PR People Don’t Understand Content Marketing

The other day I wrote a really cool blog for a client, relating their subject matter with a popular TV show. As I would if I still worked at a newspaper, I reached out to the media relations folks at the network to get some photos to run with the piece. Here’s a paraphrased summary of the conversation I had with a couple different people there:

Me: Hi, I’m reaching out from this site, which publishes this and this, and we’re writing an article that relates to your show. Would you be able to provide us with some photos for this piece?

Them: OK, we only provide content to the media.

Me: Right, we are a publisher, and this would be for editorial purposes only.

Them: Sorry, that’s not our protocol. We wouldn’t consider this a media outlet.

Me: OK, I’m not sure I understand why. You are probably familiar with sites like this, such as those published by CasperRed Bull and United Airlines, which all create content as do traditional media outlets. Many of them employ professional journalists. I’m a former newspaper reporter myself.

Them: Since Red Bull, United Airlines, etc. are brands, and not editorial outlets, any coverage they created would not be considered editorial – even if it is written that way. I’d be happy to put you in touch with someone in our marketing/advertising department.

At this point, I was so dumbfounded, I stared at my keyboard trying to pick apart the logic of this statement.

Is The New York Times not a brand? Is it Red Bull’s fault it’s a diversified company? What is your definition of “editorial” or “media” in the first place?

I used to work at a newspaper whose parent company had holdings in petroleum and bottling factories. Does that mean our newspaper was not editorial, because our parent company sold oil and soda? Of course not.

Sure, I completely understand this perception. But, you’d think that at least someone in media would have a more nuanced concept of what’s happening in the industry. I asked if we could schedule a chat so I could discuss their policy, and maybe offer some insight that might help inform a more modern policy, and I’m waiting for them to take me up on the offer.

This is actually not in their best interest, either. I have to believe the only reason they were caught off guard by this is because most other content marketing outlets don’t ask permission for artwork from TV shows and movies. Denying these publishers a legitimate way to get images for their content probably further contributes to illegitimate ways of copying and re-purposing artwork.

In the meantime, this is just another hurdle for content marketing outlets trying to gain legitimacy. If we’re not given the same permissions as “traditional media,” that’s just another arbitrary barrier holding us back. Just didn’t think we’d be facing challenges within our own industry.




Content Marketers Need to Stop “Creating by Numbers”

If this is how you create content, it’s going to look like everyone else’s. Draw your own dolphin, damnit.

Content marketing initiatives largely aspire to be as popular as traditional publishers. You better believe that tech firms would love to own a platform like Wired, or that travel companies would dream of operating National Geographic. When ESPN shut down Grantland last year, some pretty smart people said brands like Nike and Under Armour missed a huge opportunity to acquire it as their own.

However, content marketers talk about content creation a lot differently than the folks who work at newspapers and magazines. Whereas journalists and editors talk about the flow of an article and how it reads, content marketers talk about the ideal length for optimizing shares. Whereas traditional writers think deeply about the meaning and connotation of words, content marketers talk about keyword density. Reporters want to transport readers to a specific time and place with visceral detail – content marketers want you to click.

This numbers-based approach absolutely has merits. Will Oremus at Slate had a great piece recently discussing how a lot of standard journalism practice can be blamed for newspapers’ failing to capitalize on opportunities the Internet offers. “Finding the most compelling angle for a given story, and presenting it in a way that will encourage online audiences to read and share it, should be a part of every journalist’s skill set by now,” he writes. Having immersed myself in the content marketing world of metrics, I definitely believe I’d be a more effective reporter and editor.

But the “content creation by the numbers” approach also discourages the type of fun experimentation that can lead to wild success. It commoditizes content when you should really want to stand out from the crowd. It ultimately means an algorithm could probably be doing your job.

I think projects like CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer are really interesting, but if everyone were to follow its recommendations to the letter, how would it not create a cacophony of predictable blandness? Like the laziest kids in art class, if you strictly draw and color by the numbers, your work will literally look like everyone else’s.

