Everything a Marketer Needs to Know Can Be Learned from Journalism

I became a marketer somewhat by accident.

I still remember filling out college applications, answering the fretful, “What do you plan on doing with your life?” question with that annoying confidence only a 17 year old can possess. I knew I would be in magazine journalism.

If that confidence wasn’t annoying enough, I went above and beyond applying to dual major programs: magazine journalism and marketing. Being forever indecisive I thought on the surface it made me look like an ambitious prospective student, while underneath I secretly hoped it would prove to be a smart “back-up plan”.

I got accepted into Syracuse, ended up transitioning my magazine journalism degree into a graphic design degree, kept working toward that back-up marketing degree, and added a psychology minor because why the hell not. I was convinced my marketing and psychology back-up plans would make me a better graphic designer. That’s all marketing ever was and would be – a back-up plan in case I failed miserably and needed a way out of a failed artistic career.

Fast forward to real life after school. I moved to Seattle and couldn’t find a job. After six months of unsuccessful job hunting, I found myself having a very difficult discussion with myself: pursue a seemingly failed design career or cash in on that back-up plan?

I now work at Distilled, so you can guess what direction I chose. However, I only recently realized that all my indecisiveness and “dabbling” set me up for my current position as a marketer. Everything I now know is the outcome of a relentless focus on journalism and communications, which I can honestly say taught me so many invaluable lessons that are essential to marketing. I would go so far as to say that every marketer should be trained in journalism.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy my part love letter to journalism, but more importantly part “if you don’t know these things you need to level up right now” list of journalism principles and attributes every marketer needs to know.

Show, Don’t Tell

Show the reader everything, tell them nothing.” – Ernest Hemingway

If you remember one thing, remember this. It is my mantra for everything. In journalism, it is the overarching principle that all journalists try to follow with their writing. It encourages writers to use descriptive storytelling, facts, and the manipulation of language to paint a story.

For example, take the following example from this story on NY Times about AIDS activist Spencer Cox and his sudden death from reportedly going off his medications. The journalist could have written the following sentence:

Mr. Cox was spiraling into a depression.”

He could have left it at that and went on with his story. Instead, the author showed the reader by painting the following story:

He began abusing meth himself, went off his medication, landed in the hospital twice with pneumonia and eventually moved home with his mother in Atlanta. It was as if, like Jessica Chastain’s character at the end of “Zero Dark Thirty,” he helped kill Osama bin Laden, then found himself bewildered by the return to normalcy.
The writer doesn’t need to use the adjective ”depressed“. Rather, he showed the reader by using the strategic representation of facts to paint a picture of a man spiraling into depression without ever explicitly saying it.

How it applies to marketing:

  • Makes you a better storyteller. See the above examples – which is more exciting to read? Journalism teaches writers to craft an article that compels readers to think, feel, or do something. Marketers especially want their content to compel readers to react, preferably in a way that will lead to a sale. However, it is important to note ”storytelling“ should not be confused with ”conning“.
  • Teaches you to avoid generic claims and fill gaps in your story. Most marketers will produce content at some point in their career. Bad content is usually rife with generic claims and boring sentencing. For example, if the author had just written Mr. Cox was spiraling into depression, my first thought would be, ”How do you know?“ If a claim can be rebutted with a follow up question for more clarification, it’s too generic.
  • Highlights the importance of data. I never considered myself as data-driven or analytical (a number hater here). However, this concept in writing translates to all marketing decisions I make. Now instead of saying, ”Our client’s site architecture is confusing and should be changed,“ the conversation goes much more like, ”Our client’s IA is confusing because of X, Y, and Z facts I pulled from Analytics and should be changed.“
  • Forces you to be better at persuasion and negotiations. In the above example of a client recommendation, which statement is easier for your client to tear apart? The former has absolutely no backing and turns the momentum of the discussion into you defending your claim. The latter example brings reputable facts to the table and changes the dynamic of the conversation from defending your recommendation into discussing solutions.

