- Tony Quin
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Publishing branded content in traditional spaces — better known as native advertising — has been a popular topic buzzing around lately.
From the Native Advertising Summit that stopped by Atlanta this summer to this absolutely awesome (though slightly inconclusive) eMarketer study that popped up on my Twitter feed last week, native advertising is without a doubt shaping the content that brands are creating right now. And according to that eMarketer study, 73% of U.S. publishers are offering some form native advertising on their websites.
The growth of native advertising means more opportunities for brand produced content to be integrated in the design of a publisher’s site. As brands are taking advantage of this opportunity, they’ve become responsible for vastly more content the public sees and interacts with.
But keeping that content on track is easier said than done. From social posts to blog entries and targeted ads, it’s a challenge for businesses to manage all the content they create all the time. The solution is a holistic content strategy including SEO keyword analysis, which prioritizes content and details guidelines for consistent voice and tone.
From a small ‘mom and pop’ shop to a Fortune 500 companies, a defined “voice and tone” keeps the people (and agencies) working on a brand’s behalf on the same page when it comes to how a brand should sound and act in different situations.
A fantastic example is MailChimp’s voice and tone microsite guide that sorts the company’s V+T best practices based on situation, then color codes the tone needed for each situation from green to red.
Green is for situations that call for humor and positivity, red for content that is serious and informative. All entries feature examples and as an added bonus, the site is responsive and remarkably pleasant to use on a smartphone.
But not all voice and tone guidelines need to be as expansive as a color-coded microsite.
Creating or updating your voice and tone is as simple as following a few key steps:
1. Understand the difference between voice and tone
Voice doesn’t change, but tone does. Your brand voice should always be consistent, but tone will vary depending on the situation and emotion you’re trying to communicate to a consumer.
2. Set your boundaries
Decide if your voice and tone is a guide for all of your business communications or just a certain part. Narrow your focus by deciding if you need a voice and tone specifically for something like your company’s digital spaces or for a smaller initiative like social networks. You can easily make a separate voice and tone guide, if needed, for different parts of your business.
3. Interview stakeholders
This is key because your employees are already speaking your brand’s voice and tone. Interview key stakeholders and employees and ask them to share why they’re passionate about the company. Also ask what kind of content they think would be compelling coming from the brand. Their language will give you insight into what your brand voice and tone should sound like.
4. Determine voice with keywords
Start by creating a massive list of words that define the brand — we’re not talking about product names, but instead how a product or service makes the customer feel. Use these important adjectives to shape a mission statement paragraph that defines overall how your brand should sound. Follow up with a list of keywords.
5. Define tone based on situation
Think of the different situations where you will use voice and tone guidelines to structure copy or content for your brand. Define these situations one by one — from social copy to company blog entries — then decide what tone is needed to communicate with a reader during these situations. With its list of uses, MailChimp’s V+T is a fantastic examples of this.
6. List your “watch outs”
Define words, phrases or messages that absolutely cannot be used in content produced by your company. Additionally, define customer service protocol for dealing with negative feedback — like finding a way to direct a customer complaining on your blog post to customer service quickly.
7. Share and get feedback from key stakeholders
Once you’ve created a preliminary document, come back to the stakeholders you interviewed to get feedback. Constructive feedback will help you continue to improve your voice and tone — rinse and repeat until you have the guidelines you need.
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I don’t pretend to be a savvy shopper, but when I dive wallet-first into the clearance section at The Gap, I tend to stock up on accessories in my favorite color — black. Why? It’s a universal truth that black goes with everything.
So does branded journalism. In the words of veteran digital content guru Ann Handley, “Content is the new black.”
Handley is right, branded journalism (also known as brand journalism or branded content) has caught on like a wildfire this year. From Tory Burch’s fantastic branded blog to Mint.com’s MintLife section, brands realize the value of consumer-facing content like articles, photos or videos, and are rushing to create some with the company name on it.
Why? For a lot of the reasons we discussed in the first post in this series and mainly because consumers are demanding it. As brands become more accessible to fans through social media, people want more from brands than their products and services. So much so, even Twitter is looking to hire a Head of News. That leads us to branded journalism.