He drew the duck blue. That’s quacktastic.

Which goes back to the notion of a major brand operating outlets like Wired, National Geographic and Grantland. Jay Acunzo had a pretty spectacular response to this idea, saying it’ll never happen until companies think bigger about content creation. Here’s his rallying cry:

“We seek things like ideal word counts for blog posts to rank on search, rather than ideal ways to tell the story. We hunt for tiny results above some already tiny click-through and conversion rates. We suck up small bites from others’ dinners by curating content without adding original value. We are, on no uncertain terms, creative bottom feeders, through no faults of our own. … But if we’d just turn our heads and look up, we’d see all kinds of dolphins and whales and sharks doing awesome flips and spins and dives! There’s a big, wide, creative ocean out there where you can do amazing things. What if we aspired to be THAT!”


He goes on to lay out a number of things that need to happen to encourage that kind of widespread sea change (see what I did there?), but there’s no reason individuals couldn’t start moving to that bolder model right now. Today, too many businesses are just dipping their toes into the water of what’s possible. The smart ones should be shedding the swimmies of statistics and taking a leap into the deep end of creativity.

Go get ’em Squints.

CJR Takes a Thoughtful Look at Content Marketing

The other day I stumbled upon the best piece I’ve read yet on the intersection of journalism and content marketing. Called “Should journalism worry about content marketing,” it’s written by Michael Meyer for Columbia Journalism Review, and it’s just a straightforward, thorough, thoughtful look at the state of content marketing, and what it means for traditional journalism.

It’s crazy to me that this dramatic shift in the media landscape hasn’t received more attention like this. For instance, Meyer points out that Purina’s content marketing efforts arguably make the pet food company the largest publisher in St. Louis, not the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It’s also refreshing for him to note that these “brand newsrooms” are a lot “closer to a newsroom than journalists would care to admit,” that traditional news outlets and content marketing entities exist along the same spectrum, and that the topic matters when talking about the ethics involved, e.g. pure objectivity matters a lot more for watchdog reporting than funny pictures of dogs.

In other words, it’s an honest look at this new situation. You would hope that’s how journalists would want to consider the subject, but my experience is they are reflexively resistant to thinking about content marketing as anything other than advertising.

For instance, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal referred to a new series of original video content from Wyndham Hotel Group as ads and commercials. At best, that’s subtly inaccurate. At worst, that’s a lazy, unimaginative way of thinking about these things. I can also imagine the reporter and editors involved saying, “If it’s produced by a company, it’s advertising. Pure and simple.”

Clearly, though, it’s not that simple, and Meyer is a lot more nuanced.

One last idea he raises is the whether a content marketing brand could use an ombudsman, which the Purina folks had apparently never thought about. I kind of thought I was one of the first to propose that but clearly not. He seems to be pretty hopeful that the idea could work, and as I’ve said before, I think any major content marketing enterprise would be smart to do it. If there are any other articles out there on the subject, please let me know.

What journalists need to know about ‘content marketing’

I came across a few-year-old article today that provides a pretty good overview of content marketing and how it relates to journalism. Since it was on Poynter, I was surprised how well it described what content marketing is, because journalists tend to handle the subject awkwardly. Then I realized the author is actually a content marketer.

The article’s mainly intended as an ethical guide for journalists who may have to produce content for brands, but it makes the case that there are incentives for brands themselves to be open and honest with their audience. I completely agree – trust is essential to the future of content marketing.

I recommend both journalists and anyone involved in content marketing take a look. Here’s the link again.

Changing careers from journalism to marketing is a shift, not a switch

I recently went to a party with a lot of journalists, and after a little ribbing about me selling my soul, they inevitably asked why I switched careers, and what I specifically do now.

My answer to the first question is in this previous blog post. My answer to the second question is increasingly, “A lot of what I did as a journalist,” i.e. do research, conduct interviews, and write articles.

That was surprising to some people there. The traditional view is that reporters and marketers are on different sides, that they are diametrically opposed careers. In reality, it’s more like different points along a spectrum.