Storytelling

The ”show, don’t tell“ mantra definitely makes you a better storyteller, but there are other aspects of storytelling and just general good writing that journalism helps develop.

For one, it makes you an epic headline writer. One reason is because smaller publications that don’t have copy editors leave it to the journalists to develop headlines that fit into a certain word count parameter. But even journalists that work at larger papers that have trusted copy editors pick up a thing or two about epic headline writing, which often has a direct, specific, and active tone that compels a reader to click on it.

Besides headline writing, journalism also helps writers deliver a story people care about through the elegant use of angles. Great storytelling is all about how a topic is positioned.

For example, Staples conducted a survey on attitudes toward holiday gifts and found that 56% of people don’t like their gifts every year, among other facts. The press release headline and angle could have been ”Staples Conducts a Survey to Determine Attitudes Toward Holiday Gifts.“ Instead, it went with the angle ”Over 50% of Americans Will Hate Their Christmas Gift This Year.“ Both articles are true, but the latter delivers a different perspective on the findings.

In order to master angles and storytelling, journalists embrace The 5 W’s. The 5 W’s consist of who, what, where, when, why, and for some odd reason the sixth-man-out ”how“. Just as we have marketing briefs, journalists make sure they can answer each of these components before writing in order to stay focused and answer the ubiquitous question, ”Who cares?“

The headline, angle, and 5 W’s are just the backbone of any article. In order to write in true journalistic style, writers use the inverted pyramid to organize their story. This format has the most important facts at the top of the story with all subsequent facts outlined in descending order of importance. This, along with the AP style guide, defines the parameters in which most journalists write stories. It is up to each individual writer to be creative within these confines in order to stand out from his competition.

inverted pyramid

If you haven’t noticed by now, journalists love mantras, slogans, etc. While they are writing, one last tid bit they keep in the back of their minds is the K.I.S.S. acronym: keep it simple, stupid. This means they write as if the reader has no background information, in a jargon-free way that anyone can understand.

How it applies to marketing

  • Makes you a better PR or outreacher. Finesse for storytelling helps marketers with more than just article writing. It also helps them craft the perfect pitch by knowing how to analyze the recipient (your ”audience“) and position the ask in a way that is most likely to elicit a respond.
  • Ensures your content is concise and skimmable. Web readers want the information and want it fast, meaning they are easily distracted and lusting after easy-to-scan content. By pairing journalism’s inverted pyramid with online readers’ love of formatting, you will be able to create content that gets to the point quickly.
  • Forces creativity when working within defined parameters. If you are a content marketer, you are most likely very familiar with editorial calendars and guidelines. These parameters are essential to ensuring a consistent reader experience and brand message. The AP guidelines are just the journalists’ version of a marketer’s writing standards. These confines force writers to be creative while also ensuring a consistency, which is a procedure all content-producing marketers should follow.

Skepticism

Journalism teaches writers to approach life with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nothing is taken at face value, which makes for better investigative writing, better interviewing, and a more balanced, unbiased end result.

One of the best outcomes of this skepticism is a near-obsession with fact checking. If you find a strong fact or statement, it is five times stronger if you can find five other reputable sources corroborating the information.

How it applies to marketing:

  • Engrains a ”why“ mentality. Formal fact checking is just as important for marketers, but that inquisitive nature helps in every facet of our job. For example, a ”how can this be better“ mentality gives marketers the confidence to challenge the status quo, which allows for innovation in our industry and huge wins for  brands.
  • Creates fierce editors. All marketing teams need a strong-handed editor on their side to ensure the content they create is epic.

Attribution (and How It Affects Credibility)

Journalists, unless they are opinion writers, are paid to report the facts. They are but a medium to tell a story in as unbiased of a way as possible. Thus, they rely religiously on research and sources to deliver a story. Once they narrow down what information they want to use, they attribute the facts to the appropriate source throughout the article.

