Content Marketing vs. Brand Journalism: the Outcomes Define Differences

bj vs cmToday’s fragmented media landscape and information-loaded digital world offers brands new opportunities to communicate directly with their audiences; building visibility, affinity and even search traction along the way. However, success in the uppermost reaches of the funnel requires organizations to put corporate agenda in the back seat, and instead adopt a more journalistic approach to crafting and publishing their stories.

Enter brand journalism.

Not to be confused with content marketing, brand journalism is an upper funnel tactics that delivers more than ‘awareness.” Telling the brand’s stories in a compelling, audience-focused way can create affinity, earn media, build brand credibility and (when coupled with search and social strategies) deliver long-lasting online visibility.

The differences between brand journalism and content marketing

There are distinct and important differences between brand journalism and content marketing, and they’re best expressed not in terms of content output but in terms of intended outcomes. I think we all agree that content marketing and brand journalism both have deliver information that is useful and interesting to audiences. So let’s look at the intended goals of brand journalism and content marketing, respectively. I’ll take a stab, and I welcome anyone else’s additions.

Starbucks’ newsroom is loaded with brand stories that masterfully create affinity and position the brand.

Brand journalism goal: Finding and telling brand stories in order to convey a comprehensive image of the brand and build brand awareness and affinity.

  • Case in point: The story on the Starbucks newsroom about the art on a holiday mug is an example of telling the story of an employee’s journey within the company. Is this story selling coffee? No. It’s conveying specific information about the brand image. I wouldn’t call this content marketing. To me, this is brand journalism.

Content marketing goal: Influence audience behavior by publishing useful content that supports the customer journey, encourages loyalty and enables amplifications.

  • Case in point: Marcus Sheridan, the “pool guy” who has presented at Content Marketing World several times, showed how great content that speaks directly to buyer interests can fuel sales, describing content as “a sales tool.”  (Related: CMW interview w/ Sheridan)

“Marketing is the enemy of brand journalism,” noted Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan, speaking at the company’s Brand Journalism for Corporate Communicators workshop in Chicago earlier in November. “Brands need to master telling their stories indirectly. It’s about the brand, but the focus is always about the audience.”

Brand journalism couples the brand perspective with a journalistic approach, telling stories to create utility for the audience and context for the brand. Many stories published within brand journalism programs make no reference to the brand doing the publishing. Nonetheless, the brand’s expertise is on display when a story provides an insider’s look at an industry that a legitimate media outlet could have produced.

Content needs to be designed and deployed with deliberate and measurable goals in mind. If Starbucks was publishing a bunch of employee stories and expecting to see a corresponding lift in store traffic, they would probably be disappointed – and the content budget might suffer in the future as a result.

Content marketing and brand journalism are not mutually exclusive. They can (and should!) exist together – and furthermore, they should be aligned, in order to position the brand and acquire audience likely to value (and act upon) the other content the brand publishes. Integration of brand content across multiple communications channels is a crucial component of driving content discovery.

Sam Huston of iProspect said it well in a blog post earlier this year:  “I want to believe that great creative will always find it’s way, but it’s difficult in today’s congested and segmented marketplace. Brands are realizing that even the best content can fail to convert consumers and deliver on business objectives. The way of the future, and the game-changer for brands, is in the strategic amplification of a campaign via holistic digital performance marketing.”

The intended outcomes underscore the important difference between brand journalism and content marketing, and their relationships to the company’s overall strategy – are details marketing teams need to pay attention to. Failing to do so can stymie a brand’s content programs, rendering them un-measurable.

We know that measurement and gauging ROI continues to be a challenge for content marketers. I believe that a primary cause of measurement-related problems stems from content that is published with no clear goal in mind.

Benefits of a brand journalism program

The most profound benefit brands derive from a strong and focused brand journalism strategy is the development of a relevant and engaged audience. Twenty years ago, the only way to reach broad audiences was through advertising or a mention in a news story. Today, brands communicate directly with their core constituents, and the audiences they build become important assets. Additionally, branded content creates important context for more targeted and actionable brand messages, developing affinity very early in the buyers’ journey.

On a more tactical level, the stories the organization publishes as part of a brand journalism program deliver other important benefits to the enterprise, including:

  • Internal communications:Stories provide a big picture that data doesn’t, lending important context to brand messaging. Additionally, stories are memorable. Taken together, these two factors help employees more fully understand and participate in the company’s strategy.
  • Sales enablement: Brand storytelling can also be an important sales and customer service training tool, delivering memorable content that is ideally packaged for relay to customers and prospects.
  • Media relations:PR pros who believe that media won’t cover a story that the company develops are missing the point, Ragan noted. Story-driven pitches can help journalists grasp nuance and see different potential story angles. Bonus: Artful keyword use can generate valuable implied links that bolster search results when the stories run on key media sites.
  • Crisis communications:An organization that has developed an internal news desk function is at a distinct advantage when faced with a crisis, having honed storytelling skills, streamlined publishing process and – most crucially – built an audience. “Don’t get scooped by your own crisis,” Ragan advised. “If you have a crisis, you should cover it first.”

