What the newsroom taught me about content marketing
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
My favorite days as a journalism student at San Jose State University were chaotic and unplanned.
I had no car, a budget too tight for Ubers, and a hard-headed habit of never asking for help. I resorted to walking around school or downtown San Jose to look for stories. I'd find them in stickers pasted furiously on the door of SJSU's favorite neighbor, Philz Coffee. Or I'd crane my neck to take a peek through open doors or catch event flyers tossed around South First Street.
I've stumbled across local creators, activists, community-builders, and entrepreneurs by complete accident. My best conversations happened while frantically running up to strangers at the final hour of a submission deadline after a string of failed interviews and doors slammed in my face.
So when I leaped into the Silicon Valley startup world as a content writer, I was both enthusiastic and slightly naive. I waltzed into this jungle of a world the same way I did into a newsroom — the phrase "There's a story in everything!" ringing through my head like a cult mantra.
But finding a story in everything didn't work out quite as planned. At times, I was actually starting to doubt it.
I wasn't in a school newsroom fighting to cover topics nobody else had done before. I was writing to help a business, a place where everything I did was scrutinized for measurable value to mark it a success or a complete waste of time. I needed results, fast.
It couldn't be helped. I inched my way back into a rabbit hole of doing what's been proven most likely to succeed. I succumbed to the trap of buzzword-crazy, jargon-intoxication, buy-my-product-now content marketing.
Surprise, surprise. That didn't work either.
Good content is content with the purpose of serve who consumes it.
Here's one thing I learned from all the trial and error:
✏️ The way people consume B2B content marketing isn't very different from the way they consume good journalism, Twitter threads, or TikTok exposés.
In a world where content has never been more accessible, it's also never been more exhausting. Nobody has the time to read something that isn't speaking directly to what they need. It doesn't matter if it's software for their company's tool stack or 5 hot new sustainable storage containers to Marie Kondo their life — both fish from the same pool of limited attention.
Journalism has always defined the way I produce and perceive content: There's a story in everything, for everyone, if I take the time to observe, ask and listen.
It's a personal philosophy I've embraced completely in my career as a content marketer, helping me advocate for content marketing to be more than a means to an end, a channel to a metric, or a path to a lead.
I believe the future of content marketing will make every interaction with a brand feel like a binge-worthy series. It'll educate communities, amplify voices, and answer important questions, the way great journalism does.
Here are three tips from my days in the newsroom that keep me centered as a content marketer strapped in for that journey.
👋 Write for your reader
Every writer has a few stories they're really proud of. But there's nothing quite as humbling as reading them again a few months or years later and realizing how little that story actually scraped below the surface. Although dripping in beautiful prose and big intelligent words, you never really get to the point.
When that happens, I've taken on the role of the everyday reader (although much too late) — someone with little context on the work I've put in, and with a clear idea of what they want to get out of the time they spend reading it.
The single most important question my editors would ask me still holds true as a content marketer. "Why should anyone care about what you just wrote?"
In both scenarios, my writing process kicks off by understanding who I'm writing for. So before kicking off any topic research, I first drill down on these questions.
These answers already outline the shape of a content brief I can work with. Now I can map out my writing process to fire on both cylinders — meeting business outcomes and giving my readers authentic value.
🗣 Talk to sources directly
Writing for an audience is tough. But writing something genuinely useful for an audience is even tougher. Even if you've done all your research and answered all the big questions.
We live in a world where it can look relatively easy to research content topics. A quick search beyond Google on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube can give you enough to build content pieces thousands of words long.
But is it enough to be considered useful? Not really.
More often than not, I find myself a draft saturated with what's.
What keywords are being searched
What stats make this look data-driven
What trends are trade-pub approved and influencer-endorsed
Ah, a recipe content readers love to hate.
But it can be easily avoided if I stop trying to be the expert.
What does a journalist look for to build a great story? Sources. Interviews. Lots of it.
The more questions you ask, the fewer holes in your story, and the stronger your credibility. I've learned that the best content marketing is built this same way.
Whether it's writing for a publication or a B2B blog, my golden rule is to cut to the chase and talk to a source. This helps me turn those whats into whys.
Sources don't just give you answers. They give you memorable anecdotes and dispute naive generalizations. They're the "it" factor every story needs.
🙅🏽♀️ Don't make assumptions
I believe the best content creation is selfless. My favorite journalists and content marketers produce work with clear and strong intentions to help someone do something. To uncover truths, educate, build arguments, or protest norms.
Anything that holds even a sliver of doubt is worth analyzing. That's how journalists broke stories about Watergate and Harvey Weinstein. How impactful and groundbreaking would those revelations be if missing pieces of the puzzle were filled in with assumptions?
Would there even be a story at all if it was simply assumed that everything behind the scenes was trudging along the way it should be?
Content marketing shouldn't be too different. Great content leaves a memorable impact on readers, prompting them to utilize it in their daily work, share it with their peers, or interact with your brand. I came across an article on The Juice by Olivia Adkinson summarizing this impact perfectly — we don't know good content when we see it; we know it when we feel it.
I want to be a content marketer who leaves my readers with a feeling they can't easily shake off. I think it takes a creative kind of curiosity and a willingness to question what others don't. It should leave no room to assume who my readers are and what they would like to see, encouraging me to take risks and pursue ideas they won't expect or ignore.
Think of a brand with great storytelling and you'll likely notice a similar trope of unique and compelling content — a personal favorite of mine is how Gong uses content to amplify a brand identity that sales teams want to learn from and be a part of.
Instead of a regular listicle on ways to improve cold calls, Gong sets themselves apart by breaking down cold call scripts from the brokerage house, Stratton Oakmont. They don't assume their readers would find it irrelevant or outdated. In fact, they've done their research, they know exactly why it's important, and they've used their own product data and brand voice to fill in the gaps and build their argument 💯
Getting comfortable with an assumption of what my audience knows and doesn't know does a few things.
👉 First, it limits my ideas to what's already been done.
Gong has published lots of blogs about how to improve cold calls, but this one reads like something completely different.
👉 Second, it doesn't get readers excited about what's next.
Unique content builds on an argument and introduces something new and actionable so readers can try something they've never tried before.
👉 Third, it makes relationships with readers feel transactional.
I write. You read till the end. I get a page view. And hopefully, I've told you enough about my product or service for you to want to buy it. Readers don't want that.
A good piece of content feels like a journey. It connects the dots between a few common arguments and leads readers to a place completely different from where they started. Now that's what potential customers want to experience.
The sweet spot between strengths and weaknesses
I've learned a lot about myself as a writer over the past two years. But the most important lesson of all is embracing how much I don't know. Somewhere in the midst of everything, I'm great at and everything I'm yet to master is a sweet spot where the possibilities seem limitless.
It's a place where my strengths as a writer, journalist, and marketer become more clearly defined. It's also a place where my weaknesses surface as opportunities to draw from those strengths in ways I didn't think were possible.
Somewhere between my strengths and my weaknesses, I'm finding my own identity as a content marketer.