The use of expert sources and using them accurately instantly makes the journalist and his/her piece more credible. Do you remember what happened to Jayson Blair and every other journalist that was ever discovered to be making facts up or plagiarizing? They are often forced to resign and are forever a black sheep in the industry.

That skepticism previously discussed stems from this truth about journalism: report the facts correctly or get the boot. Fact checking is but one measure journalists take to ensure accuracy; actually it’s more of a ”last checkpoint“ insurance. Great journalists know the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, doing their best to get facts from a variety of different media, but especially directly from the original source (expert interviews, for example). It is considered lazy journalism when writers just take facts from another article they read on The Huffington Post. The best practice would be to go a step back to the original sources that writer used for his post.

How it applies to marketing:

  • Instantly creates content that is more credible. We always talk about the customer funnel, but at the end of the day if a potential buyer doesn’t trust your brand he won’t purchase. Since content is so vital to most purchasing decisions, if you create content that attributes reputable sources you are positioning your brand as an unbiased authority. Notice the word ”unbiased“ – readers can sniff an agenda a mile away. While all brands have a bit of an agenda at the end of the day, if you can use external sources to back up your claims your brand will come across as that much more reliable. Remember, you want every piece of content you create to be the last piece a potential customer needs to read before moving down the purchasing funnel – credibility aids that movement.
  • Teaches you how to be a better outreach prospector. There is a qualifying process that all outreachers go through in order to determine if a potential site is a valuable partner. Journalists know what to look for to determine if a source is credible – these cues are essential to their own reputation! For example, they know to look for accreditations, social proof, and the year of publication for secondary/tertiary sources. Outreachers need to look for the same cues everyday when prospecting – has this blog been updated recently (date of publication)? Does this site have a strong community presence (social proof)? Is the blog owner actually a professor with a PhD (accreditation)?

Sleuthing and Interviewing

As you can probably tell from the obsession with attribution, journalists are master sleuths and fact finders. This makes them impeccable researchers and interviewers who are experts at reading between the lines. They trust their gut – if a source looks uncomfortable and is evading answering a question, the journalist will know to start digging. These ”sixth senses“ can be the difference between a good and a great, breaking story.

How it applies to marketing:

  • Forms an obsession with data and research. Anyone in marketing should be data obsessed – we need data in order to define strategy! From market research to competitive analysis, this obsession with accurate fact finding and sleuthing makes marketers better at not only the data-finding process but also the analysis of that data. As a result, journalists-turned-marketers are masters at finding holes in research and drawing conclusions through the careful construction of different pieces of information.
  • Empowers you to think on your feet. That knack for interviewing allows journalists to think on their feet if a discussion goes in a different direction. This is an essential skill in just about every marketing function: client kick-off calls, interviewing for market research, hiring interviews, outreach negotiations, public speaking, and sales calls. Oh, and journalists’ affinity for note taking comes in handy during all of the above marketing functions.
  • Makes you a better outreacher. A tendency to sleuth is essential in outreach – these people sit on the internet all day looking for people to contact! Journalists need to find the appropriate person to contact for interviews; outreachers the appropriate person to contact in order to work with a website.  Outreachers with a journalist mentality won’t accept that the site owner doesn’t put his email on the contact page; she’ll go find it in some other way!

Publishing Workflow

Most journalists will either be responsible for managing other writers or be managed themselves. Traditional media publishers have content production management down to a science – why would marketers mess with a process that has made it possible for printed publications to be around since the 16th century?

This is what a traditional media publishing hierarchy looks like:

traditional publisher hierarchy

How it applies to marketing:

  • Creates a bulletproof framework for content publishing. Marketing teams can learn something from the traditional media publishing workflow. By creating a smooth process for content production, we too can have an efficient flywheel for producing content.
  • Demonstrates the importance of content governance. Besides creating an efficient workflow, adopting a formal publishing process also forces marketers to have a conversation about content governance. Content shouldn’t be published by anyone in an organization who can use a computer. This kind of loose system creates that inconsistent reader experience and brand message that would make any journalist balk. There should be a very clear sign-off and ownership hierarchy when it comes to content production in order to be successful as content-producing marketers.

