Content marketing was first lauded as the future of marketing (“the only marketing left”) in 2008. It was positioned as an opportunity for marketers to serve their audiences as journalists do.

So content marketers frequently hear the advice that they should think like professional journalists.

I don’t disagree — but I don’t think we should take this guidance at face value. It’s more nuanced than that.

A Deficit of [Thought] Leadership

Former President Barack Obama recently gave a speech in which he said he wanted to inspire new leaders.

“We have a deficit of leadership,” he said, “and we need new blood.”

In many ways I think the same is true for business leaders — we’re facing a deficit of original thinking, strong brand points of view and clear guidance for customers in the chaotic, fast-changing worlds of technology and media.

Consider that we operate in a world where the barrier to entry is low for starting a company and bringing it to market. It’s a world where 7,000-plus vendors compete for a share of the CMO’s wallet while thousands more compete in the worlds of accounting, financial tech, HR technology and every other function-based technology landscape you can imagine.

There’s simply more competition for B2B buyers’ attention than ever. You can’t just publish white papers and blog posts and expect people to notice much less care..

Also consider that our efforts in marketing to differentiate through content are falling flat. Where content marketing was once the future of the industry (“content is king” and all that) we’re waking up to the realities of its economics.

The vast majority of B2B organizations (91 percent) use content marketing, while 60-70 percent of B2B content goes unused by our sales counterparts. Only 14 percent of buyers think the quality of the thought leadership they read is “very good” or “excellent.”

That’s terrible.

If we can’t lead with our ideas, how do we expect to break through to buyers? You can’t afford to play a passive role in the narratives affecting your industry.

What’s the Difference Between Journalism and Content Marketing?

Here’s the heart of the issue for me: Journalism is objective. Content marketing is not.

The ultimate goal of marketing is to create change. Having an agenda is part of our purview.

Without one, we’re doing nothing more in our content than reporting on the way things are — and adding to the noise. Reporting on the way things are is only half the battle. Marketing is meant to provide a prescriptive set of insights about what to do next.

Compelling content helps a buyer see their world differently. It should move them toward the reality created in part by our products. Each piece of content should play a clear role in helping them make a decision.

Anything else is purely adding to the noise of a buying experience inundated and overwhelmed by information.

Clarify Your Point of View

Some of the most effective marketing distinctly aligns itself with customers on the basis of what both company and customer believe.

Look at consumer brands like Nike, with its well-targeted Colin Kaepernick campaign, and Gillette with its recent “We Believe” campaign. Look at what was able to achieve by taking a stance against on-premises software. Look at the success of Moz in railing against black-hat SEO techniques and moving an entire industry toward a better future.

Yes, brands may receive some backlash for having a point of view and taking a stand. But, to quote the creative director Bill Bernbach, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”

Nike’s value went up by about $6 billion in the first three weeks after launching the Kaepernick campaign. It’s an example of the reality that 76 percent of buyers say CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it. Many consumers in fact are looking to brands to be stewards in society, to use their influence to move industries in one direction or another.

And that’s where content born of a journalistic mindset tends to fall short. It carries no agenda, brings no North Star, and gives buyers nowhere to go.

The mattress brand Casper found out the hard way that brand journalism isn’t always a viable model. In 2015 the company launched a standalone online publication, Van Winkle’s. It was lauded by industry awards as “the second-best content marketing effort of 2015” and the “best branded editorial experience” in 2016. Two years later Van Winkle’s was gone.

Per Digiday:

“… despite the accolades, Van Winkle’s had no monetization strategy, and Casper’s senior management started questioning why they were producing the publication a few months after its launch.”

“At the end of the day, brands are performance marketers. If you don’t deliver business results they will let you go,” Van Winkle’s former editor-in-chief said.

In other words, we can’t be successful with content marketing if we’re opposed to the ultimate responsibility of driving business. If driving sales feels “icky” you need to re-examine your priorities as a marketer (and possibly your career choice).

Journalistic Content with an Agenda

I’m sure I’ve now riled up everyone who sees their job as a mix of journalism and marketing. You’re not wrong!

There are brands that are killing it with journalistic content at the top of the funnel. Look at WeWork’s site, Creator, dedicated to “covering all of the things that make WeWork’s community tick.”

Creator Magazine website screenshot

Originally “WeWork Magazine,” this site tells the WeWork story and builds brand awareness through stories of its members and related values. Traffic brings brand awareness and new tenant leads, and it serves as a powerful differentiator (show me another commercial real estate firm dedicated to journalistic endeavors like this!).

It is also 100% aligned to the company’s core offering:

“Our product is community and the magazine is a digital extension of our community,” says Christina Choi, former editorial director (now in brand marketing for the firm).

This is content with an agenda that looks and feels like journalism.

3 Things Content Marketing Should Steal from Journalism

At the risk of Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde-ing this entire narrative, I do believe there’s a lot about good journalism that content teams can learn from.

Note that I said “good journalism.”

“There is good and bad everything — movies, film, food and especially journalism,” says Melanie Deziel, someone who has taught me a lot about native advertising and branded content.

Melanie helped me clarify an important point:

“Bad journalism is a bad model for content marketing.”

As she explained, great journalism provides a framework for the content people trust, what they’re interested in sharing and what kind of relationship they expect with an organization (like a publisher) that’s worth subscribing to.

For us to get content right, we need to follow certain tenets of great journalism, specifically:

  • Sourcing. The point of view of your CEO/CMO/CTO must be balanced by outside perspectives, namely research studies, customers and other industry experts.
  • Newsworthiness. Ask “why does our reader care, and what makes this story special?” There’s an inherent challenge here to say something different, to come at it from a different angle or to present it in a new way that’s valuable for your audience.
  • Face case. News stories often open with a personal story — an immigrant or federal employee affected by policy, for example. That allows the audience to instantly relate before they go into the broader story. It’s hard for humans to relate to macro trends, charts and big numbers (as important as those are for credibility). Content marketers must, like journalists, find a face in the story. It could be a customer, employee, community partner or vendor. If your story doesn’t have a person in it, readers can’t put themselves in that story.

Caught in the Middle

As I mentioned, this issue is nuanced. Like most business advice, there’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all guidance to give every brand, especially in B2B.

Customers need to fall in love with our brand and our ideas through our content. But content marketers who operate like bad journalists, adding to the noise and ultimately abdicating the responsibility of driving business results, will find their tenure cut short.

Strike a balance. Find a happy medium between hype-filled product content and objective journalism meant to inform, not persuade.

Is content marketing journalism? Let’s meet somewhere in the middle.