Storytelling is the flavor of the day in marketing circles, for several reasons. As mentioned previously, stories are sticky. They linger in memories and influence behavior. Brand stories also help put human faces on company messages, increasing likability and brand affinity. These factors can trigger additional amplification, as people tend to share content they like with their social networks. Taking the time to build the brand journalism practice within an organization’s communications teams is no small effort, however, the benefits to the enterprise in terms of lead flow, audience building and search visibility more than offset the investment.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is a content marketing & social media strategist, specializing in integrated digital marketing and upper funnel optimization. Follow her on Twitter at@sarahskerik or connect on LinkedIn at



How to Reach Wider Audiences with Infographics

Infographics are popular for good reason. Done well, they simplify complex data sets or processes, turning heavy information into inviting content that swiftly arrests reader attention, builds interest and builds qualified engagement.

Additionally, because they are visuals by their very definition, infographics are more likely to be shared on social networks than plain text messages, and additionally carry extra weight with the algorithms that dictate what we see on search engines and social networks.

In many cases, infographics often represent important strategic messages, such as a visual map of a new service, a guide to a process or a primary expression of an expensive, high-value piece of underlying content, such as a study or white paper.

Infographics are important and effective, but many brands underuse these assets, failing to distribute them much beyond the company blog and a few Tweets. Here are some ideas for generating more traction with high-value visual content.

  • Earn some media: Loop the PR team into the production of the infographic. Especially if the infographic summarizes data of some sort, chances are good there’s an underlying story in which industry media would find interesting. Pitch the story (and accompanying visual) to a relevant publication or web site as an exclusive, before you publish.
  • Have your designer create snippets of the most compelling facts from the primary image, and format them with social sharing in mind. Each will communicate a discrete and focused message, creating a distributed portal back to the primary content piece. (This example from CipherPoint illustrates one key, compelling fact, grabbing attention.)
  • Create a slide deck comprising the various elements of the infographic, and offering more detail when appropriate. Post it to SlideShare. Embed either a lead capture form or (at the very least) a clickable link to more information. SlideShare has its own discrete audience, and the decks have extra utility on your blog and amongst your sales team.
  • Animate it. Turning an infographic into a sweet animated video is a popular trend and can be done a much lower cost than video productions requiring camera crews and significant editing. Video is among the stickiest and effective content, due in no small part that the site we all use to host video – YouTube – also happens to be the second largest search engine behind its parent company Google.  (See this collection on Vimeo.)
  • Use the infographic to attract audiences to related, higher-value owned content, such as a downloadable survey or white paper. Distribute the infographic in a press release that discusses key findings or data, and links to the related media in the call to action.  (Here’s a good example from a company called CloudPhysics, which coupled a newsy press release with an infographic to promote a study.)
  • Be sure to use the image to illustrate blog posts, press releases and any other messaging you distribute to promote related content, such as webinar invites, or promotions of white papers or study results. The data are unequivocal – content with visuals generates better results. However, the majority of news releases are text only. Visuals give your messages a real leg up in the competition for audience attention.

One infographic can deliver a spectacular amount of long lasting value for the brand, and even more importantly, multiple opportunities for the organization to reach and engage audiences.  However, to deliver capitalize on the power of this important type visual content, you have to have multi-channel distribution strategy for your brand’s infographics.

Author Sarah Skerik is a B2B marketing and PR pro, specializing in integrating public relations, social media and content marketing to reach qualified audiences and deliver measureable results. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik or connect on LinkedIn at

The 3 Crucial Questions You Should Ask Your Sales Team to Improve Marketing Results

Image courtesy Flickr user ** RCB **
Image courtesy of Flickr user ** RCB **

Marketers love to A/B test web treatments, tweaking the phrasing of a message or position of a button to improve campaign results.  But do we really know what content moves the sale forward when our sales team are in front of prospects?

