When critics of branded content rail on about the dangerously blurred lines they see this trend creating, what’s often held up as the chief harbinger of doom is the practice of what’s come to be called “brand journalism.” While the discipline’s champions see this approach—housed in increasingly popular “brand newsrooms”—as a solid way to apply the rigors of journalism to reporting on issues in which a brand has both interest and expertise, detractors look at it more cynically, doubting that brands could provide informative, insightful, and, especially, objective coverage that consumers can trust.
To see just how effectively brands can produce solid, useful, and interesting content that serves both consumer and corporate needs, look no further than GE Reports, a website produced by a brand newsroom at General Electric that’s managed by Tomas Kellner, a veteran of such respected journalistic institutions as Forbes, World Policy Journal, and The Sciences and, in fact, a trained engineer. Recent stories on GE Reports covered such topics as alleviating the need for sand in hydraulic fracturing with next-generation medical materials, using billion-year-old microbes in the war on cancer, making power grids safe in the wake of natural disasters, and deploying swimming robots to inspect and protect nuclear reactors. Does GE have a role to play and a business interest in each of those stories? Sure, but each story, and the informational value provided to consumers, goes far deeper than that.
And that dynamic is playing out well beyond GE Reports. At a panel on brand newsrooms that I moderated for IABC New York a few weeks back, Kellner was joined by Edelman’s Tyler Gray, who runs brand newsrooms for the firm’s clients; Ann Marinovich, who runs Forbes BrandVoice; and min group editor Caysey Welton. Each of these panelists cited compelling examples of similar approaches to branded content—well-reported stories that provide value to readers (as measured by useful information unavailable anywhere else) at the same time that they provide value to brands (as measured by eyeballs, clicks, sharing, sales, and even loyalty).
But what resonated most powerfully for me during the discussion were two phrases the panelists used frequently: “joining the conversation” and “body of work.” These, I would suggest, are what distinguish brand newsrooms from other approaches to what is often campaign-based content marketing and, perhaps, more than anything, reinforce their strategic value. By following the news in a proactive fashion and applying a brand’s knowledge and expertise to critical topics, the brand is able to, as one panelist put it, “bust into the conversation.” This doesn’t mean going on the defensive; it means adding to the discussion, clearing the air, and, yes, opening up the dialogue to include various points of view. With discussions now raging across so many channels, brand newsrooms allow brands to be part of those conversations—hearing what others are saying, offering their own interpretations, and becoming, in the process, more informed themselves.
And not just once. What the panelists meant by a “body of work” was the creation of a continuous flow of content. Not simply a one-time white paper or a singular native ad or an occasional post, but an ongoing stream of brand newsroom-generated articles that, like GE Reports, not only advance the conversation on a regular basis, but even precipitate it. Forbes BrandVoice, for example, works with clients to find homes across its various channels for constant content. Edelman not only creates content vehicles (including at least one print magazine), but also makes sure that the content finds its way into “earned” media, much of it social.
This two-pronged approach—both conversation-based and continuous—serves both the brand and the consumer well. Because the brand is constantly proactive in its distribution of stories, when crisis strikes, as Kellner pointed out, it’s geared up and ready to cover the topic. Because brand management has become accustomed to both the creation and the distribution of brand newsroom-generated content, there’s less hesitation about jumping in to join the conversation; both the approach and the value have already been vetted. And because consumers have become accustomed to getting information from specific brands, they’re more likely to consider that information (with, of course, an understanding of its source) when it reaches them. As one panelist put it, by “reporting the hell out of these stories,” brands establish a “street cred” they might otherwise not have. And, of course, for publications such as Forbes, filling channels with branded content adds both readers and revenue.
So again, branded content is a win-win-win—for brands, for consumers, and for publishers. And the brand newsroom, far from being an object of derision, is moving content marketing into a new arena of both value and respectability.