What Marketers Can Learn from Journalists (and Vice Versa)

When I first became a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, it was to build my credibility as a writer. I duly listed it in my resume, kept up with my membership dues and participated in very little. Unlike most other members, I’ve never been a full-time freelancer and most of my writing is focused on full-time marketing copy.

It was only when I was awarded an honorable mention in ASJA’s annual writing awards that I began to take the organization — and myself — more seriously. Could cross-pollinating with freelance journalists, those who write about everything from pet care to health insurance, also bolster my marketing POV?

At the ASJA 2019 conference, I followed the content marketing track and also participated in a panel discussion on “How to Up Your Content Marketing Game.” Here are some of the takeaways I gathered:

1. Marketing by any other name is still marketing.

The thing about content marketing — aka custom content, aka native advertising, aka “our company should have a blog” — is that it doesn’t have a set definition. But, as Jennifer Goforth Gregory points out in her book “The Freelance Content Marketing Writer” and in her session entitled, “Understanding Brand Voice,” content marketing is much more commonplace that you think. Even the purest journalists have likely written for publications such as AARP The Magazine, The Costco Connection, an alumni magazine, or an airline magazine.

So, through that lens, I looked at our own work to see where marketing meets journalism:

  • Signature Travel Network, a membership organization that publishes print magazines directed toward consumers.
  • Princess Circle magazine delivered to onboard passengers.
  • Blogging about sunscreen safety for CheapCaribbean.
  • White papers that generate email leads. Newsletters to a closed audience. Client case studies to secure new business. The list goes on and on.

2. Being “editorial” means more than having a degree in English.

All of the above content fall squarely in the marketing realm, but they require a deft editorial hand. To engage consumers and establish a brand’s expert voice in a cluttered field, it’s essential that a writer dig through multiple sources of information, distill it into digestible and informative copy, and nail the brand’s voice. It requires strategizing what audiences want to read and when, and timing awareness-drive content campaigns with more granular conversion campaigns.

3. It’s important not to get locked in our ways. 

This year, I was also one of three judges in the ASJA 2019 Annual Writing Awards in the Travel Writing category. We scoured 18 submissions in publications that included The New York Times, BBC Travel and Lonely Planet, using a points system to rank them, and then discussed our favorites. I personally gravitated toward stories that I found to be descriptive, engaging and that put me in the moment: a long walk along Spain’s Via de la Plata Camino; a windblown hike among the elements in Iceland; a mezcal-soaked visit to Oaxaca that had me looking up flights.

“I found those rather formulaic,” commented another judge.

When I looked again, I realized she was right. I had fallen for travel articles that “sold” me on the destination and the experience through storytelling. But were they fresh enough to be award-worthy?

Eventually, we all came to a consensus on another article, “In Chad, the Elephants (So Many Elephants) Are Back” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/travel/chad-elephants-zakouma-park.html). It’s a destination that’s unlikely to hit the big guidebooks anytime soon, but whose conservation efforts are among the most remarkable in all of Africa. It’s possible that the writer hit upon a destination that marketers will be clamoring to represent in the next 5 or 10 years. But she did so in a way that felt relevant right now, weaving in her travel experience, deep reporting and an uplifting ending.

Looking at travel writing through a more critical eye made me realizes how over-relying on formulas can make us fall into a standard that’s not as elevated as it could be. And both marketers and writers should always be looking to level up, rather than settle down.