When it comes to determining which messages are most effective in really meeting objectives and moving specific needles, the company’s sales team can play an instrumental role. A new report from Aberdeen’s Peter Ostrow bears this out, finding that top performing sales organizations exhibit strong collaboration between sales and marketing. (Report Link)

According to Ostrow’s research, the collaboration runs deep, exceeding the usual discussions between sales and marking, such as what exactly constitutes a lead and how quickly sales will follow up.  Best in class organizations exhibit strong integration from the very top, in terms of shared goals, and that alignment trickles down through the sales and marketing organizations, providing powerful incentive for the the two teams to work toward the same goals.   In practice, this integration is expressed a number of ways, and 360 degee feedback on messaging and content is one.

Image via Business2Community

If a divide between marketing and sales exists at your organization, an good place to start collaborating is on the messaging marketing is developing. It’s easy to get started and pays enormous dividends in campaign effectiveness and goodwill with sales.

At the outset of a campaign or project – and any time the organization is performing persona research on an existing customer base – marketing should turn first to sales for a deep dive into the customer mindset. The information gleaned will be a rich source of intel and useful in informing message development.

Mining the sales team for marketplace intelligence

Surveying your sales team can reveal at a glance the marketplace challenges customers are facing, the messaging and materials sales finds most useful and most importantly – the gaps that exist between market conditions and the company value proposition.

3 crucial questions to ask your sales team:

  1. What questions do prospects ask for which you don’t have a good answer? The answers to this question will reveal holes in either the brand’s value proposition or your sales enablement tools.
  2. What questions do you hear over and over again? Questions that recur in the marketplace should be red flags for marketing – they indicate a gap in marketplace perception or understanding or sales knowledge (or both.)
  3. What curveballs do customers throw at you? The curveball questions are generally fewer and further between, but they can be an important indicator of early shifts in market needs or sentiment.

A mix of in-person interviews and short, quick-to-complete surveys can deliver insights for the marketing team. If your brand organizes sales teams by vertical market or customer segment, conduct discrete surveys among each group to develop the clearest picture of the market.

Field sales feedback: the ultimate testing tool

Using the insights gleaned from sales is just one advantage marketing can gain from collaborating with field sales. However, don’t stop there. As messaging is developed, test it with your sales teams.

Expose them to the messaging and have key players weigh in on the sales enablement tools. Deploy messaging on a limited basis and collect feedback from the teams involved.

One of my favorite tactics is to road-test concepts directly with clients when invited to present to client groups (something I did regularly.) I’ve given major event presentations dry runs with clients and used their reactions to gauge the stickiness of key messages within. This direct exposure has enabled me to determine which messages and concepts were sticky, and which needed additional work.

At the outset, these hands-on and high-touch methods can seem inefficient, and obviously, because the sample size is small one should not overlook the data sets available to us in our analytics and automation platforms. However, for developing those ‘last mile’ messages that make the difference when the sales team is in front of the client, feedback from the front line teams is crucial.

This sort of feedback and alignment is not abdication of marketing turf. While there are certainly times when the organization will want to limit exposure to messaging, there are plenty of more routine communications and campaigns that can benefit from these exercises. Overall message performance will improve – even for digital campaigns – when the organization closes loops and fills the information gaps that stall sales and leak leads.

Author Sarah Skerik has decades of B2B marketing & sales experience, with emphasis on content marketing strategy integrated with social media, demand gen and public relations. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik and connect on LinkedIn at

Marketers: Your Most Important Audience is Sales

Peer-generated social content is on par with editorial content and vendor content. The content brands create needs to have utility in order to support sales and resonate on social channels.  Via Marketing Profs.

If you Google the terms “content marketing and sales,” you’ll find scores of white papers, articles and blog posts attesting to the value of content marketing as a lead generation engine that fuels sales.

No argument there.  Content is the layer that drives demand gen in the marketing stack.

But precious little attention is paid to what is arguably the marketing department’s most important audience, namely, the company’s sales team.  The sales team is one of the primary brand voices, and if they’re not singing from the same page as marketing,  the result will be a fractured marketplace image, and real difficulty in overcoming perceptions the brand is eager to change.

The sales team can also be powerful advocates and partners for marketing.  The historical conflict and finger pointing that exist between marketing and sales makes no sense.  Buyers today are making decisions without vendor input, against timeframes they dictate.  This calls for an agile approach to sales enablement and responsive marketing plans with flexible frameworks.  This means listening to the sales team and the marketplace, and having the resource and flexibility to swiftly adjust messaging and capitalize upon emerging opportunities.

The changes in the buyer decision journey have also altered the mechanics of selling. We’ve all seen the studies about B2B buyer habits, which focus on online research and sidestep traditional sales channels until the decision is almost made.  We also know that B2B buyers rely heavily on their social networks for information about products and services they’re considering.

