You are a brand. A very good brand at that. You have come and seen me, the content writer, because you have heard that as a very good brand, what you need is content. So far, so good. But we need to talk first.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no prude. This is not my first time hanging out in the brand storytelling saloon — and yes, I really do understand the notion of commercial imperatives.
Plus honestly, I’m only too pleased to peruse your brand guidelines and written style guides. I’m delighted that you as a brand have gone to the trouble of producing them. So really, there’s a strong chance we will get along splendidly.
But here’s the thing. There are a couple of things you are asking me to do that no amount of money will make okay. How much, you say? Ha, no really, behave. I’m serious.
Let’s talk about these no-go zones — and then I promise, the keys to the brand storyteller’s playroom will soon be yours.
1. Care With Quotes: One problem here is that the word content is not always very descriptive. Content can, in real terms, describe a vast range of output, ranging from a branded film or book, through to a Tweet or Facebook post. In terms of what I’m talking about here, a more specific term is brand journalism. Some might baulk at the idea of using the two words next to one another, so be it. The reality is that journalists have always worked for brands, and most journalists have written advertorials as well as news stories. The issue is simply one of clear identification, and the maintenance of integrity. Or as Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer at Forbes Media, wisely put it: “The critical requirement is transparency, which means proper identification and labelling.”
Which is fine and good, surely. We identify it as brand journalism, and now we can do anything. Right? Well, not really. For instance, if you ask me as a content writer to go out and find real people outside of your company — and clearly identify them on your story site by their name and profession in your brand stories — then there is an inherent set of principles about how you should represent them.
I need to explain to these people the type of context that they will appear in, and then, stick to my promise. So if, after I have given that promise, definitely don’t ask me to doctor their quotes: at least, not without their permission. Whether it’s journalism or brand journalism, that is a no-go zone that is in both your interest and mine to observe. There might be some people in town who will tell you otherwise, but trust me, you don’t need the grief (or the potential lawsuits) entailed in unethically doctoring quotes.
2. A Fact is a Fact: Whether the field is economics, politics or science, one thing is clear: people interpret facts to suit their case all the time. It is the nature of discourse to use numerical data to back up your own argument, and to avoid those numbers that contradict what you are saying. But don’t change facts. There are plenty of good journalists out there who will identify it when a good brand uses bad facts — and it’s a sure way to weaken your brand promise.
By all means, should you wish to, spin your argument. What brand won’t, to the best of their ability, try to use data to dance on their behalf. But don’t be careless with the facts: because it will leave a snail trail leading straight back to you, and as a brand journalist, to me too. And it certainly won’t impress your customers.
3. Keep the Content in its Context: Back to those pesky real people again. Whereas in fictional advertising land, Charles and Judy, your imaginary make-believe model couple (complete with their two model kids) may appear in a magazine campaign first — and then ultimately over in a TV commercial too. But real people, in this case a part of your branded content site, can’t be migrated to an advertisement. At least, not without their express agreement.
These people may very well agree to be in your new ad, appearing as themselves. The message that you are conveying may well be aligned with their own “personal brand” — and they may be happy to appear in the ad for free (or for just a nominal fee) grateful of the wider platform you have granted them.
But again, through your brand journalist, seek out their permission first, and get their clearance. Why? Because you’re a good brand. And because, for a good brand today, trust is not just important, it’s everything.