But branded journalism breaks the natural order of business that advertisers, journalists and businesses have subscribed to for decades. This makes some people nervous, traditionalists angry and opportunists jumping on the branded content bandwagon faster than Baltimore fans during the last Super Bowl.
So that leaves the question, if you’re going to start creating content for a brand, be it a local business or a Fortune 500 company, what are the best practices? Better yet, how do you do it ethically?
Try these simple steps for better branded journalism:
1. Build a process
Journalistic content should be more than an article or blog post thrown together quickly. Create an editorial plan, support whatever content you create with strategy, edit it, review it with key company team members and a set time to distribute it via a medium that will reach your intended audience.
2. Share something valuable
Share something that your target market will respond to. For example, Home Depot’s YouTube page features an array of do-it-yourself garden tutorials. Completely different from Red Bull’s adrenalin-pumping YouTube page that offers an array of video features on the brand’s extreme athletes. Both give their fans journalistic content in the same medium, but do it completely different ways to reach separate audiences.
3. Know your boundaries
Producing journalistic content doesn’t equate to producing a Pulitzer winning news article, so stick to your industry and the topics surrounding it. Create content targeted at a company’s audience, on subjects related to your company’s industry. Find creative ways to make content relevant to trends and new stories without reporting the news.
4. Stick to the facts and cite your sources
People want transparency from their favorite brands. Always support your content with facts from experts and credible sources. Back up your claims with research, data or testimonials from credible experts that you mention by name.
5. Strike a balance
Don’t use branded journalism as an opportunity to knock a competitor’s product or service, use it as an opportunity to share valuable content. If needed, acknowledge competitors professionally when it’s appropriate. Focus instead on sharing real insight about a subject consumers are interested in.
6. List a byline
If possible, list the author or producer of a branded journalism piece. This gives your work credibility and gives audience members a face representing the brand to connect with. Melissa Lafsky Wall left her job at USA Today to head up content production at dating site How About We, where every article or column in the site’s Date Report section is credited with a byline.
7. Track results
Producing branded journalism is useless if it doesn’t reach the correct audience to support business goals. Use analytics to track your results and SEO to shape the strategy behind your content. This ensures that you don’t just produce quality branded journalism; you produce branded content that gets results.
In the pre-digital days there really wasn’t a need for brands to produce more than the ads that went on traditional media. Now they need to produce an almost constant stream of fresh content to keep up with digital channels and social media. For most companies it’s a pretty tall order because making content is a completely different business from what they know. And it gets even harder when so much of the content that they now need is video.
Since cheap bandwidth has made high-quality video so easy to get, people want more and more of it. Projections have video representing over 85% of all Internet traffic in a couple of years. So brands need to make lots of videos. The problem, of course, is not just the quantity, but how does a brand make videos that are good enough to stand out? While cameras and equipment are cheap and easy to get, creativity and know-how are still in short supply. Of course, what makes a video good is in the eye of the beholder, but most of us know bad video when we see it, and the last thing any brand needs is to be spreading bad videos.
So the challenge is for companies to put in place the capability to produce lots of “good” videos, consistently over time. The problem is that because the budgets are much smaller, it’s not like producing TV commercials, which brands have a lot of experience with. According to the 4A’s, the average cost to make a TV spot is over $300,000 — but for video content, that may be your entire budget for the year.
The big question is — do you try and do it in-house or hire pros? While you may need a lot of videos, you may not need enough to justify the large expense of hiring a full-time team. So another approach is to hire an in-house video producer whose job it is to put together freelance teams for each production. This is not a creative person, but a video project manager, and you still need to be doing enough work to justify a full-time person.
For most brands the answer is to hire pros. The advantage, of course, is the wide range of talent and capabilities you can access. The problem is how to keep the costs down. Most agencies focus on developing the creative, and then hire a production company for the execution. As a result, the costs mount quickly. Some TV production companies do creative, but their focus is really on the production and they are rarely able to develop the creative or the strategy for the video, which is critical. So that leaves companies and agencies that specialize in video content for digital channels.
