Content marketing is a composite of many elements. In our view, quality content is one of the most important – as least if you want to produce good work. Taken literally, if you want to produce content for a financial services company it should be good enough for the Financial Times. To do this you need to write like a journalist.
Sure, most people don’t have time to learn a fresh trade. You won’t necessarily be the new Christopher Hitchens or Tom Wolfe, but by following a few pointers you can achieve some easy wins and take yourself from rough to at least vaguely shiny… if not polished.
Where do stories come from? Some of the best ideas spring from nowhere. It is difficult to conjure a story out of thin air, but what a journalist does is understand and research what is happening, often making a new discovery along the way. This is not magic but a case of the journalist knowing when to look and where. This can mean examining events from a different angle or speaking to other sources.
In terms of content marketing, this process can be incorporated into story development. For example, talking to staff in other departments can be an excellent way to generate ideas. Likewise the ability to put yourself in a customer’s shoes, when the change in perspective can inspire a lightbulb moment.
Keeping a news diary is core to running a newsdesk. Whether at The Times or Dry Cleaning News, the diary is the bedrock that allows the news editor to make sure they are covering their bases and maximising resources. It also helps avoid duplication and assists with preparation.
The most effective content marketers use a calendar or schedule for their work. Fact: around 90 per cent of content marketers are using an editorial calendar. Most newsrooms spend many hours working out what is going on in different sectors and getting ready for events appearing on the horizon. Often they will start working on the content in advance while remaining sufficiently flexible to react to the unknowns.
Even in journalism there are a few reporters who look at data and statistics like a disease that can sully their inner muse. Yet all good writing must be backed up by facts. If it isn’t, not only could your story fall over but you can get into all kinds of legal difficulty, too.
A good example arose during the recent UK referendum, where the Vote Leave campaign made claims about the amount of money the UK was sending to the EU. We questioned this figure when looking at the campaign’s site content. By failing to substantiate it, they undermined the rest of their argument. And if we thought that, others would too.
Good research adds quality to your story and gives it a solid foundation. Never assume, always check your facts and sources. Unfortunately, although we are all geniuses, our minds are hardwired to trick us.
Journalism takes many forms. In terms of writing, this can come down to analysis, features or news. Some pieces can be 5,000 words long, others 150 words. The key is knowing what is right for your audience. How much time are they likely to have? Do they want a difficult subject simplified? Let’s say you have a feature on how new data regulations affect your software product. Yes, it could probably fit into a 2,000-word story. But maybe a 10-point list is of more immediate use to people and the long-form piece can follow later.
Editing: the most important point
Lastly, all journalists (well, the honest ones anyway) will tell you how much we rely on copy editors. Many of the staffers at FirstWord are ex-journalists, yet we still rely on copy editors. If you’re reading this piece now, I can tell you that a very good editor has gone through it and probably picked up an embarrassing number of typos, grammatical errors and broken links.
The moral: don’t get caught out by a stupid mistake and don’t edit your own work. Read through it, yes. Make amends, yes. Publish without a new pair of eyes giving it the once over, no no no. That is the journalistic equivalent of walking blindfold alongside a cliff. The smallest mistake, even just a typo, can undo all your hard work.
There are other areas of importance such as audience tracking, distribution and image selection. But quality writing should be the cornerstone, because if the content falls down all of those other elements are pointless. The good news is that by taking a little time to follow these pointers you should be able to take your work to the next level. Short of a Pulitzer prize but within reach of a sales increase.