Journalists are renowned for sniffing out a good story; they instinctively know how to get to the crux of a matter, asking the right sort of questions to get to the truth, and can decipher complicated subject matters succinctly for everyone to understand.
Pick up any newspaper or magazine and you’ll find it packed with a wide variety of content with something for everyone; from hard-hitting news investigations to human-interest features, opinion-based columns and picture stories.
Print media may be on the decline, but there is a lot that content marketers can learn from this profession. While content that targets a Google algorithm is a good strategy to have, you should also create content that builds and engages with people.
Back to the start
My career in journalism began in 1989, when I joined the Bucks Herald as an editorial assistant. One of the first lessons I was taught was how to write attention-grabbing content to grab attention from the very beginning.
I had been shadowing a senior reporter and went with her to the local police station to find out what crimes had been committed overnight. We then had to come back to the newsroom to write a series of short, snappy articles – news in brief (NIBs) – to publicize the incidents.
I started my first story: “A house in Wendover was broken into on Wednesday night and £300 worth of jewelry was stolen.” But this was quickly edited to read: “Heartless thieves stole £300 worth of jewelry from a house in Wendover on Wednesday night.”
The senior reporter explained that although my attempt was factually correct, starting with ‘A house’ was not anywhere near as powerful as starting with ‘Heartless thieves’.
This was an invaluable lesson and one that holds true for content marketers: it is vital to hook a reader in from the beginning using emotive language that makes them want to read on.
Keep it succinct
When writing a news article, it’s paramount to summarize the story in the first few paragraphs, giving the reader all the facts quickly. The who, what, where, when and how must be covered in the first two to three paragraphs, while subsequent paragraphs will add more color and detail to the story.
Just look at The Sun newspaper, for example; love it or hate it, they give readers all the information they need/want in around 5 minutes.
The content we consume daily – particularly on social media – is the same; it’s attention-grabbing, quick and easy to understand.
We often enjoy this content on-the-go because we don’t always have time to read swathes of copy, or are more frequently consuming content on mobile devices.
However, sometimes short and sweet just isn’t enough. Once you have a person hooked, you may find they want/need more, which is when in-depth content can be invaluable.
Getting into the detail
In newspapers, feature articles are included in every edition. These tend to spread over two pages, with the words broken up by pictures, fact boxes and graphs.
One of the best ways to keep a reader engaged with a longer piece of content is using quotes. Depending on the subject matter, you can include quotes from thought leaders in a given field or bring a story to life with the power of the human interest angle.
Of course, it depends on the subject matter, but ultimately people love reading about people and will engage with long-form content that educates, informs or entertains. This is important to remember when creating long-form content for marketing; while you may be writing to capture a particular keyword of with SEO in mind, you can still be creative.
Every piece of content should keep ‘the audience’ in mind. Ask yourself:
- Who are you writing for?
- What kind of questions do they want answers to?
- How do you keep them engaged/reading for longer?
- What will make your content stand out from the crowd/capture those answer boxes/make people remember you/go back to your site?
Google rewards sites with a low bounce rate and it’s clear why: if people are visiting your site for longer, you have given them content that is not only relevant to their search, but also resonates with them in some way. There is nothing worse than clicking on a meta title and description that you think answers your question, only to find the content beneath it is irrelevant.
A picture is worth a thousand words
In 2001, I became editor of the Boston Standard in Lincolnshire. Boston is a busy market town with a small port, and agriculture is one of the main industries. Consequently, it attracts a high volume of workers from outside the UK and as a result, tensions between communities ran high.
In 2004, when England were defeated by France in the European football championship, this tension spilled onto the streets with more than 100 people rioting. We covered this story in detail, interviewing the police, shopkeepers and witnesses, but we wiped out the front page using just one image to capture the carnage and destruction – better than words ever could.
This ethos can also be applied to content marketing efforts; sometimes an image, video or graphic can be a powerful tool to bring a written story to life.
Nowhere is this more evident than on social media, and particularly Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Snapchat, which rely on images and video to spread a message, including light-hearted memes and funny videos.
What makes a good story?
Understanding what makes a good story is an essential part of being a journalist.
When working as a features editor, the news editor and I would meet every morning with the editor and deputy editor to discuss a list of potential stories we thought were worth pursuing and agree where they would go in the paper.
The basic rule of thumb we followed for coverage and placement was based on how interesting the story was deemed to be, and how many people it affected.
Of course, this can be subjective, so when trying to decide whether a content marketing campaign has the potential to go viral, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the hook?
- Do you have unique data?
- Is the idea open to ambiguity?
- Is it credible?
- Does it provoke an emotional response?
- Does it tell a story?
- Why this idea now?
- Who – and how many people – does it affect?
Appealing to your audience
The types of content we included in every newspaper was varied and would, we hoped, appeal to a variety of people – a process that content marketers could also to adopt. However, in order to do this properly, it is paramount to understand who you are targeting, the sort of content they enjoy and where you can find them online.
It is easy for a newspaper as the journalists know they have to produce content that appeals to everyone in the community they serve, but in content marketing it can be slightly more restrictive.
The brand you’re working for should have plenty of audience data, but there are also a wide variety of tools available online to help you flesh out your personas and give them a personality to target your content with.
Where to find story inspiration
Despite all these tips and tricks, they can only really be put to good use when you have something to write about. An easy way to continually have content to share is to localize a national story, for example.
Content marketers often do the same by blogging or Tweeting about a national story or seasonal event. Often referred to as ‘newsjacking’, this is a powerful tool to promote a brand across the web.
One of the best examples I have seen is by the toilet tissue brand, Charmin, using the Oscars to promote the brand:
But you must act fast for the greatest impact – sending the tweet after the main event would have had little impact for Charmin.
The final word
As you can see, there are plenty of valuable lessons the digital world can learn from print. It really is simple: people want content that resonates with them. Content that educates or entertains them; something they can share with others to make them look good or make them laugh.
Print media may be declining, but the journalistic principles many of us hold dear still ring true. Storytelling is as relevant today as it has ever been; the platforms may have changed, but the delivery remains the same.