How to Win Clients With Brand Journalism

Seven questions with Ann Handley.

April 1, 2011

Let’s face it: Your Web site or blog won’t capture attention without insightful content. Video, photos, charts, blog posts, webinars, and your professional analysis can all help to tell a story that’s relevant to your audience. You’ll enhance your credibility, shape the image of your business, and drive online traffic. Some call it brand journalism—the creation of informative, journalistic-style content for your business marketing. Ann Handley, chief content officer of MarketingProfs, recently co-authored a book, Content Rules, that explains how to produce compelling content to draw customers into business Web sites. Here’s her advice:

1. The expectation to write a journalistic-style article can be intimidating for a non-journalist. Can you put the concept into a more approachable light?

 I think the biggest thing to take from the term "brand journalism" is that your content should be telling a good story first and selling stuff second. As we say in Content Rules: "Share or solve; don’t shill." Share a resource with your would-be customer, or solve a problem for them. Put content before product. So a brand journalist, for example, might create a "Guide to Home Buying" for prospective buyers rather than simple marketing collateral that touts the benefits of working with your company. The former is really useful to people making a huge step in their lives; the second just talks about you.

2. For those who are launching a blog, where’s the best place to start?

The first step is to think about why you have the blog and who you want to engage there. What do you want it to do for your business? What do you hope to accomplish? Is it about connecting with sellers? Staying top-of-mind with potential buyers? How can you help your audience or be a resource to them?

3. How do you find good content?

Tell the stories of your customers. Show how your service has helped them in their lives. The stories of people are inherently more interesting than stories of products and services. Do you sell real estate, or did you help a single mother find a safe neighborhood close to the school of her choice for her kids? How did the neighbors welcome her? What’s the community like where you do business? What color blue is the sky on a wintry afternoon? These details make a place come alive for your audience.

4. How can you get the most from your content?

Reimagine it. Think of the content you produce as a piece of a greater whole, not just one-off bits of information. For instance, transcribe a series of video interviews you did with local downtown merchants (and published on your blog); then package them into a downloadable e-book for prospective home buyers. Reimagine your content in various ways to make it easier on you.

5. Any advice for those who don't believe in their own writing skills?

 Speak human. Your content should have a conversational, human tone. And show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me how awesome a finished basement is to a home buyer; show a wild pack of neighborhood kids having a Dance Dance Revolution party there!

6. What are the most important characteristics of a killer blog?

First, you talk about your customers, not about yourself. Your blog should create a sense of a momentum; people know how to contact you, or there are resources for them to engage more deeply with you. Not just a simple "contact us" form, but perhaps something else they can do: Download a buyer’s guide, figure out how to choose a mortgage broker, or get a checklist for moving day.

7. How do you integrate brand journalism into your business plan?

Start small, and start somewhere. You don’t have to do everything (like video, webinars, audio, a blog, and a resource guide). Preferably, you’ll choose to start someplace you want to be—if you like to write, think about text content, for example. If you’re comfortable on camera, consider video. Lisa Johnson, of Lisa Johnson Fitness in Boston, is a sole proprietor with an awesome blog, and she devotes Sunday afternoons to creating enough content to get her through the week—a few blog posts, in her case. Create a routine, and then give it a chance to work.