I’m not quite sure yet what that spectrum is. If you’re talking about it from a goals perspective, then maybe it’s “Pure organization interest” on one side, and “Pure public interest” on the other? On that scale, I guess repressive state propagandists would be on one side, and maybe war correspondents, or non-profits like ProPublica and The Center of Public Integrity,  would be on the other?

From a task perspective, though, there are more people in marketing departments who function exactly like reporters. If you imagined a scale that has “Pure storytelling” on one side and “Pure selling” on the other, there are plenty of instances when journalists and marketers would occupy the exact same point.

Either way, I now view changing careers from journalist to marketer as more of a shift than a switch. Changing job roles will shift you along whatever spectrum you’re using. Sure, going from a print newspaper to a marketing agency will push you closer to the “organization interest/selling” side, but so would being promoted from a reporter to an editor in the same news organization, especially today as there is more pressure on editors to get clicks in order to increase ad revenue.

For a further analysis of this increasingly blurry distinction, check out this blog on my agency’s website, entitled “Content marketing is changing how we define careers.”


Journalism to PR career change: 5 realities of joining the dark side

For any journalists considering a career change to the business world, there are probably plenty of myths floating around in your head about what options you have and what it will be like on “the dark side.” I didn’t originally set out to debunk those myths with a Star Wars theme, but given the current hype, why the hell not. Here are some things I figured out since my own transition to the supposed dark side of the Force that may help answer your own questions about changing careers.

  1. PR’s a term from a long time ago. Journalists often use public relations as the blanket term for all corporate promotion activity, which is odd given the news writing ethos of using precise language. In reality, when we say PR we’re referring to the practice of earning news coverage, but that’s an increasingly small aspect of what marketers do to promote their companies, partly because there are fewer journalists to pitch, and because there are many more options to reach people directly rather than through the media. For instance, more and more companies are hiring journalists as part of content marketing efforts, where writers and producers do essentially the same thing they have been doing all along, making it even less of a career “change” than ever before.
  2. It’s not all so dark. First, there are some persuasive theories out there that maybe Luke Skywalker and the Jedi aren’t such good guys after all. Second, and more seriously, the communications field has a reputation for misleading through “spin,” the supposed antithesis of objective reporting, but there are plenty of respected professionals who will tell you that communicating for companies often means dispelling rumors, explaining science, and just effectively writing and talking about what an organization is doing. You can still stand for truth in marketing.
  3. It’s also not dull. In their ignorance of what marketers do – speaking from past experience here – journalists think the extent of PR creativity is writing a press release. Having experienced it, it’s as creative as you want it to be, and arguably more so than journalism in many ways, depending on the focus of your position. In a typical day as a reporter, I’d conduct interviews, do research, write and edit, and maybe work with design and photography to put together a graphics package. In a regular day as a marketer, I’ll put together a new promotional strategy, design an infographic, write a blog post, interview an expert for a future blog post, organize an event and analyze the results of a recent digital advertising campaign. It can be as diverse a creative experience as you can find.
  4. There are actually many different sides. There are probably 100 marketing agencies in Philadelphia alone, doing any number of things, from advertising and branding to event promotions and web design. Even of the firms that claim to do the same thing, they almost certainly do it differently. And there thousands of other companies that have their own in-house marketing departments doing their own variety of work. That’s all to say that you can’t just rule out marketing without looking at the diversity of opportunities.
  5. You can always return from the dark side. Spoiler alert! Darth Vader kills the Emperor, so yes, you can change your mind. Nothing’s stopping you from going back. I’ve even made the case before that journalists can actually benefit dramatically by becoming marketers and then returning to media. Any smart news outlet should be happy to hire you because of your diversity of experience. I may go back one day myself, but right now I’m finding the dark side enlightening.

Anyone else out there have any advice, or have other questions, about becoming a Sith Lord? Well keep it to yourself, nerd! No, seriously, shoot me any feedback you have. About changing careers from journalism to marketing, that is. Fine, I’ll take feedback on the movies, too.

