Three waves of content have dominated the evolving scene of web-based marketing. First there were keyword-driven articles, which were mostly spam designed to game the search engine. When Google’s algorithm updates got wise to the game, marketers developed “content marketing,” which upped the game to actually deliver a higher level of quality in articles, which are placed in relevant third party media outlets as well as on-site. The third wave is “brand journalism,” which is as close as you can get to traditional journalism while still using it as a tactic to further brand value.
There are critical differences between the three.
Keyword content: These articles have long outlived their usefulness. Written in “quick and dirty” style, usually by copying Wikipedia articles and other content and rewriting it enough to pass Copyscape, keyword articles offer very little to readers, and in fact, aren’t meant to be read by real people. They are usually placed on private blog networks, or sites that were created by marketers solely for the purpose of SEO.
Content marketing: A better version of keyword articles, content marketing was developed when marketers realized that “content is king,” and took that as an imperative to create a higher quality article that is not necessarily keyword-rich. Many content marketing articles will contain a backlink to a money site, and are still obviously promotional in nature.
Brand journalism: Marketers are now realizing that the best marketing juice they will get is when they offer meaningful thought leadership and journalism-quality articles that are written to a sufficient level of quality as to pass traditional editorial oversight in mainstream media outlets. These articles are not promotional in nature, rather attempt to offer unique insights about a broader and newsworthy trend that is related to the brand’s industry.
Keyword content can be written by non-professionals and often by those with marginal understanding of the English language. Content marketing requires more of a professional hand, and is often the domain of a marketing or public relations professional. Brand journalism requires the unbiased eye of a trained journalist who has the mind of a marketer.
Time to get with the program
Using original content as a marketing tool is a tactic that has grown much more sophisticated since those early days of spammy keyword articles. Yet, there are still marketers out there who follow those old tactics, source articles for a penny a word from offshore job sites, and place them in contributor sites or private blog networks. It’s still common enough to read marketing forums and hear people claiming that the “going rate” for sourcing content is something between a penny a word, or a flat ten dollars an article. The fact is, you can buy articles for that rate, but those are first-wave keyword articles whose usefulness has long passed.
Brand journalism defined
The difference between keyword articles and brand journalism is like the difference between a greasy spoon diner with a broken dishwasher, and a five-star restaurant. The difference between content marketing and brand journalism is a bit more subtle.
The goal of content marketing is primarily seen as lead generation, SEO and backlink building. Brand journalism has those same goals, but also adds in brand awareness and a desire to be seen as a thought leader and a knowledgeable authority on a given subject.
Let’s take an ecommerce client that offers mens’ fashion and grooming products, for example. A content marketer would create good quality articles with backlinks, and whenever possible, describe the unique value of the vendor. A brand journalist, on the other hand, would position the client as an authoritative source on mens’ fashion. The brand journalist would for example, create an intelligent article about the trend towards men wearing more hats, a piece on the best designer shoes, or an article about how to fold a pocket square.
The brand journalism article doesn’t attempt to sell a product. It positions the company as an authority on a subject.
Brand journalism articles can be homed on third-party media sites – although the sites brand journalists want to target will be sites with traditional editorial oversight, the editors of which are looking for meaningful articles relevant to their audience. Articles may also be placed on the brand’s own site in a separate article section or blog, or more recently, some brands are creating unbiased, vendor-neutral themed media outlets of their own.
The advantage of the latter tactic is the ability to create a media presence that is highly authoritative on a given subject, and fully controlled by the brand. Traffic will be generated only if the site is created so as to appear unbiased, though. Articles on the site are again, about a theme or a trend, not about the brand itself. A great example is the Red Bulletin, created by Red Bull. A look at the articles on this site reveal a perfect example of brand journalism. The articles aren’t about energy drinks, they are about the things that people who enjoy energy drinks might like – building a tree house, listening to heavy metal music, or enjoying vintage motorcycles. The connection to the brand is far more subtle, the quality of the writing is highly professional, the articles are appealing and stand on their own as legitimate journalistic pieces, and most of all, it’s a very powerful marketing tool.