Shifting from "Brand Story" to "Brand Perspective"
How many “future of marketing” posts have you seen this year? A million?
Make it a million and one.
My issue with “The Future of Marketing” as a writing genre is that it tends to revolve around entertainment trends…
(“Every Brand Should Pivot to Short-Form Video: What’s Your TikTok/Quibi Strategy?”)
…or nascent technologies.
(“Microtargeting for Immersive Experiences: Welcome to Programmatic VR”)
If we’re doing our jobs as marketers, the future of marketing will be whatever the audience wants it to be. We can sometimes see around corners that the audience can’t, but in the end, the audience is always right, and they should be in control. So what do people really want from brands?
I don’t think it’s controversial to point out that they don’t want ads, even if they’re happy to embrace brands.
Sometimes they just want to be entertained. But as the agency world has been reshaped by the creative possibilities in short-form video, influencer partnerships, live events, and social media, there’s a whole other side of the media where podcasts, Substack newsletters, documentary films, thoughtful essays, and video how-tos are exploding.
People make time for credible information, expertise, and perspective. In media parlance, we’d call this “the editorial side,” set apart from entertainment and marketing.
We’ve spent the past decade applying an editorial approach to brand communications, and we see the marketing world moving more and more in this direction. In my opinion, it’s a future we should all be pushing for, because it’s entirely based on providing value to people, and optimizing for the audience experience.
An editorial approach gives us permission to stop telling our “brand story” (as if anyone cares), and instead share our brand’s perspective.
That can be a pretty big mindset shift for marketers. But once you’ve internalized this editorial approach, you can use it to improve most of the 101 different marketing channels and activities you’re already doing.
- Your public relations program will get more traction with journalists
- Your brand positioning will stake out a real position
- Your corporate blog will actually say interesting things
- Your content will look more like the type of media people like, and less like the advertising they don’t
- Your executives will get more leadership cred in speeches and on social media
- You’ll encourage your influencer partners to push boundaries and stay authentic, rather than them pushing you
Most importantly, your audience will learn to trust you, and value your perspective.
Foundations of Editorial Marketing
So let’s talk about how Codeword puts this editorial marketing approach into practice. At the highest level, it’s about sharing interesting information in interesting ways. The brief is different, the output is different, and the audience response will be different.
A lot of this is instinctual for editors and journalists, which is why we hire so many of them. For those who don’t come from editorial backgrounds, here’s what goes into creating good editorial content.
We say this again and again: Marketing and communications should be about building trust. Call it “transparency” or “honesty” — it just means you respect your audience enough to say something real.
This is especially important in 2020. You’ve been following the news. Employees are leaking internal emails. Slack conversations are suddenly public. Forums that used to be private aren’t anymore. These are good things, and they point to transparency as a competitive differentiator.
Tell the truth, across all your channels. Mean what you say, say what you mean. Sounds easy, but few things are harder for brands and businesses.
The editorial flipside of truth is credibility. A good editor wants to verify everything and check their facts, and so do we. The audience is skeptical, whether it’s a reader on a blog, a conference attendee listening to a speech, or a journalist fielding a PR pitch.
We are marketers for brands, which means the audience assumes we’re full of shit by default.
The burden of proof is entirely on us, so we do what editors and journalists do: Back up our words with data, and use multiple sources (like customer quotes, or analyst insights).
Point of View
Very few brands are able to tell stories effectively for a couple reasons:
- stories told by the hero tend not to be very interesting (or believable)
- stories without conflict aren’t really stories
So be careful building your content channels around storytelling. A smart POV, on the other hand, contextualizes the world of both the brand and the audience. So what do you stand for? Why do you exist? What do you think about the space you’re in?
The startups we work with often have these questions figured out — they were answered in the investor deck.
For bigger companies, this can be a difficult, unnatural conversation. It’s not often clear who should be instigating it. High-level execs might have trouble aligning with an all-up vision for the org. Or it can feel reverse-engineered, where corporate values are defined by the marketing team instead of the day-to-day reality of the business. (In which case you end up with a false positioning; see above.)
