A Discussion on Brand Journalism from FOLIO:

By Sondra Hadden

Last week, FOLIO: held their first meeting designed specifically for association publishers, although the opening keynote dived into a topic that’s well beyond the walls of membership societies: Brand journalism. Speakers from GE, IBM, and Verizon Communications took the stage to discuss what their companies are doing in this space, and why.

Brand journalism can take on a number of forms, from complex content marketing campaigns, to building a full on newsroom-style operation within a company’s marcomm division, but all panelists agreed that it’s a form of storytelling, of communicating and listening with both customers and employees.

Torod Neptune of Verizon said their entry into brand journalism began when they examined their company’s perception in the marketplace. They see themselves as more than just a telecomm company, with mobile advertising capabilities and entertainment solutions, and their traditional media strategy hadn’t done much to tell this story. Conceding that a shift in the media landscape itself – the very rise of native advertising and content marketing – helped with the decision, Torod and his team realized it was just as much their job to tell the company’s story as it was a reporter’s.

But brand journalism won’t be like other advertising or marketing tactics, like going to a viewer or reader to talk about a product or offer. The majority of Verizon’s brand journalism efforts is not about their brand. It’s generated by and large from insights they gleam from social listening, and spoken purely form the consumer’s vantage point. Their media strategy is now focused on what the consumers are talking about, with a simple and subtle tie in back to the brand. Brand journalism is never about hawking services.

GE Reports had some great insight as well. Tomas Kellner, senior managing editor and former Forbes writer, echoed how the shift in the media landscape assisted in the development of GE Reports, too. “It’s 2016: you don’t need a filter. Find all the great stories that exist across the company, and bring them to readers.” He added that the stories and reports generated from his division do touch on a GE product in some way, but it’s still about storytelling. “We all exist to solve a customer’s problem.”

brand journalism FOILIO

The moderator specifically asked Tomas about larger marketing endeavors at GE, and how something like GE Reports corresponds. Brand journalism is great, but how does it fit in with traditional strategies you can’t abandon? Specifically, they discussed “Owen”, the millennial ‘mascot’ featured in high-profile commercials that brands GE as a digital company. (They’re fun. Watch one here.) Tomas explained marketing is still separated out from communications at GE, but they’re trying to bring everyone closer together. This means GE Reports’ role in a campaign like these commercials is to explain in more detail what someone like Owen is going to be working on. If Owen says he’ll be writing the code that powers the machines, then GE Reports will talk about how that works in real world applications, and why it matters. GE Reports’ form of brand journalism can absolutely serve as an informative extension of a clever and engaging advertisement.

There’s an opposite to ‘Owen’, however: Panelists were asked what should happen when the brand experiences negative publicity. Does brand journalism mean you can use it to sweep those stories under the rug? Tomas was quick to say this is certainly not the case. Brand journalism is about transparency, too. It is not always about the good stuff. You cannot – and should not – hide.

George Faulkner, social brand marketing lead at IBM, says that their goal is to “try to do stories justice,” with writers and graphics, to drive the stories’ success and make the right kind of connections. An interesting element of their brand journalism strategy is to use the content to educate their employees. “It’s absolutely critical that the employee base knows how to talk about the company, what we’re doing, and why.” The storytelling is just as much for IBM’s employees as it is for the customer, which often gets lost in the content marketing shuffle. George, as his title suggests, was also very vocal about social media during the panel. Storytelling is not one-sided, and IBM wants to show that they’re listening to their customers and industry perspectives. Some content is even created based off of what is happening on social specifically.

A few other tips from those companies looking to start a brand journalism strategy? Tomas from GE Reports said that if they could do one thing tomorrow, it would be to hire a distribution specialist, because competition is fierce. Your content is up against media outlets, other brands, and anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account. A distribution specialist would help you find the people who will share and retell the story, from publications to influencers. George Faulkner said they’ve been utilizing paid media more and more. If they see a piece of content picking up traction, they’ll put money behind it, to “push it deeper into the spaces that are taking off.” Because it’s very hard to predict what will stick before it’s published. “The internet has moods,” he says.

See more about FOLIO’s event here. 

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