These changes offer marketers more than a few opportunities to impact the company top line, but they require marketing teams to balance long-term planning and projects with real-time opportunity and sales team needs. However, as you’ll see, providing strong marketing support to sales needn’t diminish campaign planning or demand gen strategy.  These elements are not mutually exclusive.

If you have credibility with your sales team, you’ll have credibility with your audience.   

To win, brands need to retool marketing outputs and ensure the content they publish has utility in the hands of the sales team as well as the marketing automation stack.

The content the sales team needs isn’t the thirty-thousand foot thought leadership piece.  They need content that bolsters the case with the customer.  They need tactical advice, evidence, examples and proof.   This sort of content is vitally important to the sales process, for a few reasons:

  • It opens doors and builds credibility for the brand. Useful content communicates a potent subtext to customers and prospects: it says “We understand you.”  It signals affinity, and it builds trust quickly.
  • As a leave-behind or follow-up piece, evidential content provides a powerful, visible and memorable reinforcement of the message the sales person is conveying.  If you’ve been in sales, you know how hard it is to get messages – or even concepts conveyed in in-person  conversations – to stick with your customers.
  • Tactical advice and customer examples educate your sales team as well as customers and prospects.  I learned this shortly after I launched the company blog, when I started hearing “I’m learning so much from the blog!” from individual team members, over and over again.  As soon as I realized that, I started treating the blog as a conversation between me and our widely-scattered sales team, keeping them firmly in mind with each post, and making utility for sales a primary goal. The content we published and promoted there became an important sales education tool.
  • Grist for social selling.  The sales reps I worked with were increasingly active on social networks.  I quickly learned that they were willing to share interesting and useful content we published widely with their audiences, and even more interestingly. They consumed the content quickly, incorporating the vernacular into their own social posts and conversations.  By happy accident, I discovered how important a role the brand’s social sellers can play in building a unified brand voice and story.

Creating content that empowers sales also builds the marketing team’s credibility with sales.  That trust is important capital, and the dividends are paid when the sales team trusts marketing’s messaging and takes it willingly to the field.

The power of integrated marketing is undeniable, and it’s efficient.  Using events and content marketing to build runway for campaigns, and earned media to build credibility, awareness and search pull, and tying everything together from an analytics standpoint — these are sound ideas.  The efficiencies that can be gained when the organization develops aligned messaging that has utility in the field, resonates on social networks, generates search engine pull and (yes) generates leads is undeniable.

However, these opportunities are overlooked when silos exist, or when marketing has a singular focus. As a result, the marketing team misses opportunities to deliver measurable impact right now, and the sales team ends up wasting time cobbling together its own materials. You can’t let long term planning eat your short term opportunities.

How do we bust those silos? It starts with alignment at the top, specifically aligning marketing and sales goals and strategies.  But there may be an easy and practical approach, which I’ll explore next week: Intel & Integration.

Author Sarah Skerik has decades of B2B marketing & sales experience, with emphasis on content marketing strategy integrated with social media, demand gen and public relations. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik and connect on LinkedIn at

Walking the Line Between Pitching & Storytelling

If you’re treating press releases as dull communiques destined for deletion, you’re missing an opportunity. Today’s news releases traverse web sites and social networks, acting as digital ambassadors that introduce your brand to new audiences.

Beyond PR

KC-Blog-Banner_StorytellingPress releases have evolved in content, utility, and format. The audience these messages reach has also changed significantly over the years. When I started working for PR Newswire 20 years ago, very few people have ever heard of the company.  At that time, press releases were sent primarily to newsrooms, and didn’t see the light of day otherwise.  There were a handful of databases and start up online services, like America Online and CompuServe, which received our news release feed, but in the mid-90s, the online audience was extremely limited.

Related reading: Press Releases That Stand Out in the Digital Age Related reading: Press Releases That Stand Out in the Digital Age

Fast-forward to today, and many people have heard of PR Newswire, even non-communicators. They see news releases online, on Yahoo and the thousands of other websites that syndicate them.  More than once, I’ve seen PR Newswire content shared by my friends on Facebook and my peers on Twitter.


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Influencing Buyer 2.0: Aligning PR to the Buyers Journey

Beyond PR

buyersjourneyBuyers – businesses, consumers and governments — are changing their behaviors, driven by changes in the communications channels and technologies they use to research purchases and share information with peers, bringing new opportunities and challenges for public relations to the fore.

Earned media mentions hold particular sway with potential buyers, which means PR can deliver measurable top line business impact. To capitalize on this trend, however, PR professionals must improve and rethink the way they create and distribute their messages, designing them to support the purchase decision and aligning them with the buyers’ journey.

