It pains me to admit that, although my career depends on it, I harbor a small but stubborn vein of cynicism when it comes to brand journalism. I’m a content marketer by trade and a gluttonous consumer of news content by habit, which you would think would make me more inclined to jump aboard the bandwagon, hat waving in the air. But no.
My anxiety isn’t completely unfounded. We’ve entered a time of widespread distrust of the news media. (Whether they’ve earned that reputation is a different discussion entirely.) Why would a brand want to enter that world now of all times? Why should I as a marketer want to contribute to the absolute glut of content out there? And do I have any authority whatsoever as a source of facts?
The truth is that, regardless of my doubts, I have no choice: content marketing is here to stay, and the brand newsroom is a logical response to the need to publish more, better, faster.
I put my misgivings to Phil Alongi, an award-winning executive producer for NBC News who now runs a media consultancy, and to David Beebe, the CEO of Beebe Content & Co. and the mind behind Marriott’s groundbreaking brand newsroom. They left me with an entirely unexpected case for optimism.
Alongi’s and Beebe’s assessments of the state of journalism mirror mine in several respects—the breakneck pace, the proliferation of non-traditional outlets—but they’re focused squarely on the upsides.
Alongi pointed to President Trump’s recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC. “Normally something like that would have been held for the evening news,” he said, “and it would have run on the Today Show the following day, but they started putting excerpts out immediately, and other broadcast networks were picking up what the president was saying since it was so newsworthy. I think that’s some of the positives of what’s going on in journalism.”
What’s more, Beebe asserted, consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about how the media world functions, and while that may come with a small loss of authority on the part of journalists, it prompts people to “do a lot more of the leg work when it comes to reading news…and actually look at multiple sources versus just one location.” This behavior isn’t a hardship for readers but a natural extension of our online habits anyway. “People will go to multiple sites to read opinions or reviews before they actually make a decision on what to purchase. If they’re exploring a hotel, or which restaurant to go to…they’re going to go to an average of seven different websites before they actually decide.”
Alongi, too, is adamant that reading multiple sources is the smartest way to consume news. “I probably am old-school in that regard, in that I like to read different things so that I can analyze them and then make various points,” he told me. “I’m not saying everyone should be doing that, but you shouldn’t be taking your news only from one source. You certainly should be reading different sources. We’re all very smart people, and we should be able to digest it and figure out what we think is real or not. Or whatever piques our curiosity, follow up and then learn more about it.”
This last comment stuck with me. Did my pessimism stem from underestimating readers? As an editor, I pride myself in challenging our readers intellectually—or claim to, at least. Was I being hypocritical?
Neither Beebe nor Alongi is blindly optimistic. Alongi laments that serious journalists get lumped together with those less deserving of the title: “Some of the reporting coming out of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the broadcast networks is pretty exceptional, but it gets lost in everything else. I think the rap that journalists are getting these days is unfair.” And yet both embrace the forces challenging traditional content models.
Image attribution: Philip Strong
So I’ll accept that journalism is not suffering, or at least that the challenges journalists face present corresponding opportunities. But that still leaves the question, why should brands make it part of their content strategy?
Alongi pointed again to consumers’ thirst for information. “Everything is Googled now,” he said. “Everything is, pop it in and let’s learn more! So why shouldn’t you help fill that void? Why shouldn’t you help fill that vacuum? Why shouldn’t you help supply more information? It’s only going to help your brand, as well as get your message out.”
Beebe agreed emphatically: “Brands have understood that people are just not engaging with your traditional means of interruptive marketing, anything that interrupts what they’re actually interested in. And so, the strategy there is a brand should be creating content that stops interrupting what consumers are actually interested in and become what they’re actually interested in. It provides them the opportunity to create content that is either entertaining or informing them. Those two types of content people will consume if it’s delivered at the right time and the right place. Regardless of where it’s from—if it’s for a brand, it’s fine, as long as you’re not trying to sell them something immediately. As long as you’re providing them with that value first, then they’ll engage with your brand. I don’t think that consumers care where it comes from as long as it’s actually providing value to them.”
This assertion—that consumers don’t care where the content comes from—runs directly counter to my own (admittedly unscientific) assumptions. As a consumer of news, I can generally trust established journalists to be an objective source of facts or, at the very least, to be upfront about their personal advocacies or biases. A brand, however, has an agenda by default: they exist (heck, we exist) in this space with the ultimate goal of selling something.
Alongi pushed back at me. “It’s fine to have an agenda,” he said, “but you have to have facts to put out there. There’d be no shortage of people who will do fact-checking of you, especially competitors. So if indeed I put content out there and say certain things, I better be ready to defend it and stand behind it.” He met my suspicion with a dose of common sense: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with brands doing their own reporting at all, as long as they can stand by their reporting. And I’m certain that they’re going to be responsible because if they report something that’s incorrect, or someone has an issue with one of their products, you know what ends up happening. Next thing you know, there’s litigation, and then there’s a lawsuit, and it costs money.”
So does the content market correct itself à la laissez-faire economics? It’s an appealing vision, but not one I’m ready to accept whole hog. It does, however, go a long way towards reassuring me that the forces that support journalistic integrity apply to brands too.
