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How to Think Like a Journalist For Better Content Marketing Ideas

By Susan Duensing, CBC, Co-Founder, Element-R Partners

Some of the most valuable marketing material your company has isn’t just what you can tout about your product or service. It’s what’s in your collective brains.

In the early days of my career as a trade magazine editor, I learned how digging into a subject — any subject — can make it interesting (ask me about circuit boards and their zillions of component parts, anyone?). The process of sourcing and writing articles for magazines is applicable to content marketing, because today, every company has the opportunity to be their own media.

This definition by marketing guru Jay Abraham provides an inspiring starting point:

Marketing is the lifelong process of educating your customers about the value of your product or service.

Note the words, “lifelong” and “educating.” Both apply to content (or inbound) marketing directed to prospects and customers: creating and disseminating useful information through all of the various channels available today: your website, blog, Linkedin page and groups, Twitter, Facebook, and yes, the media.

The idea of sharing educational information to create value — as a precursor to a sale, and after the sale is made — is more important today than ever because it’s a highly effective means to reach self-educating consumers.

Most companies are by now acting on this route to attract prospects and convert them into customers. But the sheer volume of content you need to produce can pose a real challenge: how to go beyond the basics about your product or service for fresh content ideas over time.

Why not step out of your company role and start thinking like a journalist? Put yourself in the shoes of a reporter, and take a new perspective on what and how you write for your content marketing channels.

1. Do I Really Need “News?”

One of the critical skill-sets of a company’s public relations team used to be making news, even if you don’t have a “new” product or service to offer. Nowadays, with the explosion of online information sharing channels, no one has to rely on the media to get the word out.

And then as now, you don’t have to have news to make news.

And then as now, you don’t have to have news to make news.

Your knowledge, whether from company executives, sales reps, technical staff, customer service reps, and that of your customers and colleagues, can be mined for gold.

The potential topics are almost endless but must follow one simple guideline: What would people who might be in the market for your product or service want to know, or find useful? This is why how-to articles (like this one!), tips features and real-world case studies have always been the best-read. It’s because they are useful.

Of course, if you’re really thinking like a journalist, it’s always wise to look for a news angle — especially if you plan to pitch your content to the media. Tie in your topic to current events; be ready in advance to position your company’s executives as experts on subject matter being discussed; or create a list of the top 10 things buyers should know about your offering. Also, be sure to check the editorial calendars of media in your industry to get ideas about how they plan months in advance to cover topics of interest to your target audience.

2. Find the Golden Nuggets

First, make sure you cover what buyers should look for when evaluating a product or service like yours. Explore and exploit all angles of your team’s knowledge, and strive to go beyond the obvious benefits and features.

For more topic ideas, explore the experiences and concerns of customers: how they use your product or service, what they value about it, and their relationship to your company. Next, brainstorm about what happens in the field, and during ongoing servicing (like common problems, special knowledge you bring to different situations). What is it about your offering that prospects don’t quite understand? Explain it. Can you help them justify the investment with their management? Do so. Find the rub when you’re working on a sale, and address it in your content marketing, point-blank.

3. Plan to Make Your Content About Them, Not You

Would a reporter write only in a way that makes a company look good? Certainly not. Because it’s not about you and your company, it’s about the reader. If you can appeal to readers on the topics and issues they care about, your brilliance will be appreciated — without any commercial message.

4. Have a Point of View

Some of the most enlightening conversations we’ve had with business owners and executives have been about their lives, their perspectives and opinions — where they came from; how they moved up in the ranks; how and why they got into the industry or started their own businesses. What they saw happening in their industry that made them dream up a better way. There are usually several people within a company that have a strong point of view — especially sales people who are closest to the customer. Tap them. A thoughtful listener can draw insights that can lead to solid content ideas.

An example: during one of our conversations with a manufacturing client’s sales rep, he talked about how his distributors did not truly understand how his product could be used throughout a facility. Since distributors were so crucial to reaching end-user customers, specific, educational content was developed that literally walked them through a scenario and showed, step-by-step, where the opportunities were.

Another example: a financial services client was acquiring another firm whose principal was retiring. In casually discussing it further, we determined that this could be (and was in fact) a broader industry trend. Plus, it impacted investors — making it a perfect topic to sell to the media. That angle led to a cover story article, and positive reaction from the client’s customers and business partners.

5. Take a Reporter’s Perspective

What kinds of questions would they ask? What would they be interested in? What is it about your business, your customers, your industry that a reporter should be interested in? Step back and really think about this one. Commenting on industry trends and common user issues are great places to start.

6. Expand Your Sources

What else would a reporter do besides ask good questions of an interview source? He or she would talk to other people. So, expand your sources instead of always building content around a single source, or a specific product or service.

Take a hot topic and include your company’s executive, end-user companies, a key industry association spokesperson and a respected editor or blogger, and turn it into a roundtable discussion (just like a magazine would). How good would your company look if it sponsored and shared a conversation like this?

7. Prepare to be Interesting

For help with writing style and tone, look at the writing styles and topics you like to read outside of business publications. How do the authors frame the content and keep your interest? What tone or perspective do they take? Can you see personality in their writing?

Taking a completely different viewpoint about ways you could approach a subject can give you many ideas for developing educational content. This tip is particularly useful if you’re just starting out with a blog or on social channels. (And, note that if your company has an established brand voice, you may not have as much freedom with writing styles.)

8. Talk Like a Person, Not a Company

Formal business-speak has thankfully been abandoned for (gasp) conversation! Your tone, your jargonless copy, and basically, just being real is the best way to approach your topic — and usually, makes your piece more fun to read.

9. Use a Q&A Format

Another opportunity many miss is to conduct a basic Q&A with people inside the company (from researchers to sales) and even customers. These are easier to write, and can be a fresh source of surprisingly good information.

10. Learn from other Thought Leaders

Who are the thought leaders you follow? Learn and apply how they are leveraging digital and social channels, the kinds of content and tone of the information they put out.

With all of these pointers in hand, conducting a one-hour long group exercise of “Thinking like a Journalist” with your staff should easily generate dozens of ideas for new content to be used in various ways.

While sky’s-the-limit marketing campaigns are not feasible for most companies’ pocketbooks, you can afford to think rich when it comes to content marketing.

One of our favorite questions for clients is, ‘If you were speaking to a room filled with 200 potential buyers of your product or service, what’s the one thing you’d want to tell them?’ Then find a way to couch that message into content that is educational to your audience.

About Susan Duensing

Susan Duensing, Certified Business Communicator, is Partner and Co-Founder at Element-R Partners, LLC, specialists in relevant and results-oriented B2B marketing communications. DoubleTake Design has partnered with Element-R for over a decade, bringing our respective expertise to bear on behalf of our clients. Contact Susan at