Plagiarism, Libel, and Other Necessary Communication Laws

Remember, journalists are at risk of damaging their reputation if they make up facts or plagiarize material. This risk stems right from our good old constitution. If you’ve taken any American history class ever, you most definitely learned about the first amendment and our ”freedom of speech“.

There are countless law cases where journalists are fighting for first amendment rights, none of which I’ll discuss here. However, there are some laws all marketers should be aware of that are pivotal to journalism:

How it applies to marketing:

  • Saves your business from lawsuits. The internet is a cesspool of plagiarism and non-compliant activity. However, being aware of laws and best practices for content creation is essential to minimizing potential litigation threats. Your creative and editorial teams should be well versed in copyright law and know when it is appropriate to quote, attribute, or use another piece of work.
  • Helps your relationship with the compliance team. Many brands have risk-adverse compliance teams that can put huge restrictions on a business’ content production workflow. By understanding fair use and copyright laws, for example, you can put your best foot forward and cultivate a better working relationship with these legal teams.
 

Journalism taught me so much more than I can ever list in this article, everything from an incessant thirst for truth and justice to leveling up my language when asking for a guest contribution on another site (and yes, that’s ”contribution“ not ”guest post“).

Journalism has made me a better marketer and convinced me that all marketing professionals should be trained in journalism best practices. While other backgrounds can certainly teach portions of the traits essential to marketing (statisticians are great at research an analysis, for example), I haven’t yet found one field that teaches the breadth of skills that journalism delivers. So if you want to level up as a marketer, I encourage you to take some courses in journalism or hire a consultant who can help you apply journalism principles to your marketing department.

Adria Saracino

Adria Saracino

Adria is a content strategist responsible for understanding consumer behavior and developing strategies that influence purchasing decisions. She joined Distilled in October 2011...   read more

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28 Comments

  1. You may have become a marketer by accident, but you're great at it on purpose! I enjoyed your tips here, Adria. They made me very nostalgic about our last year's trainings, and made me appreciate them all the more.

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  2. I'll be gentle and simply point out without sarcasm or irony that you wrote:

    "For one, it makes you an epic headline writer. One reason is because smaller publications that don’t have copywriters leave it to the journalists to develop headlines that fit into a certain word count parameter. "

    In the second sentence, I'm almost sure you meant "copy editors" and not "copywriters."

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  3. Hi Adria,
    Your article is not only well written, it truly dignifies the art of storytelling--something that perhaps is not confined to journalism but to fiction, and even the stories we tell ourselves. The idea that we are now content creators in the service of sharing really resonates here. As a digital storyteller and fiction writer, I think these skills are valuable for so many reasons. In the end, the departmental silos may have to break down so that we understand each other better!

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  4. AMAZING post and one I will bookmark and refer back to often. As a social media strategist by day and a blogger in my personal life, I agree that journalism is a great guide to success whether you're the marketer or the brand.

    I love when people "accidentally" stumble upon their career path thanks to two different sets of experiences that come together. From what I can tell, those people are usually the ones with the freshest ideas and perspective. Thanks again!

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Nicole! I'm happy it brought value to you enough to bookmark it. :) Do you have a journalism background? Or any experience that makes you better at your job?

  5. Excellent article Adria. I've considered going back to school to get a degree in journalism, but every journalism graduate who I've talked about it to has told me that it would be better to take just a few select classes instead. That's probably what I'll do.