Buyer 2.0:  Informed and In Charge

Buyers are influenced more by their own research than they are by traditional sales pitches.  By the time a buyer contacts a company, the buyer has already made many decisions, including the elimination of potential vendors. In fact, much of the buying cycle has already taken place.

Additionally, buyers seek…

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3 Tips for Formatting Press Releases for Maximum Online Readership

Beyond PR

Summary:  There are 3 important lessons for public relations professionals  in crafting effective press releases and other digital messages to be gleaned from the Financial Times’ launch this week of FastFT, a short-format news service. 

The Financial Times this week launched FastFT, a nimble and ultra-short-form news service publishing extremely short (<250 word) stories.  The reasoning behind the new service?  While the 140 character limit on Twitter is a bit too confining, nonetheless, it’s clear that readers prefer short snippets rather than long-form.  The FT is adding the short-format service to their mix, in order to, according to an interview with FastFT’s chief correspondent Megan Murphy that was published by PaidContent, “Create more portals and routes for readers to consume the publication’s content.”

The idea of using alternative content formats to create portals leading readers to other related content is an excellent idea.

  • For one thing, short…

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Chicago Sun-Times Decision to Cut Photography Staff Signals Opportunity for Brands

In a move that is raising eyebrows amongst media-watchers, the Chicago Sun-Times today announced the layoff of its entire photography staff.  While the fact that the economic outlook for many traditional news media outlets is grim is definitely not new news, this strikes me as being utterly the wrong move.

Almost all of the new developments in content sharing, digital media consumption and social media are centered around visuals.  Entire social networks like Pinterest, Instagram and Vine are built on visual content.  YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine. Facebook and Twitter have put digital content front and center for their users. The algorithms that search engines and social networks used to determine what we see all give visuals more weight.

These are just a few of the reasons why it is difficult to overstate the importance of visuals in today’s information environment and communications arenas.  Humans are visual animals, and if you want to attract a human audience, you need visual content, period.

But simply having a visual isn’t enough.  A bad visual will not generate good traffic or good engagement.  To be effective, the visual must serve the audiences interest. Traditionally, news photography has set the standard for compelling imagery and visual storytelling, thought that may be going by the wayside now.   According to reports today, the Sun-Times plans on asking reporters to “provide” pictures and videos to accompany the stories.

Journalistic sentiments aside, I smell an opportunity for PR, which was the topic of my post titled “Chicago Sun-Times Lays Off Photographers & Opens Door for Newsworthy Third Party Content” over on Beyond PR.


Confirmation: Social Authority does Influence Search Rankings

Thought Google Realtime has changed significantly (among other things, the deal with Twitter was not renewed) the influence of social interaction on the visibility of content is undeniable.

Beyond PR

Earlier this week we published a post about communicating in real-time, in which we discussed how quickly search engines surface conversations in social networks, and, furthermore, how social relevance also contributes to overall visibility for messages in search engines.

Yesterday SEO guru Danny Sullivan was able to confirm with both Google and Bing that “human authority” authority is in fact considered by both engines as they index content.   In a nutshell, writes Rand Fishkin on the SEOmoz blog, this means that links shared on Facebook and Twitter do in fact have a direct impact on search rankings.

Fishkin’s post makes some educated guesses about what sort of metrics search engines are using to gauge social authority, including:

  • Diversity of the people you influence – more is better
  • Relevance of surrounding content to subject matter (probably an indicator of expertise)
  • Quality of friends/followers – whether or not you influence fellow…

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PR in the Moment: Lessons from Real-Time Search Pros

The conversation with iCrossing’s Rob Garner that fueled this post really sparked my understanding of (and interest in) the real-time opportunities the accelerated and connected world of social networks presented to communicators.  David Meerman Scott has since labeled a related opportunity “Newsjacking.”  PR Newswire is calling the concept (broadly) “Agile Engagement.”   However you describe it, the opportunities a heads-up, dialed-in communicator has these days are boundless.  But you have to be paying attention.

Beyond PR

Last week I listened into a webinar hosted by Search Marketing Now on the subject of real-time search, featuring Rob Garner of iCrossing.  As is often the case with these things, I walked away bristling with new information, and some interesting insight for PR.

Real-time search (“RTS”) is the immediate inclusion of information from social networks in search results. Like traditional search, RTS is based on crawler based algorithms – the search engines actively go out, find information on web sites, and index it. But there’s a new twist.  Search engines are also bringing in content from the human driven social layer.  Google in particular is adept at integrating content from the social layer.  This is real-time content – Tweets, comments and other interactions.  And it’s changing what search engine users see in their search results – which is driving change in human behaviors.

Sources of real-time content


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