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Is your company ready for brand journalism?

(Part one of a two-part series)

Back in the old days, like five years ago, companies used to be able to get sales, leads and inbound calls by courting the media, running ads and doing traditional marketing (direct mail, email campaigns, et cetera). Probably the most profound change that’s occurred since then is the realization that companies need to create two-way dialog with customers, often using the customers’ own stories to spark discussions.

As Idaho companies such as Telstar Associates, of Idaho Falls, and MobileDataForce, of Boise, have discovered, engaging customers takes content – and not just the old kind. Not just sales sheets. Not just marketing copy. Not just promotional copy. For many companies, something a bit deeper is needed. Something that helps potential clients understand the uses and benefits of a particular offering. Something that makes it easier for them to find your company in the first place. This something is called brand journalism.

Every company is (or should be) a publisher

Also referred to as “content marketing,” brand journalism happens when a company assumes the function of traditional journalism: to find, format and publish new and compelling stories that engage a target audience.

Brand journalism can take many forms. It can be a founding story: what led to the creation of the company in the first place. It can be a case study (aka customer or success story): how a particular customer benefited from using the product. It can be a press release: the marking of a milestone or client engagement that demonstrates success in the market. Or it can be a white paper or research paper: an in-depth look at what makes the company’s offerings so innovative and irresistible.

Case studies lead the way

When asked why his company invests in case studies, Michael Corbit barely understands the question.

“Why would you even ask why we have case studies?” asks Corbit, owner and vice president of business development for Telstar Associates.

Corbit says Telstar uses case studies as sales tools.

“Nowadays, you just send people to the website and ask them to read some of these studies.” He says he knows the studies work because his company gets inbound calls in which the caller mentions how a specific company used one of Telstar’s products. “They’ll say, ‘We want what Company X got. But we also want something that’ll help us do such-and-such.’ So we know they’ve read our case studies.”

“Nine out of 10 requests for proposals require references and proof of past experience,” says Corbit, whose company competes for government contracts. “We can’t submit the case studies themselves. But having them available makes it a lot easier to complete the proposals.”

Boost your web search ranking

Over the past decade or so, there has been a running battle between the people who create the mathematical formulas (algorithms) that guide search engine ranking and the people who try to game them. Whoever wins can win big. High search ranking usually translates into high-volume sales.

Unscrupulous individuals continue to find new and clever ways to beat the system. The search engine companies try to find and close these loopholes as quickly as they appear.

The battle goes on. But these days, one of the best ways to rank high on search results is to simply put fresh, keyword-driven, relevant content on your site. This, too, is being spoofed as we speak, by so-called “content farms.” These are businesses that sell other businesses reams of more or less generic content to pack on their sites. Yes, this can fool search engine algorithms. But it doesn’t usually fool customers. That’s because people know generic content when they see it. So to the list of “fresh, keyword-driven and relevant,” we need to add one more word: real.

Make your business case

David Cohen, CEO of MobileDataForce, says he invests in real stories about real customers because “they give our company credibility. They demonstrate our success.” Case studies are most often used by companies like Cohen’s that sell a relatively complex product or service.

“Good customer stories communicate complexity in terms that the average businessperson can understand,” Cohen says. “Some customers use them as part of the internal justification process, too. They’ll show our case studies to the inside decision-makers. It helps people who may not be familiar with the technology see right away how our products can benefit them.”

Of course, case studies are not for every company. Kevin Bentley, president of Boise’s Cognitics Inc., says his company doesn’t need them.

“The number of companies doing what we do (computer simulations for the military) is so small that everyone knows what everyone else does,” he says.

But for many companies, case studies in particular and brand journalism in general are low-hanging fruit in the search for new business.

Generate new leads

J. Glerum, CEO of Boise-based web development company valitics.com, sees case studies as great lead generators.

“Good companies make their case studies immediately available to the public without charge and without the person having to enter contact information,” Glerum says. “If the case study tells a good story, people will come back on their own and ask for more information.”

In the second part of this two-part series, we’ll look at how companies can use other elements of brand journalism to leverage search engine preferences and attract new customers.

Hobart “Hobie” Swan runs vocalizePR LLC, a Boise-based agency that helps companies grow by identifying and building relationships with key influencers. He can be contacted at hobart@vocalizePR.com and (208) 949-6598. Visit vocalizepr.com for more information.

About Hobart Swan