Instapaper joyThe notion of the brand journalist has been playing on my brain again in recent days, partially because of some client work I’m doing.

In particular, these two questions stand in opposition to one another:

How do we get our client’s message out through social channels?

and

How do we provide our customers with the information they need?

The more I look at this, the more I see why brands still purchase adverts to piggyback on the audience-building of publishers. Publishers are, at heart, concerned with building audiences. Many marketeers are still locked into the vision of pushing messages. There’s a misconception, I think that journalists bring writing skills to a brand’s content strategy. Well, yes, they can. But most specifically, they can bring their community development skills – because that’s what a beat is: a community. And a journalist is someone who serves that community with content by understanding and being part of that community.

Journalists pulling together a magazine have always had to walk a careful line between responding to the audience’s desire for information and surprising them with things they didn’t know they needed to know. It’s that ability to generate what we might call responsive content that actually engages the community, while the unexpected content delights them. Too many marketing-driven engagement attempts, from customer magazines outwards, fail because their directive content – the message the brand wants push out – is too front and centre. There’s no responsive content. Broadly speaking, my experience of most digital content pushes has been that: marketing-driven content that doesn’t engage me.

The Canon Example

The Canon iMage Gateway

For example, at this point, I’m pretty much a Canon brand-loyal customer. I have a significant investment in their DSLR line, that actually dates back to their SLR days. But there’s a natural break point coming in the next few years. If I switch to a CSC-style camera – which might be better for the professional uses I put my camera to –  the friction of switching to a different manufacturer is significantly lower.

Canon is certainly trying to reach out here. When I installed the software for my new EOS 600D, I was invited to register for their Image Gateway site. It’s a personalised photo-sharing and information site that appears to be an attempt to build an on-going relationship with the client. But Canon’s attempts at engagement are, well, poor. You have to go through a long, marketing-driven questionnaire before you get access to the photo-sharing aspect of the service. Given how many other options are out there, I wonder how many people make it through that painful barrier, which is clearly there to serve the company, not the customer. In the end, that’s why I’ll probably never log back into the site: its services and information look and feel like what they are: something designed to serve their needs, not those of the customers.

Any chance that the company had to build an on-going relationship with me is shot: I remain  loyal to photographic magazines and blogs to get my information. And so, when I make the leap to an CSC camera, I’ll be taking their recommendations.

Following the money to motivation

As ever, it’s a follow the money situation. In most cases, based on revenue, the magazine journalists’ ultimate customer is actually the advertiser – but it’s deeply ingrained in the culture of the business that the advertiser is best served by focusing on delivering the right audience. And that’s best done by serving the readers first and foremost.

In all but the best cases, marketing teams, be they in-house or agency-driven, are doing what they’re paid to: delivering a message. But that’s a single, transactional model. Audiences have to be built for the long-term, and don’t sit easily into the campaign structure. And that’s why the long-term relationship building publishers do has traditionally been so valuable.

As brands transition into a publishing world, as they seem to be doing, they’re going to have to get a handle on this. That means adjusting their time scales, thinking long-term, and bringing in skills of engagement, community building, and responsive content generation.

(I also wonder if the habit of national newspaper journalists transitioning into PR and marketing might have a negative influence on this. Those of us from a speciality magazine background have a very different approach to journalism from our cousins on the nationals, who tend to have sources and contacts, but not readers communities in the same way. Fodder for another post, perhaps).

In the end, just having access to the tools is no guarantee that you’ll be able to use them. And if you want to build an engaged community around brand-centric content, choosing people with the experience to get you an engaged audience with those tools is the right choice. A broadcast marketeer is too ofter attempting to use an Allen key to hammer in a nail.

Perhaps the idea of a brand journalist is more than just a jumped-up copywriter after all…

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