to me. I’ve worn both hats — media and marketing — and sometimes both at the same time. The two are very different, and require somewhat different skill sets and definitely different approaches. (Side note: I also sometimes do fiction, so in a way I’ve hit the content trifecta.)

Defining “brand journalism”

The idea is for companies to hire actual J-school trained journalists and give them free-reign to cover stories that involve topics of interest to the company’s customers and the general space of the business, but not exert any control over the story creation process, and certainly to not require — or even ask — the brand journalist to cover the company’s “story.” The brand journalist is to act as, well, a journalist.

Of course many veterans of copy desks, editorial rooms, city beats and magazine mastheads think of marketing as the “dark side,” and see going to work for a company as joining forces with Darth Vader, the Emperor, and the rest of the gang at the Death Star.

On the other hand, many journalists are in search of work in this tough media economy so there’s a lot of talented people out there to wheezily reach out to with an offer of doing real journalism, just doing it in a different setting.

Last week I had the chance to speak with one company that has taken the plunge into making brand journalism part of its marketing efforts.

Brand journalism in the real world

Nils Johnson is a co-founder of Beautylish, an online destination for trends and products in the beauty market. Nils just hired Ning Chao, former senior beauty editor at Marie Claire and InStyle, as the resident brand journalist for Beautylish.

From a marketing standpoint why did you decide to hire a brand journalist?

Nils Johnson: As a trusted expert in beauty, Ning [Chao] brings tremendous industry credibility to Beautylish which helps establish trust with brands and members. She also brings a strong editorial point of view to Beautylish. Having her provide expert insight to our users is integral in engaging our users in a long-term, meaningful way.

Will you exert any editorial control — either in assigning topics, editing or even killing pieces — over your brand journalist? If not, how does this content fit into your overall marketing strategy?

NJ: No, we will not assign any topics to her or edit any of her pieces. We may talk about topics to cover, but ultimately she makes the call on what she is going to cover. Ning [Chao] was the senior beauty editor for Marie Claire and InStyle, and writing for other top magazines for over a decade. We absolutely trust her judgment on what to write about.

In terms of how it fits into our marketing strategy, our site is focused on helping women discover new beauty trends and techniques. As an expert in the beauty industry, Ning [Chao] is responsible for helping to keep our readers up-to-date on what’s hot in beauty. Additionally we believe readers are more likely to follow and share high-quality editorial driven stories as compared to low-value SEO content that many sites are focused on producing.

It sounds like this is a relatively new effort so you probably don’t have any results to talk about right now. What sort of results are you looking for with this marketing effort? Do you have metrics you are going to watch, and if not how do you plan on tracking this initiative in brand journalism?

NJ: Our main metric is engagement. We want women to share and return to the content Ning [Chao] is directing. We’ll be monitoring engagement across social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, direct user interaction, and traffic numbers. Although Ning [Chao] only recently joined us we’ve already seen an increase in content sharing, brands engaging with our content via Twitter, and positive feedback from women that visit our site.

Related resources

Example of Ning Chao’s work at Beautylish, Hair Care Time-Saver: Cleansing Conditioner

Brand Journalism

User-Generated Video Contest: 6 Steps to Promote Brand and Generate New Marketing Content (Members’ library)

Brand Journalism: A Field Day for Web Marketers

Brand Journalism?

photo by: RogueSun Media

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Copywriting, Marketing



  1. February 24th, 2011 at 12:40 | #1

    Great post about a really rising trend in marketing, PR and social media. We do Brand Journalism and it is creating some noticeable breakthroughs for our franchise clients. People want to research before buying and they want to have meaty content to dig into. More and more people are starting to ‘get it.’

  2. February 24th, 2011 at 14:09 | #2

    I’ve travelled the route from PR to journalism and back to PR, with an expectation that I shall end my career back in journalism, so I have no trouble identifying here. And, although I had not heard the term until reading this post, brand journalism is exactly what we have been practicing since relaunching our blog at the beginning of February.

    With a sharp focus on bringing technology to market, our blog was launched with a 12-article series that examines the ecosystem necessary to successfully commercialise new technology. We hired a former editor of our local business journal and set him loose to do what he does best — interview good sources, conduct secondary research and write crisp and readable copy.

    Barely three weeks into the new blog, readership numbers are already where we were hoping they’d be three months from now, and several other sites, including some straight news sites, have syndicated our content, giving us tremendous reach.

    It’s been my experience, though, that not all journalists successfully make the transition into PR, and maybe allowing them to act as brand journalists would be better than trying to subvert their natural journalistic tendencies.

  3. David Kirkpatrick
    David Kirkpatrick
    February 24th, 2011 at 17:57 | #3

    Thomas and Francis,

    Thanks for comments. Like I mentioned in the lede, the brand journalism concept is fascinating to me and I think it’s something that’s great for journalists looking for work, and for companies looking into leveraging all the new content areas out there.

    I wonder which side has the roughest time adapting — journalists working inside marketing departments, or companies putting someone on the payroll who will be producing totally independent content.

    That might be a story for a while down the road when brand journalism goes from buzz to everyday practice.

  4. February 28th, 2011 at 18:32 | #4

    Great post. I’m so glad to see there are others like me.

    I spent the majority of my career in print journalism covering technology, venture capital, higher education, media and marketing before moving over to Eloqua to work as their Corporate Reporter. Initially, I was skeptical of the idea. But as I spent time getting to know the company, I started to see how visionary the concept can actually be.

    I’ve been on the job now since November 1st and we’ve been cranking out content ever since. It’s a constantly evolving job as the concept of brand journalism is still in its infancy, but I have already made some observations I think readers of this article might find interesting.

    1. The question of bias doesn’t need to be a problem. Sure, my paycheck comes from Eloqua, but most of the articles I write are only tangentially related to the company. When I was a media reporter at the Boston Herald I had to report on other competing media outlets all the time so it’s not like this issue is unique to brand journalism.
    2. SEO matters. This will go both ways. Traditional journalists are having to make their peace with the fact that being at the top of Google search results makes the difference of whether you are read or not. The same holds true for brand journalism.
    3. Quality is just as important as SEO. Anyone can be trained to write for search algorithms. But when someone clicks on a link they are expecting to be entertained, informed and educated. This is why pioneering brands are hiring trained journalists.
    4. The job can expand quickly. I was hired to report for Eloqua on topics, trends and issues impacting marketers. Once inside an organization, though, you’ll realize the need to tap into the well of knowledge that is your colleagues. It’s not only my job to write quality articles, but to help others within the organization do the same.
    5. Brand journalism can be just as freeing – if not more freeing – than traditional journalism. If the company hiring a journalist is nimble, forward-thinking and truly trust the judgment of their reporter, than there are really no limits on what that journalist can pursue.

    Just a few thoughts from someone in the trenches. Thanks so much for calling attention to this trend, David.

    Jesse
    @noyesjesse

  1. March 23rd, 2011 at 13:27 | #1
  2. August 21st, 2011 at 11:15 | #2
  3. February 27th, 2012 at 14:40 | #3
  4. October 16th, 2012 at 13:35 | #4