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Write Like a Journalist: Tips for Content Marketers

Write Like a Journalist: Tips for Content MarketersMarketing language is sometimes designed to "make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” George Orwell, the author of dystopian novel 1984, was talking about political speech when he wrote those words in 1946. Yet his words are just as apt when it comes to what can go wrong with content marketing: jargon or poorly crafted prose, cliches, ambiguity, empty phrases and other clutter.

That’s not necessary. As content marketing eclipses more traditional marketing and advertising copy, there’s something to be learned from writers and journalists. Delivering a story people want to read means spending time to create something they want to know about, and respecting readers by not peddling sensationalist or annoying pitches.

Yes, you are writing with a point-of-view. No, it’s not investigative journalism. But marketers will do well to read (and apply) much of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics to build the kind of trust and attention they want associated with their brand. It’s not just about what’s right. It's what works.

Here are a few tips from the newsroom:

Earn Trust

You’re unlikely to have an audience that matters if they don’t believe what you’re saying — whether your topic is Washington politics or CRMs. You can adapt most of what journalism preaches to write content that sells and attracts customers. The basic principles? Tell the truth (given your disclosed point of view). Act independently. Minimize harm. Be accountable to your readers. Read it all in SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

Write Long and Well, Not Short and Shallow

A 100 word post isn’t a bad thing. But if you want to attract and keep an audience, write longer, higher quality stories more often than you’re doing now. FastCompany found its articles drew more traffic after it began adding more length and context. Data digging by the founder of KissMetrics showed his longer, richer posts equalled more audience. Marketing Experiments discovered long copy outperformed short copy by 41 percent and increased ROI from negative 14 percent to over 21 percent.

There is a caveat: If you’re writing long, write well. Otherwise don’t bother. Sometimes, shorter copy can convert better. It’s not about word count, it’s about having something to say. So keep your prose as slim as possible. Go deep if warranted. There is magic in paring down your words to the essentials. Try this exercise: Take what you have written. Shave it down to a few sentences. Then a phrase. Then one word. Keep adding constraints until you find only what is needed. Then you can easily chip away the rest. Anything you add back better matter to the reader.

Don't Forget the Headline

Headlines matter. More than ever. Twitter is merely the fine-art of headline writing taken to the masses. Don’t worry if you’re not good at it — yet. It’s an acquired skill, one that blends art, science and is well-served by a good editor. The science part is simple: use concrete nouns, active verbs. The art is teasing out the compelling, human, urgent message in just one line. Tap into the authenticity of your own message.

Facts are Nice. But People Understand the World in Stories

Humans, it turns out, are pretty impervious to facts. Study after study has found humans seek out facts to confirm their view of the world, not the other way around. Often, we don’t think, we rationalize.

Yet people are remarkably open to stories. Narratives enjoy a direct line to our brains, while facts must dodge a thicket of emotions, distractions and biases to reach our hearts and minds. In the book "Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool," author Peg Neuhauser tells of an MBA class that was divided into three groups to persuade a student audience about the future success of a winery. One group had only statistics, the second had both statistics and a story, while the third had just a story. The third group swept the competition: the majority of students in the last group judged the winery’s future would be successful.

This principle holds if you’re selling life insurance or a new startup: stories win over statistics. So tell a good story. But don’t forget that marketers, like journalists, should get their facts straight. The Internet knows where you live. Check that your statistics back up the story you’re telling.

Write What People Care About: People

People, you might have guessed, want to know about people and, by extension, themselves. There is nothing so fascinating to us as our universal desires to love, be loved, do the right thing, be happier, more successful (and our opposing natures including greed, fear, envy and the rest). For journalists, this means revealing those universal motivations in everyday stories.


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