Brand positioning by using journalistic storytelling strategies

Estimated read time: 16 minutes

We all want to achieve the best brand positioning possible for our companies but of course that’s turning into an ever increasingly harder task. One way to achieve good brand positioning is to use certain journalistic strategies and practices to keep staying in front of people through relevant stories.

In this article I discuss several of those strategies that I have learned as a journalist and then later implemented again as a content marketer. Germany-based content marketing expert Mael Roth reminded me of this concept on an episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast where we discussed why some content is just too shallow.

Let’s talk about the topic of shallow content briefly. Mael mentioned that many marketers lead content campaigns but content just doesn’t go deep enough. Going deep however helps the brand create a better brand positioning in the eyes of the audience. Shallow content doesn’t establish anyone as an expert. Deep content or even content that appears to be deep does however.

Mael RothThe other key point that Mael made on the podcast was the difference in how journalists create content versus how brand marketers create content. Brand marketers try to get on a schedule and focus on campaigns. We publish on this day and then we do this and then we do that and then we do another thing.

Journalists on the other hand publish whenever they have a story ready. Something is worth sharing in their opinion for the audience and they work on the story, try to flush it out as much as possible and share it as soon as it’s in a shareable format.

As social media expert Jennifer Radke pointed out on an episode, there’s a fine line to overdoing that, though, for marketers. Moving to a completely journalistic model in the marketing world would likely drive some marketers crazy.

That  is a good point and like most things in life the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Can marketers use journalistic storytelling techniques to improve their brand positioning? Yes. Do they totally need to move into a daily content production model that publishes nonstop like good news companies do? Probably not.

Journalism skills in marketing 

I’ve been saying for a while that great journalists make great content marketers. Some journalism skills can be transferred directly to the content marketing world. Let’s take them one by one.

Meeting deadlines 

Journalists are constantly faced with deadlines in a near 24/7 news cycle. A deadline is a deadline. If it’s missed, the TV newscast might be short a story or the newspaper article didn’t get edited. Deadlines mean something and are met. When they aren’t, chances are the journalism career won’t last long. In content marketing, deadlines are also important and when they are met it can set teams apart from those who see deadlines as suggestions.

Great interview questions 

As much as I say that it’s nearly impossible to report without any kind of bias, great journalists do try hard to check their bias at the door – as hard  as that is. Either way, great journalists ask questions that look for details to share the story correctly.

Not so great journalists, by the way, ask questions like this:

They make a statement. (Correct, that’s not even a question. Ha.)

Then ask a question. 

Even worse are the ones that make a statement and then ask an unrelated question, but later report the answer like it was related to the statement. That’s not the kind of questioning or interviewing I’m talking about.

They get to the point 

Great journalists – even in the age of unlimited digital space – get to the point with their stories. They don’t waste our time with unneeded facts.

They care about the story

I’m not saying that others don’t care about the story, but journalists often care about it a lot. They don’t ask:

What’s our message


What are we marketing 

They ask:

Tell me what happened.

Storytelling production skills

Writing, video editing and other story production skills learned and done in journalism can all be used in the content marketing field.

Writing for a sixth grader 

Online, and even offline anymore, written stories should be written to the reading level of a sixth grader. If a sixth grader doesn’t give you the visual – think 12-year-old nephew. That way everyone can understand what is being talked about. And many highly educated people are reading casually online. Writing simply will make sure the story is understood.

But, what skills do not transfer?

Certainly some things are different in different industries, but being great in these areas, will give journalists a leg up when they make the jump from more traditional journalism to content marketing journalism.

They may have to make an effort to change from the traditional third-person style of news writing to more first person (even though it’s it’s not their first-person voice).

Some news writing can be conversational but content marketing writing should always be truly conversational.

Others might include having to deal with more organizational politics and processes from approval hell.

Journalists know to how produce under what most of us would call unreasonable deadlines. They also have a nose for news – aka good stories.

Great journalists have the skills content marketers tasked with sharing organizational stories to help achieve business goals need as well.

I started wondering: Why are we talking about hiring journalists to become content marketers? Maybe, potentially we should think about what we call these roles.

For your consideration, I present the role of:

Content marketing journalist

Job description draft:
As the content marketing journalist you will help organizations and their subject matter experts tell and disseminate their authentic and true stories.

You likely won’t be doing big investigative pieces but other than that it’s very similar to what you do now at a daily newspaper or television station.

If you have been a reporter, producer or in a similar role, content marketing journalist is a natural next step. Hours are likely better. So is the pay probably. There are still daily deadlines from time to time, but not nearly as often as in the actual journalism work.

It’s not “switching to the dark side.” It’s making an impact with your storytelling skills. It’s about helping organizations be authentic and being public about it.

