More and more these days, I find myself searching for “The Magic X.” “The Magic X,” of course, is the fastest way for me to skip all of the useless & irritating things that pop up and get between me and the content I came here to consume. To an advertiser, this is obviously unwanted behavior. But to the content marketer, this could be exactly the behavior you should hope your reader is doing every time they come to your site. But how do you make content that the consumer actually wants to read? The answer is simple and may have been around for generations before “The Magic X” ever existed. That answer is to create the content that your reader is trying to find in the first place.
Nobody knows how to produce quality content that readers actually want to read more than journalists. For years, journalists have been crafting stories—in newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet—that readers actually want to see. So what can the successful content marketer learn from journalists? It’s easy: learn how to tell a good story.
As a former journalist, I’ve put together a list of eight journalism concepts that every content marketer can learn from the age-old craft of telling good stories.
1. Be Relevant and Useful to Your Audience
Business Week writes to business people. Sports Illustrated writes to sports fans. Vanity Fair writes to the vain (just kidding). Journalists write stories that are of public interest and public service. Likewise, your content should be of interest to your readers and provide them value. Serve readers first and yourself second. Readers and search engines can see right through content that is self-serving and not pertinent to your audience.
Complicated words and complex phrases can confuse your reader. Keep it simple, easy-to-read, and avoid too much unnecessary jargon, without sacrificing your voice as an authority in your field. The greater the complexity, the higher you set the bar, and that means potentially alienating readers. Strike a balance between finding the lowest common denominator and dumbing down your article to the point it is no longer useful.
3. Stories Can Be Told Many Different Ways
Your readers are complex and unique individuals who consume information in different ways. Therefore the more ways you can meet those needs and preferences, the broader your audience base will be. Interesting copy, compelling photography, engaging videos, and informative podcasts are the types of content you can provide.
Keep in mind though that you must use different tools for different jobs. Understand each medium’s strengths and weaknesses and aim to provide the right content on the right platform. For example, dense, long-form copy might not hold a reader’s attention for long, but that same information could be much more easily and passively digested in the form of a more casual, one-hour podcast instead. The why informs the how.
4. Don’t Bury the Lead
While marketing strategy often tries to keep the reader on the site as long as possible, don’t forget to put the reader’s needs and desires first. Burying the lead can frustrate a reader looking for you to “get to the point” and in this age of short attention spans, that could quickly lead to lost readership.
Think of your story like a three-course meal. The appetizer should do just that: appetize. It shouldn’t leave them sated, nor deprive them of what they came for, but rather excite the reader and leave them wanting more. We call this the inverted pyramid style. Start with the big picture (appetizer), fill out the details (main course), then provide background and context to understand why it’s relevant (dessert). Your job as a storyteller is to intrigue the reader. Open with an interesting premise and the important facts so that they will be compelled to read on. Your content is worthless if nobody is reading it.
5. Work Your Angles
Stories are rarely one-dimensional, and while it serves to be thorough, breaking down the many facets of your story works both to simplify, and give you more potential content without becoming repetitive. Learn to look at your story from different perspectives. Why does this matter, not only to your reader but your reader’s customers, managers, and subordinates? What will make this relevant and useful to them? Look at ways you can tell the story from an analytical angle, but ask yourself how you can flip that same story and address a more human interest angle. Your readers are humans with feelings and experiences, as well as being professionals in their respective fields. Give them something to relate to, someone to root for in one story, and data and numbers and concepts in another.
6. Seek the Truth and Report It
Accuracy is key. Be extremely careful not to misquote your sources to neatly fit words to a different context for the sake of convenience, but try and get your sources to speak directly to the topic you are addressing. Spell names correctly, give people their proper titles, and let no fact be called into doubt. You have a responsibility to represent your sources with the utmost respect and accuracy while still telling a good story. Statistics should be cited, and news stories should be linked to, leaving no room for a reader to question how you came to the conclusion that you assert.
7. Be Curious
Journalists are rarely subject matter experts in a vast majority of topics that they write about. Likewise, when you find that you lack the necessary credentials to speak about a topic, go find someone who does. Ask them all of the questions that your readers are likely to ask themselves. But get it in their own words. If there’s something you don’t know about a topic, chances are some of your readers will not know them either. This gives you an opportunity to seek out those answers and give your readers some new information, useful tips, and interesting facts. Doing this helps to expand the pool of content you can write about, without sacrificing your authority as a source of reliable information.
8. Be Timely
Journalists often report both on trends and unusual occurrences in a given subject, and both are uniquely tied to the times. An analysis of industry trends from 1998 when the internet had yet to reach ubiquity is not relevant to an industry insider of 2018. This is an increasingly important point, given the rapid turnover of popular applications and websites and the constantly changing climates and attitudes toward certain industries.
Be careful about falling for the trap of being the first at the expense of being right. Being first is great, but being accurate is still the number one concern of any good journalist. This requires being deeply attuned to a certain topic or industry, but also far enough back to observe (or at least be aware of) the big picture as it shifts and evolves. It also requires that you be diligent and obsessed with ensuring that what you’re reporting is the truth.
Brand Journalism Defined
The key to being a trusted source of information is to be as impartial as possible. Sometimes that idea seems to run counter to the goals of a marketer, but if you can establish yourself as a credible & realistic storyteller, you can ensure that your readers will continue to trust you as a source of reliable content, rather than someone simply trying to push an agenda or sell a product. Transparency and a commitment to avoiding the perception of bias help to establish you as both a thought leader and a source of trustworthy information.
This doesn’t mean you need to be crediting your competitors for whatever they’ve done right. It means avoiding leaving your readers with the impression that your brand is above reproach. Making light of one’s own mistakes is a great way to provide useful anecdotal information while still giving the impression that your company is, in fact, built upon people, and people are by nature fallible.
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