The ideal is to have digital content strategy, plus creative, plus production under one roof. A company that can do all of that — and that is set up to produce a lot of video content over time, cost-effectively — has found the perfect solution. Of course, the videos still have to be good in the eye of the beholder, which to start with would be you.
As a growing copywriter with a print journalism background, I love the idea of “branded journalism.” Editorial content written for brands, targeted at consumers, supported by analytics, published in digital spaces, that raises a big middle finger to the rule that advertising and journalism can never mix? Sounds good to me.
For brands, the need for journalistic content stems from growing branded communities in social spaces. As brands and consumers engage in more personal conversations via social, consumers simply demand more from them.
More than ever, consumers want brands to give them things of value outside of their products or services. A sense of community that includes transparency, responsiveness and quality branded content. That’s where brand journalists and copywriters come in.
Last week, I stumbled on the work of Kevin Maney, a veteran USA Today reporter who turned his attention to advertising after two decades of writing and reporting as a journalist.
After a successful reporting career, Maney made an interesting move. He started working with big brands like IBM to create journalistic content.
Maney co-authored a book in conjunction with IBM, but branded journalism can include works of art, articles, blog posts, books, photos or videos produced by a brand to reach an identifiable market.
Couple creating content with the market downturn, and many wannabe journalists and former reporters are turning to jobs in advertising, marketing and digital. Many seek jobs that offer more security but still challenge them to use skills from writing in the newsroom like critical thinking, deadline management and creativity.
According to Robert McChesney, co-author of Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix It, public relations professionals now outnumber reporters 4-to-1. With print journalism seeing a continual decline in revenue, it isn’t surprising that some journalists are now writing for brands. Market aside however, branded journalism still causes some debate.
Critics fear that branded journalism might fully eclipse traditional journalism. Will the news report about a damaging tornado suddenly be sponsored by a home insurance company? I highly doubt it. The audience would be too quick to call a news organization on it, like they did with The Atlantic’s big advertorial fail in January.
The Atlantic fiasco highlights that we’re working in a time where the line between advertising and journalism is blurrier than ever. Marketing, digital and journalism just came crashing together, giving us a choice. We can either sit here staring or use this opportunity to create new, innovative content that people will respond to.
By we, I mean brands or agencies working on behalf of brands. New organizations don’t have the freedom to pepper advertising content in their editorial work, but ad professionals now have the unique opportunity to produce journalistic content. If done right in digital spaces, that journalistic content will likely produce results.
The key lies in planning responsibly. Branded journalism needs to be intentional, driven by strategy as much as it is by good writing. It must be targeted and audience-specific and not overstep it’s bounds. Producing journalistic content doesn’t equate to producing a Pulitzer winning news article, so brands shouldn’t try to.
How each company executes branded journalism will vary, but hopefully by the end of the year we will see more fact-based, journalistic content reaching consumers and generating revenue.
To track branded journalism, its growth and the debate surrounding it, a good place to start is Maney’s blog. Ignore the clunky WordPress theme and focus on the journalistic content. After all, content is becoming very valuable.
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Great design does make a difference. We’ve seen it for years from Apple, and as marketers working in the trenches of digital design, we see its impact every day. But rarely does a design execution come along that so perfectly illustrates the power of design on the web. Myspace, that echo from the past, is back with a brand spanking new incarnation. Continue Reading
Mike Kruzeniski is a Creative Director at Microsoft, working in the Windows Phone design studio. He recently posted on his blog his top 12 favorite Metro design Windows Phone applications, based on visual design style. His top picks include Kindle, Bank of America, Evernote, DC Comics, Flickr, and the New York Times. Kruzeniski’s list includes examples of the great work going on in the Windows Phone and Windows 8 space. Check out a few snapshots below and even more from Kruzeniski’s site http://kruzeniski.com/
At the top of Kruzeniski’s list (although I don’t think order was relevant) were two of my favorite and most used iPhone applications: Kindle and Bank of America. All of the brands in the list have noteworthy applications on competitor platforms. I find the Metro design versions fresh and visually more appealing than the iPhone or Android counterparts. What do you think? Continue Reading