The work is super meaningful and you still get to tell stories. “No comments” are rare because experts want to talk to you. They love you. You help them tell their stories and share their expertise in the best possible way.

It’s storytelling and journalism – except you don’t usually get published on those media outlets. You are here to make an impact through meaningful stories.

How journalists can help content marketers uncover those hidden stories

One thing that I enjoyed very much as a journalist was to uncover the stories that nobody else was sharing. There were many reasons why they weren’t being shared. Something negative happened, somebody was doing something illegal and sometimes there was a cover-up.

The farther you dug, the more stories you could uncover. Sometimes they were stories some people didn’t want see published. Sometimes they were stories that could affect change once the facts were known.

The bottom line is that in life not all stories are positive. That’s okay and even though we all want to look our best, sharing some negative stories actually makes us look real and more authentic.

Recommended content for you:

What if our positive stories turn negative? (Podcast)

What to do when not everyone loves us

Perfectionism can kill storytelling 

In the journalism world there are reasons to share stories for the greater good.  When journalists catch wrongdoing, misappropriation of public funds or other things that affect the community as a whole, showing those stories can make a huge impact and even change things for the better for all of us.

Once journalist decide to make the jump into the content marketing world, there are plenty of positives for content marketing audiences. Great journalists typically do have a good nose for stories worth sharing. They also can share them in a concise and engaging way.

Does that mean journalists that are now sharing stories on their brand’s behalf that expose them unnecessarily? Very unlikely  and that is not what I’m recommending here anyway.

What I am recommending and encouraging however is to use those journalistic noses for stories to share different stories for and by an organization that helps organizations set themselves apart.

You truly differentiate yourself  in this new environment of constant content creation across many channels, digital and off-line, by sharing unique  stories that are authentic and can help organizations move beyond the traditional marketing message and generic blog post.

Great journalists dig deep for the stories that need to be shared and help us connect to the most important and interested communities.

Asking better questions

Talking to your companies experts can also help improve your marketing and brand positioning. At the foundation of those interviews are the questions asked by the marketer. The better the questions the better the content. You can read more about that in this previous blog post here.

Why journalists are uniquely positioned to push for organizational change

They – the good ones – know how to spot a story and then share it for their target audiences – which we used to call readers.

Potentially interesting: Is it more important to be respected by your audience or your peers?

Other than being rockstar storytellers, journalists can also dive into and dominate another field: Marketing Storytelling Innovation.

And here’s what that is: Storytelling alone is nice but it always needs to evolve. Storytelling Innovation includes:

    New technologies
    New procedures
    New products
    New types of storytelling
    New monetization strategies

It’s change management and it’s getting things done. Journalists have a knack for getting things done and operator within a defined model of dare I say “healthy defiance of authority?”

Read now: How to stay sane in a quickly changing business environment

What I mean is that journalists challenge authority all the time. It’s the job and if you can’t do it, you likely can’t cover news.

Journalists are in situations that many others would feel uncomfortable in all the time. Challenging a sheriff about deputy behavior at a jail. Challenging officials for trying to close a meeting. Challenging everything.

You know they say: If your mom says she loves you get two sources to confirm it.

Being able to work in this model does allow journalists to also be change agents when it comes to organizational change.

Some of the things that are needed for that:

  • Organizational understanding
  • Grit to keep going
  • Only reasonable fear of making some people mad
  • Understanding that winning with new things means action and not just planning

Journalists do many of those things. They push for the story. They push to get things done. Not everyone loves them. But the right people do.

Certainly we need some journalists practicing actual journalism – because #journalismmatters and somebody has to share the real political stories. But those making the jump to corporate content marketing, there’s a place for you, too.

Driving content performance for better brand positioning

Fair Media Council CEO Jaci Clement joined me on the Business Storytelling Podcast to discuss the current media landscape. We talked about how journalism skills need to evolve and have evolved, talk about how consumers should weigh content and more.

For journalists to be entrepreneurial can also be hard. But first what does entrepreneurial journalism or content even mean? I define it like this: Journalists grow the business by providing journalistic value to their audiences.

What’s journalistic value? In a journalism model, content creators share what they have determined to be the truth and to be accurate to the best of their abilities. They are not PR people or content marketers for any particular company. The best journalists keep audience interest top of mind.

Entrepreneurial is usually tied to growing a business, which equals to making money. Some companies only tie that directly to the act of selling something. I see that when companies talk to me about commission-only or affiliate-only deals.

I do all the work on getting your brand out there and I only get paid when that actually leads to an immediate sale. Doesn’t sound right, honestly. Also keep in mind that content can drive results long after it was published.

What we are creating for customers needs to go deeper though than just driving the sale. Christa Nelson talked about that in an episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast.

The line between journalism content and sales

It can be tricky when we think of entrepreneurial as directly driving dollars for an organization. When I ran the local news startup – Eastern Iowa News – the lines were getting blurrier and blurrier.