It’s worth noting that the definition of a brand newsroom, for all its newfound prevalence, is an elusive one.
Said Beebe, “I think Phil’s approach is a little bit different, because he comes from news and his perspective is very much around the news stories and brands, versus what I’m talking about with a brand newsroom which is actually all types of stories, whether that’s actually what someone would consider news about a brand, or pop culture, or trending stories, or the sort of world the brand wants to live and play in. That’s part of the problem in the brand world: the meaning of brand newsroom is kind of elusive. It can mean multiple things to different people, so there’s not one definition of that. I don’t think people fully understand the scope of what it means to have a brand newsroom.”
Beebe and Alongi do converge on the defining characteristic of a brand newsroom as opposed to a content studio: the ability to react in real time. In the news business, explained Alongi, that immediate response time is ingrained in everyone. “Oftentimes,” he said, “I get frustrated with some of the clients when I’ll say, ‘OK, we need to get this done,’ and then you’ll wait. ‘So, when are you going to do it?’ ‘Oh, does it need to get done right away?’ Yes!”
Beebe shares that focus on immediacy. “What I really mean by brand newsroom is that today, marketing is no longer Monday through Friday, nine to five. We live in an always-on world. Every brand should be always on in that sense, across social media and all channels. And that’s a big part of what a brand newsroom is: it brings together technology, platforms, and people so they operate in a real-time environment.” He winkingly refers to this immediate reaction as “publishing at the speed of culture.”
Image of M Live, Marriott International’s brand newsroom, courtesy of David Beebe
When I asked Alongi what a brand needed to do to do it right, he laughed and responded, “What you just said: do it right. That’s the first thing. If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it. If you’re not going to commit the resources to doing it the right way, don’t do it.”
Alongi added, “I love the fact that I’ve heard that many of these folks [that have created brand newsrooms] have actually hired people from the news business.” Why? It’s because of their ability to react to incoming information and publish content fast.
Beebe elaborated on the breadth of talent the newsroom needs to encompass: “There are people from multiple teams, from brand teams, from social media teams, to digital media, to corporate comms, to PR, and within the room as well is the actual creative team—the designers and writers and content producers.”
Beebe said, “[The newsroom] is looking at a massive amount of data coming in. That could be data from social media, the public, it could be data from proprietary feeds that they have, it could be data from news, of course…and [they’re] identifying what are people saying, on the consumer side.” He rolled his eyes at the narrow idea of the newsroom glued to their newsfeed waiting for their name to be mentioned. “Yes, they’re in there, watching newsfeed, but no one’s sitting there watching CNN twenty-four seven waiting for someone to talk about their brand.”
What, then, are they listening for? According to Beebe, anything and everything. “Whether it’s customer service-based, whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, what’s happening in pop culture—what are the conversations happening where your brand has the opportunity to engage in the right way with a pop culture conversation, whether it’s on social, whether it’s music, video, fashion, all those kinds of things? How are you part of that trending conversation?”
I raised the looming specter of brands that have stuck their foot in their proverbial mouths by engaging with popular culture and current events. (Pepsi’s tone-deaf engagement with protest movements remains the butt of plenty of jokes as I write this article.) Where are the lines, I wanted to know.
The answer is brand specific, said Alongi. “There’s no one answer for everyone. I think it really depends on what the company’s goals are and the people that are part of it…I would not be able to directly answer that without having more specific conversations [with the brand].”
Beebe elaborated, “When you get the right team, they make the decisions in real time. Obviously sometimes a brand will see something trending and they’ll just want to jump on the bandwagon and be part of it. And that’s where they make a mistake. And it goes back to, what does that brand want to do, what world does it want to be a part of. That’s hard for some brands, especially your more sort of CPG-type brands, that they don’t know what kind of space they want to be associated with…You don’t always have to be part of every conversation.”
“It just goes back to being really connected to that consumer,” said Beebe. He shared an anecdote from his time at Marriott. They would capture social conversations happening on their properties using geo-location technology, whether they were directly tagged or not, and they would respond both on social and with a real-life “surprise and delight moment” (a free drink poolside or a surprise room upgrade, for example). “The brand is actually there listening,” said Beebe. “It goes beyond the customer-service aspect…The idea is that we’re connected to them, that we were the heartbeat of the customer.”
What it comes back to, it seems, is purpose: just like with content marketing as a whole, when a brand does it just to do it, it falls flat. At every turn, brands should be asking themselves, “How do we do this right? How does this benefit the consumer?”
Our conversations left me questioning my own approach to content marketing and asking myself what aspects of brand journalism I could embrace with our content strategy. They make a compelling case for optimism in what sometimes feels to me (in my more cynical moments, anyway) like a jaded, agenda-driven, clickbait-flooded field. Because I do know what world I want to be part of and what conversations I want to engage in. I do trust our readership to engage with our content with a thoughtful, critical, and educated eye.
They’re right: Why not fill that void?
Phil Alongi and David Beebe will speak on brand newsrooms at Forward 2017, the premier brand storytelling conference, on June 15 in Boston, MA.
Featured image attribution: Johann Walter Bantz