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    • I think there is accuracy to that. I went to a communications school that required all its students to take core journalism courses. That is why when I switched to graphic design I still had the opportunity to take those core courses. If you do take just a few select courses though, I definitely urge you to practice in real-world settings. Become a freelance journalist, write for smaller publications. Get an internship. It was those extracurricular opportunities I pursued that really helped me put journalism into real world practice. And ask a marketer, I'd encourage to to start putting journalistic principles into your writing if you create content. That is, interview sources, try your hand at implementing any of the above.

      I'd love to hear how this works for you, thanks again for your comment!

  6. Jamie

    Top read Adria. I too fell into marketing after completing a journo degree at uni (sports journo actually). I'm also not a numbers person either, but love the outreach game.

    You are bang on with the overlap between journalism and marketing. We definitely bring that dogged 'never give up' attitude to the table as well.

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  7. This is SO spot-on, Adria. I started my career with more of an editorial/journalistic background, then found myself in a marketing & PR position. At first I didn't think I knew anything about marketing - but for the reasons you mention, I soon found myself more than capable. Since then, my best marketing interns have been journalism students.

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    • SO true, Tristan! Now when I do interviews, I always ask for journalism experience in the job application because it is just so important to any writing-based marketing functions!

  8. Fantastic article Adria. I really enjoyed how you were able to take the most important principles of journalism and translated them to marketing.

    I became a marketer after completing an MS and an MFA (where they don't teach the 5Ws or the inverted pyramid). Understanding those basics will make anyone a better writer and marketer.

    Keep up the great work.

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  9. Adria, Nice post. I am blogger and doing MBA with specialization in Marketing. I feel so much to bring a lot of things regarding marketing out of my mouth.

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  10. Ketan

    Hey Adria,

    Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    When I read "bad ass" in your signature, it made me smile because I'm involved with an army of 100,000 bad asses in the company I'm with, and everyone has that title ... bad ass!

    Have a good one!
    Ketan

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  11. I enjoyed reading your article and I like how you put a quote by Ernest Hemingway - one of my favorite writers ;)

    I don't have a solid journalism background but I've learned how essential it is for marketers, thanks to bloggers like you, so perhaps I should consider hiring a consultant.

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    • Thanks, Clara! It's super easy to take a stab at the journalism stuff to get some experience. I recommend webinars (I know there are free ones out there!), informational interviews with journalists, and just reading other articles. If you have some cash, could even take a class. Then I'd practice your craft in any guest contributions you do, writing in journalistic style.

      Best of luck!

  12. Adria, you've essentially written my career story as well--just substitute Northwestern for Syracuse and insert 12 years of business journalism before gradually making the transition to marketing. (Advertorials are the first, steep step on that slippery slope...)

    Another skill that journalism instills is the ability to collect vast amounts of information and synthesize it into a few well-crafted sentences. I remember consuming thousands of words in research and taking thousands more in interview notes to produce a feature story of (just) 2,000 words. Today, as a marketing strategist, I develop POVs, white papers and PowerPoint presentations instead--but employ the same process and mindset that I did when writing that feature piece. Thanks for an enjoyable look back.

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    • Thanks Lisa, and glad to see another journalist in the industry. :)

      Completely agree with that statement about journalists being great at synthesizing info. The field forces you to be very analytics and good at pulling out the facts and crafting stories. Great addition to the discussion!

  13. Em Ciptanya

    Adria, thanks for the article. This is really gooood.

    I have a journalism background but I'm working as a strategist in advertising. I'm dying to tell marketers and copywriters here to "show, don't tell" any massage they want to amplify in their brand's commercials or (even) communication. People hate to be told what to do... I believe.

    Now, I found your articles and you've put it in the right words. I think this is a great, enjoy to read, guidelines for marketers, to get back to essential values of communication.

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    • So true, no one likes to be told what to do. But showing by example is usually the route to go. Gotta make them think it's their idea. :)

      Thanks for your kind words!

  14. Totally agree Adria - I've found myself in an SEO role from a degree in Renaissance Literature. Hours poring over tiny details in texts is actually really great prep for site audits...

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