It’s become extremely useful for journalists to have some understanding of content marketing strategies.

By Adrian Ma

There was a time, not too long ago, that combining journalism and marketing seemed to be an incongruous mix. In old school newsrooms, the division between editorial and corporate interests (i.e. revenue generation) was often considered akin to the separation of church and state. Well, at least that’s what Good Night, and Good Luck made it seem like.

These days, there’s an increasingly blurred line between journalism and marketing, as sponsored content and native advertising becomes primed to replace traditional advertising on news sites. As part of this new economic reality and mixed media landscape, it’s become extremely useful for journalists to have some understanding of content marketing strategies, particularly when it comes to building strong brands, both corporate and personal.

For the past couple of years at the Ryerson University School of Journalism, I’ve had the pleasure of developing and teaching a senior-level undergraduate course called Building the Brand, in which students study what makes for successful brands and then apply those lessons to their own personal careers. Some of my students have used the principles they’ve learned to create portfolio websites that truly stand out from the crowd, their own original podcast shows, e-commerce sites and more. I’d love to share a few key observations we’ve made that could help you develop your own brand as a journalist or content producer.

1. Branding is a form of storytelling

When I introduce this course to new students, I like to compare developing a distinct brand identity to writing a good news lede. As a human being, you are a multi-faceted, complex individual with your own rich history. Distilling your personality and skills and experience into a clear and focused statement is kind of like taking a big story with lots of potential angles and turning it around into a concise news piece. Some of the same techniques apply. You want to try to address all the critical questions. You want to emphasize the most interesting or unique details first and foremost. You want to paint a compelling narrative.

The key is to really look inwards and figure out those unique details. Ask yourself: What sets me apart from everybody else in my field? What am I truly passionate about? What can I offer that few others can? Make that part of your lede.

2. Understand the needs of your audience

Successful branding really boils down to being able to identify your audience and and offering something special or valuable to them. The best brands in the world understand that you can’t appeal to everybody, nor should you try. As journalists, we may believe we’re simply trying to get our content out to as many people as possible, but it’s often a more effective strategy to cultivate relationships with a dedicated few as opposed to targeting everybody and reaching nobody. Through a combination of website metrics, social media analytics and other demographic information, you can gain deeper insights into what similarities, tendencies and needs your audience share. One of my most frequently offered pieces of advice is to tailor the delivery and expression of your brand to the social spaces and platforms your audience primarily uses. If you’re a talented video producer and you want to reach people who love cool videos, then invest far more of your effort developing a kick ass YouTube channel than keeping your Twitter account buzzing. If long-form text-based journalism is your thing and you want to build a great web portfolio, really spend time designing your site with readable fonts and lots of whitespace for a comfortable reading experience. Make user experience and audience engagement a central tenet of your brand strategy.

3. Consistency is key

Nike co-founder Phil Knight famously started off by selling Japanese-manufactured shoes out of his car at track meets during the 1960s. This initial enterprise soon evolved into the powerhouse brand Nike, which today offers a multitude of sports products and experiences. Over the years, fashion trends, technological innovations and celebrity endorsers have come and gone. But the enduring success of the Nike brand has been remarkably consistent. They struck upon a winning brand identity early on, which is reflected in the company’s legendary brand mantra.

A brand mantra isn’t a slogan. In Nike’s case, the company’s most famous tagline would be “Just Do It.” It’s catchy and recognizable. But a mantra is something deeper. It’s a simple collection of words that encapsulates the entire brand’s essence. Nike’s brand mantra is “Authentic Athletic Performance.” A brand mantra is part of the DNA of the company and is a touchstone that influences all aspects of the brand, from the product strategy to the marketing campaigns. Nike is justifiably renowned for its creative, dynamic commercials. But if you watch enough of them, you can clearly see the dedication to the idea of celebrating “Authentic Athletic Performance.” The themes are recurring and consistent: “Sports are fun. The world’s greatest athletes would never have become superstars if they didn’t genuinely love to play. If you wear Nike, you share that love in common with them. Nike is real sports wear for real people whether you’re Ronaldo or Ronnie, the eight-year-old around the block.”

Consistency applies to personal brands as well. Your brand’s tone, personality, identity should be part of a unified narrative, which includes everything from the style of headshots, to your choice of colour palette and fonts on your website, to the text you use to describe yourself on LinkedIn or the resumes you pass along to potential employers. Whether you want to position yourself as a serious, investigative reporter or a youthful, social media whiz, that message should be consistently communicated across all avenues and platforms.

These were a few insights gleaned from working with young journalists develop their own personal brands. Applying them to your own careers could help you stand out in a competitive and crowded media job market.

Adrian Ma is an award-winning journalist and an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto. He has spent most of his journalism career as a reporter and digital producer and specializes in teaching multimedia storytelling and personal branding.