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5 Journalism Principles that Should Guide Your Content Strategy

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Journalism Principles that Should Guide Your Content StrategyI'm surprised by how often people question me when I compare content marketing to journalism. Perhaps it's my newsroom background, but it seems pretty obvious to me that we're trying to communicate with the same audiences on the same platforms. More importantly, the audience is reading or watching for the same reasons — looking for useful, trustworthy information. In fact, most content marketers agree that we're creating content that is supposed to look and sound like journalism. The headlines, the visuals, the introduction, and the body paragraphs often introduced in descending order of importance all mimic real journalism, so why wouldn't you use real journalism principles to help guide your content strategy?

If credibility is the currency of the internet — and it definitely guides both user satisfaction and Google's algorithms — your goal should be to make your content as believable as possible. And, believe it or not, the American Press Association created a tool to help. Five of the association's Principles of Journalism are ideal fits for content marketing. You can laugh if you want to, but once you stop shaking your head, you'll realize how much they can have an impact on making your content marketing more honest and (most importantly) more effective. 

1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.

This is where I tell you to put the content ahead of the marketing. When people go to the Google search bar, what are they looking for? Real information. When people share things on social networks, why do they do it? To inform or entertain their friends and followers. So why would you try to play that ballgame with a blatant ad? Or, worse yet, a poorly camouflaged ad.

Give people what they're looking for. Give them to the truth, real information, and you'll start to build trust — the start of the long-term relationship that you're looking for. 

2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.

In other words, put the audience first. Don't lead with features, lead with benefits. Don't just write about your product or service, write about how to make smart, informed decisions. Give your readers or viewers the kind of help they're actually looking for. Better yet, build your credibility by including factors that aren't obviously in your favor.

3. Its essence is discipline of verification.

For journalists, this is all about fact checking. But for content marketers, this is more of a truth-check. You know the facts. It's whether you choose to use all of them that's at issue. Follow the principles of journalism and you will.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

This is a big one, because there will always be somebody who wants you to turn your copy into an ad.

"Why can't we just substitute our branded, trademarked term for the generic term and concept they're looking for?" Because that's not what they're looking for, and getting a straight-up ad shoved down that their throat at that point is likely to chase them away rather than lure them in. "Why can't we just rewrite the press release? It does a great job of delivering our key message points." Again, they're looking for real information, not your information. And if you don't give it to them, they'll move on.

There's a time and place for advertising and traditional marketing, but content marketing is right for the long game, the trust game, and you win it with honest, credible information.

PRO TIP: Once you win that trust, that's when you can "advertise." In journalism terms, think of the inverted pyramid and save your branded messages for the bottom of the article, introducing your recommendations after you've already started to build enough trust to make those recommendations credible.

5. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

Journalism isn't just about facts and figures. It's about making things interesting with compelling storytelling. So don't treat it like I'm saying content marketing should be boring. In fact, you have an obligation to make it as interesting as possible.

If nobody watches a newscast, it can't make a difference. If nobody reads a newspaper, same story. So journalists are charged with reporting their real facts in the most interesting way possible to attract the largest audience possible. Is that any different than your job as a content marketer? So take some of the tricks from journalists:

  • Look for a hook — Find a way to make your headline and introduction interesting and compelling. Otherwise, why will they go any further? Wrap the facts into an interesting storyline (hopefully "journalism principles" worked for this one), and you'll get their attention.

  • Emphasize benefits, not features — This is all about understanding the audience. Ask yourself "why would I want to read or watch this?" For news stories, it's usually "how does this affect me?" In content marketing, it's usually "what are the benefits?" After that, you can explain why the features create that benefit.

  • Find facts people don't already know — This is the essence of journalism, but it's often overlooked. People will read your story to learn something new. They'll share your story if they think their friends and followers will learn something new (often to show that they knew it earlier, but that's a whole other issue).

  • Focus on key characters, not officials — When I was in TV, we avoided "guys in ties." Mayors, legislators, and police chiefs may have the information, but they aren't interesting. We could almost always tell a better story by finding a real person involved in the story and telling it through their lens. So, skip the company president or slick spokesperson and find somebody who really uses the product, and your story will be much more interesting. 

When you get down to the basics, communication is all about connecting with your audience. If you believe your audience is looking for fact-based, trustworthy, journalism-style information, using these journalism principles will improve that connection.

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