We’ve been through this process many times, and it’s messy, but once we’ve aligned the org on a high-level point of view, everything gets easier. We know what kinds of content to create and which words to use, stakeholder approvals are easier, responding to news cycles gets faster. And if a crisis happens, we’ve already laid the groundwork for a response.
A quick example: A couple years ago we were tasked to build a newsroom team for a global tech company that tended to be a bit slow and stodgy. Our brief was to speed them up, and transition their comms away from the world of white papers to more directly communicate with their B2B audience.
The upfront process was an absolute slog, and we spent months aligning the org around a POV that was true to the brand and resonant with our very small, very smart audience.
Once we got through that heavy strategic lift, the actual content creation was heaven. We were creative, responsive, and fast, and the client was an approval machine. Our work sailed through client reviews, because it was all designed to reinforce a POV that the stakeholders had already aligned on. And most importantly, the consistency in our POV improved the brand’s message pull-through. That’s what an editorial approach can bring to a brand.
A big part of any editorial content is simply asking “Why is this important right now? Why is it relevant? How does this affect the audience?”
Journalists and editors have an sharply honed sense of what’s newsy and what their audience expects from them. Establishing relevance is a big part of their job, and it’s a big part of ours as well. We aren’t playing the advertising game, where a zillion people will see an ad and 0.001% of them will click on it. We’re playing the editorial game, where we rely on organic search, conversations, and shares.
Which is why everything we publish or pitch has to have a hook. And just like in the media world, these hooks can take lots of different forms. We can draft off of a big newscycle (“newsjacking,” in PR-ese). We can break news or share something exclusive. We can get a high-profile voice, or provide access to someone that our audience cares about. We can develop a content format that’s never been tried before. We can put search data to good use and answer people’s pressing questions.
Finding the hook isn’t particularly complicated, you just need to put on your audience hat and figure out what would make them care.
Discovery is an important part of the editorial process — being open to changing conditions and actively seeking out fresh perspectives. We try to build content programs around the most expansive range of viewpoints and voices. This includes people up and down the corporate hierarchy, rather than reflexively relying on execs and marketers for content.
(Pro tip: Engineers want to hear from engineers. Developers want to hear from developers. Nobody wants to hear from marketers except other marketers. Sorry.)
We also like to pull in outside voices and experts, and people from different backgrounds. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, because from an editorial perspective, everything doesn’t have to be perfectly aligned with the official brand positioning. In an editorial marketing world, the brand’s POV can be discussed and challenged, and it can evolve. You can even get things wrong sometimes.
In the ad world, when you’re making a :30, there’s a level of investment and permanence that naturally leads to preciousness. The creative needs to be perfect.
But we aren’t making a piece of creative that’s gonna run for six months. It’ll go up today, and there’ll be another one tomorrow and the next day, and hopefully they all work together to build the brand. Editorial is about exploration, and constant creation. The best journalists never stop digging. The real subject-matter experts know how much they don’t know. We think curiosity and discovery make our content programs more compelling.
In the same vein, we’re trying to shift Codeword away from a “discovery phase” as a distinct moment at the beginning of a client engagement. The discovery phase never stops, the insights just get more informed. And ideally, that’s a journey the audience takes with us.
This is an adaptation from the content marketing world, which is designed specifically to drive action. It’s totally reasonable and acceptable for content to have a purpose and a goal, just be clear about it. What do you want your audience to do? Follow? Share their thoughts? Click on a link? Submit an application? Take to the streets?
Be transparent, and make it easy for them to take that next step.
To recap, here are the ingredients of smart editorial: Truth, POV, News Value, Openness, Action.
Easy, right? We’ll be publishing a bunch of different editorial perspectives in the coming months. What does this editorial approach mean from a design perspective? Channel strategy? Measurement? Stay tuned.
And in the meantime, feel free to steal these ideas, co-opt them, put them on a slide and take credit for them with your manager, etc. And we love talking about this stuff, so if you want to chat about it, drop us a note!