“Serial” is a great example of how native advertising should work


I don’t need to tell you again that the podcast “Serial” has been a cultural phenomenon. You’ve also probably heard the new season started yesterday. I listened as soon as I left work, and I’m hooked all over again. The team there is masterful at the cliffhanger, and this episode has one so good I just laughed out loud. That’s no small reason for why people can’t wait for the next episode.

But a lot of people seem to forget the major catalyst for its rise in popularity. The first episode premiered on its parent/sibling podcast, “This American Life,” which is pretty much permanently one of the most popular radio shows in the world. As the show’s first spin-off, it seems natural that Serial started with a huge built-in audience. It broke out because it was shot out a cannon, and its excellence helped it keep building momentum.

You also saw this with “Invisibilia,” which not only debuted on This American Life, but was cross-promoted everywhere by NPR. Seriously, every other podcast from NPR had a promo about it. The strategy worked again – it quickly became one of the fastest growing podcasts out there.

This, to me, is a good example of how it wasn’t only Serial’s format, story and craftsmanship that made it so popular. Invisibilia grew just as fast but, in my opinion, it’s really just OK. It’s a concept I immediately loved upon hearing it, but the execution isn’t there for me. Sarah Koenig has a way of sounding conversational that I think actually elevates the quality of the journalism because it does away with the conventions of all-knowing journalistic objectivity, and she and Julie Snyder actually said that themselves when I saw them here in Philadelphia earlier this year. On the other hand, Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel’s storytelling style just feels contrived and distracting. Then again, I kind of feel the same way about Radiolab, so maybe I’m in the minority on that one.

Regardless, it struck me that this is a great example of what marketers should be aspiring to with native advertising, which is probably the most controversial and misunderstood forms of marketing out there right now. A lot of people think native advertising and all it’s not-quite-accurate-but-often-used-interchangeably synonyms, like sponsored content and branded content, is really just an effort to trick readers by producing veiled advertising that looks like objective information. Sure, this was the aim of traditional advertorials – those cheesy things in newspapers made to look like newspaper articles, weirdly promoting fireplaces, that are so over the top that anyone with half a brain immediately knows they’re ridiculous. Sadly, the worst native advertising online isn’t much different. But just because this is what some shortsighted marketers are doing doesn’t mean that’s what good marketers should be doing.

Instead, the best practice of native advertising is to use someone else’s platform to promote your own great content, so that they will add you to their sources of information and entertainment. That’s what content marketing is all about. And really, that’s all This American Life was doing when it debuted Serial on its show – it played the episode, and then by people hearing it was great, they went and downloaded it themselves.

Similarly, if I’m a business with my own publishing platform, native advertising is a way for me to promote my work on other platforms with established audiences. If I think readers of a traditional magazine will like the articles I’m producing, I can post my articles there and hopefully that audience will come read more of what I’m writing.

(I should note that I’m also mainly referring to native advertising that is content produced by brands as a way to promote their own publishing platforms, whereas brand studios have a different set of concerns. The podcast StartUp has a great recent episode that walks through their own concerns about starting a brand studio. And I haven’t listened to it yet, but the GE-sponsored podcast The Message is apparently popular.)

The key part that most of the public, some marketers, and plenty of journalists don’t always get, is that it should be perfectly obvious who produced the content, so that they know where to get more of it. Instead of being some subconscious trick, like splicing frames of your product into a film, it should be very clear that this content was produced by Brand A and not Magazine B, so that you will go and read more stuff from Brand A.

That, of course, doesn’t fully address the concerns of publishers. There are still plenty of marketers who want to cut corners and make a direct sell, rather than rely on the quality of their content to build trust with their audience. It’s smart for them to remain vigilant and protect their brand, not to mention the higher ethics of journalism. Just because this is what good marketers should be doing doesn’t mean that’s what most will do.

But that makes it even more of an opportunity for smart marketers. If you do it the way it should be done, there’s no reason the brands of the world can’t create the next Serial, and use an already-popular platform to launch it to success.