On one hand, I was covering news. On the other hand I also needed advertisers, sponsors, etc. It’s possible, though, and I simply set the expectation of what the different partnerships meant.

Advertising – Your ads runs near content

Sponsorship – You are highlighted more prominently

Sponsored content – You can influence the content, or the topic or collaborate. Even in this model, I still recommend highly educational content over just “we are the best” fluff.

But at the end of the day having thin content wouldn’t allow me to grow any kind of revenue.

Journalism and content marketing

In theory, every journalist can share great stories. It doesn’t matter what beat he or she is on.

Journalists try to tell stories from an unbiased observer’s perspective. Yes, there are some outlets who are openly leaning one way or the other, but in general, many traditional newsrooms have a declared intent of unbiased opinion and viewpoint.

When I was a print journalist, I certainly worked hard on maintaining this perspective and believed it very much. Realistically, it’s pretty hard – if not impossible – to not bring your viewpoint or “baggage” to something. Our previous experiences influence how we see present experiences. Some media outlets, of course, are also very open about their biases, which actually helps them reach some very specific audiences.

Journalism, when done right is always a pursuit of the truest story, the one that holds a mirror to our communities. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes educational and sometimes it exposes somebody being wronged. It’s also about adding context. What does it mean?

Content marketing, when done right is also about the pursuit of the truest and most meaningful  stories to your target audiences. I’m not going to pretend that content marketers will ever do an expose on their organization doing something wrong. But publishing less than positive stories from time to time can actually help organizations stand out.

The biggest difference between journalism and content marketing is that content marketers work for the people and organizations that they are writing about. That, in theory alone, can give journalists some heartburn. How can content marketers be unbiased? Well, they aren’t trying to be, but they are still trying to spin a story that is less marketing gobbledygook and more helpful to the audience.

How could we ever tell true stories if they have to be approved by the people they are about? It’s possible, but I do see how in theory that is harder.

Brand journalists can do the most good for organizations when they help subject matter experts share their stories in their own words. Yes, that can be in the form of ghostwritten articles or produced videos or podcasts. Since journalists are likely much better storytellers than many experts, this is a great way to help the experts share their stories publicly in the most effective way.

But the process to get stories – whether it’s for the newspaper or a brand – is virtually the same:

  • Spot story
  • Gather content for it (which typically means to interview the people involved)
  • Put content together in a way that people want to consume it
  • Publish
  • Distribute it

The language that is used should be very similar. Marketing people sometimes have a tendency to overuse superlatives – saying how great something is versus showing why it’s actually great. Great storytelling journalists show us why something is great.

As marketing guru Seth Godin has said: “The fun part of Show and Tell is not Tell.”

But what if it’s not that different when journalists tell stories for brands? They are just sharing them on a brand’s behalf. Certainly, some executives have to still make the move from wanting to publish only marketing blah blah to true authentic stories, but once that learning curve has been mastered, journalism and content marketing will be even closer aligned.

Content creation – even with all the hacks I’ve shared including in my content performance book – takes time. The other day, I uploaded a 40-minute presentation. It took like 7 hours. Even though i was able to work on other devices, it slowed down the wifi and tied up my iPad all day.

Should content creators focus on performance?

I’m all for driving performance through content. But there are different phases of content.

  • Top of the funnel
  • Middle of the funnel
  • Bottom of the funnel
  • Customer retention

Even if you are using a flywheel model, the concept of different touch points still applies. So what if the journalistic or content marketing entrepreneurial spirit should at the most basic level focus on this:

Even that statement is easier said than done. As Jaci said in our media podcast, educated consumers listen to stories from multiple sources. Then they draw their own conclusions. That requires consumers to do that. Hopefully more and more do that.

In the content marketing model they certainly may be reading multiple company and industry blogs before ever reaching out to sales.

On the flip side, I know that many people tend to consume only content that agrees with them, that  reinforces their beliefs. That might be human to an extend. I read the people I agree with and I sometimes hate read others I don’t agree with.

A true journalistic skill is to not give too much opinion, but just the facts and then add the context or have somebody else add the context. When there are counter viewpoints those are added as well.

Opposing viewpoints can make the content more engaging. In fact, sometimes when I sit on a panel at a conference, the panels are most interesting when people actually disagree on something.

The more I think about entrepreneurship for journalists and content marketers, it seems they should be focusing on these points:

  • Know who they are creating the content for and why
  • Keep sharing value at good intervals
  • Optimize content to make conversion easy
  • Work with sales and others at the company for monetization strategies

At the end of the day, there’s only so much time. Journalists and content marketers should spend their times producing, optimizing and syndicating content in a way that can drive long-term value for their audiences. The bigger our audiences – as Tamara Burkett reminded us – the more likely we can turn that into revenue.