Sandy, Ickiness, and “Deadline Branded Journalism”

Here’s one reason why brands should embrace journalists: Good journalists have learned how to be current in ways that feel relevant and welcome — as opposed to icky.

See, when marketing types try to be relevant, they too often come across as more inappropriate than when your drunk best man structured his toast around the story of that time you made a sex tape with two co-eds and a fruit salad.

My old friend Stuart Elliott wrote a New York Times story about exactly those kinds of screw-ups in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Everybody on the east side of the U.S. was absolutely fixated by the storm early this week, and brands wanted to snag a little piece of that interest. But especially in a time of disaster, there’s no room for any message that sounds the least bit self-serving or insensitive. Stuart details a number of such flubs, like this one: The Adler brand urged shoppers on Twitter and in e-mails to “storm our site” and obtain free shipping by entering “code Sandy at checkout.” Adler ended up having to apologize.

Nonetheless, it’s smart for brands to try to be current. I recently stopped by Forbes to talk to Lewis Dvorkin, who is building a platform on Forbes.com for branded content, called BrandVoice. Brands pay to blog on Forbes.com, and the content gets mixed in with all the other Forbes-created content — though BrandVoice pieces are marked as such. For a BrandVoice story to get attention, it has to be good on its own merits — as good as Forbes’ journalist-written pieces.

So what works in getting attention? “Being current,” Lewis immediately said. Stay close to the news, and the stories will get more readers.

But really — brands are terrible at this! If they try to stay close to the news, they often stumble like Adler. And then on the flip side, brands seem like they are news-blind.

In checking several times this week, I never saw one BrandView story rise to Forbes’ most-read list. Two of the most active brands on Forbes’ BrandView are Oracle and SAP. It’s hard to find a relevant story in their buckets. On Oct. 31, while much of the Northeast cleaned up from Sandy, Oracle ran a post from its president, Mark Hurd, titled, “What CEOs want from CIOs.” At that point, on that day — who cared!?

Journalists who have worked for newspapers or news magazines instinctively hunt for relevant angles on a big story, always keeping their audience in mind. The trick is to always know the bigger picture  and filter current events through that.

A simple example: Let’s say a reporter covers real estate. She always has in her mind the big trends and issues that people care about — like housing prices, foreclosures, interest rates. She’s learned those issues and has some expertise in them. So when Sandy hits, she immediately writes about how the storm will impact those curent issues, addressing the topic in ways that matter to readers.

If a brand acted more like a journalist, it would filter current events through the kinds of things it knows about — and match that up with what people care about.

Cape Bank in Cape May, N.J., might inherently know a lot about the history of how a major storm impacts a seashore economy. If it thought like a journalist, it would quickly put that knowledge into words or videos and get its wisdom out to the public, perhaps as an op-ed piece or blog or  video. To hit the right note, the piece could not at all try to promote the bank. The idea would be to share knowledge and help people. By doing so, the bank could seem smart and caring, not to mention quick on its feet.

Let’s call it “deadline branded journalism.” At the moment, it’s either hard to find or badly done. A smart brand might exploit that opening.

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