Brands Should Implement Newsroom Best Practices to Engage Their Audience

Speaker Q&A: Adrian Michaels, Director at FirstWord Media believes that brands doing content marketing and native advertising could and should learn a lot from newsrooms if they want to engage their audience with great content.
newsroom best practices

NAI_badge18-03Brands doing content marketing and native advertising could and should learn a lot from newsrooms and the world of journalism if they want to engage their audience with great content.

At least that’s what Adrian Michaels, Director at the content marketing agency FirstWord Media believes. We asked him why – and how brands can implement those practices.

Prior to founding FirstWord, Adrian was at the Financial Times for 15 years and since at the Telegraph before running a 40-person native advertising newsroom.

On many occasions, I thought a lot of our output was as good if not better than the main newspaper’s.

You were probably the first senior journalist to jump to the advertising side – why did you make this shift?

It seemed to me that was where all the excitement was.

I had already spent 18 years as editor, news reporter, leader writer, foreign correspondent, sub-editor, columnist, senior manager. And I had been extremely lucky and had a lot of fun.

I learnt that the Telegraph’s advertising department in London was fast building its journalism capabilities so it could meet growing demand from advertisers for content-led ideas (what has now become known as native advertising). That required a senior journalist with the production and management knowledge to make it work as that business expanded.

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In some ways, the most interesting thing was budget: because advertisers were paying, we were more able to get great writers, great designers, great photographers. On many occasions, I thought a lot of our output was as good if not better than the main newspaper’s.

I really enjoyed the work. We had 40 or so journalists in a self-contained newsroom on the advertising side. My job was to oversee the most complicated production schedule imaginable, make sure that the advertising and editorial departments understood how they could help each other and where the limits of that co-operation lay, and crucially to help the sales teams to sell content solutions to advertisers.

I loved the selling – it was new to me, and advertisers used to relax when they met real journalists as they understood that the content was going to be in safe hands. I was selling something that had taken me two decades to get good at, that the advertisers needed, and that they couldn’t do too easily themselves. A great combination.

Content marketing is journalism.

How have you used your journalistic background in your work with content marketing?

Content marketing is journalism.

It may be paid for by the marketing department but the purpose is to attract the attention of audiences with items that they want to read (or watch) and then share and talk about. If it is too overtly marketing-driven and too sales-focused, then it wouldn’t be engaging.

Newsroom journalists are intensely focused every day in what their audiences want to read and that for me is the fundamental difference between marketing (“what do I want to tell you today?”) and content marketing (“what do you want to hear from me today?”).

It’s also about newsroom mentality – to produce engaging content.

What do you believe brands can learn from newsroom best practices when doing great content marketing and native advertising?

Newsroom best practice means two things:

1. All the extra roles that exist to make content as good as it can be. It’s a bit like the list of credits at the end of a movie – I don’t know what half those people do, but I assume the movie would be bad if they weren’t there.

Brands or advertising teams building content units (brand newsrooms) need to understand about editing, sub-editing, headline writing, proofreading, quality control, production control, calendars, story gathering (as well as storytelling) timing, volume, frequency.

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2. It’s also about newsroom mentality – to produce engaging content and almost all the inputs for that content are external to your environment and not inside your company.

Newsrooms know that what the feature writers are proposing that day are just one input to a successful calendar, the rest is about what’s going on in the world and what other people are talking about.

It’s about implanting an idea about a company that knows what it’s talking about so that potential customers will have that company on their consideration or tender list in the future

Why are these tools and best practices crucial for successful content?

Successful content in my world is not usually about selling chocolate bars or heated towel rails online tomorrow morning.

It’s about implanting an idea about a company that knows what it’s talking about so that potential customers will have that company on their consideration or tender list in the future when they are nearer to a purchase, or investment, or whatever else the company does.

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Implanting that idea happens when the company has curated a conversation about its world over several months – it has played host to ideas, produced proper “thought leadership” in an area. Essentially it has become an active and exciting publisher of a magazine as good as any produced externally.

Stories need to be designed by the best, and designers need to have a relationship with editors too.

How do brands actually get these insights? Where do they start and what should be the end goal?

Borrowing from newsroom best practice, of course, involves learning from the people who have done it. But while some journalism skills are essential, I am trying to stress here that the actual writing (or videography, or graphic design, or audio broadcast) is only one part.

The rest is a whole discipline and involves absolute rigour. And it is the production and editing and calendar management that are most often hardest to replicate because advertising people, or PR firms, or marketing departments, usually know very little about them.

RELATED: How Publishers Can Learn More About Users to Create Better Content

Marketing departments are increasingly hiring editorial directors, or content creators (as are publishers’ advertising departments) – but journalists need to be commissioned by journalists, edited by journalists, brainstorm with journalists. Stories need to be designed by the best, and designers need to have a relationship with editors too.

I don’t want to make this sound so self-serving – but if you are spending money on journalism, which is what I believe content marketing absolutely is, then it’s journalists who are best suited to help you. Not all of them are very good at dealing with commercial imperatives or handling budgets, or internal corporate diplomacy. But that’s a different story.

Publishers are a great distribution channel and shortcut to audiences.

Does all this mean that brands should no longer work with publishers on branded content and native advertising? (why/why not?)

It absolutely does not mean that, and I’m not saying this just because I’m an invited speaker at a conference on native advertising.

First, publishers’ advertising departments are often a ready resource for some of the skills we are discussing (as are of course agencies like mine, which is why we started in business 5 years ago).

RELATED: Will Publishers’ Brand Studios Become Victims of Their Own Success?

Second, publishers are a great distribution channel and shortcut to audiences. Increasingly these days we may help our clients to create content, and we then recommend as part of their distribution strategy that they take out native advertising campaigns with certain publishers.

The publishers themselves may be doing less content creation, but they are offering traffic, audience and reach, which is extremely valuable.

I hope my answers here have given a clue as to why my presentation will be unmissable!

You are an official speaker at this year’s Native Advertising DAYS. Why should attendees at the conference absolutely not miss your presentation about how to borrow from newsroom best practices to keep audiences engaged?

I am delighted to be invited and I’m really looking forward to the gathering. I hope my answers here have given a clue as to why my presentation will be unmissable!

But seriously – I’d say I am worth 40 minutes of your time because I really do have a very unusual CV. There just aren’t people around who have been senior journalists and editors, and run big native advertising departments, and set up agencies to work with clients directly on all these projects.

I hope that what I say will be different, refreshing, informative and give you some very useful tips for instantly improving your branded content operations.

You can’t put a price on 2-3 days of listening and discussion.

What do you look forward to the most at this year’s Native Advertising DAYS?

You can’t put a price on 2-3 days of listening and discussion. I am very excited about meeting and learning from the other delegates. See you in Berlin!

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