Sam Slaughter is the managing editor at Contently, a technology company for brand publishing tools and talent. Follow him @samslaughter215.

Late in 2011, Coca-Cola’s CEO tasked his team with turning Coke’s stodgy corporate website into a magazine. He was trying to hitch a ride on the ongoing trend of marketers using editorial content to transform their conversations with customers. Whether it’s called brand journalism, native advertising or content marketing, the goal is the same: engaging customers without interrupting them.

For marketing departments and corporate communications pros long accustomed to producing TV spots, banners and spin, developing the skills to be content publishers can be a bumpy process. The best-in-class, like Red Bull, have built entire media companies within their brand, going so far as to mimic the church/state separation of advertising and editorial that exists in newsrooms. And as the Web has opened up new opportunities for brands to tell their stories on their own terms, it’s also presented new challenges. Chief among these: How can marketers become better storytellers?

For Coke, the answer has been to follow in the footsteps of traditional publishers, re-structuring its digital communications team to look more like the editorial team at a long-lead magazine. But reorganizing internal teams is just the first step to creating compelling editorial content. For brands to create content that truly engages their customers, they have to learn to think like journalists.

This can be an uphill battle. Traditional marketing has long been about message control and making the brand look good no matter what. But this approach won’t work in a world where the most effective advertising is shareable. Consumers are adept at differentiating between the advertorial and the editorial, and they know when a brand is trying too hard to sell them something.

In practice, this means brands need to make a commitment to honesty and transparency in the content they create, even if it reflects badly on the brand itself. Customers know BS when they see it, and a story or video that contains an unapologetic plug will quickly be dismissed. On the other hand, leveling with customers about a brand’s own shortcomings is a great way to engender trust.

It also means empowering internal teams to act more like a newsroom, with quick turnaround times, fast approval processes and independent authority. One of the biggest problems we’ve run into at Contently occurs when our customers want to create timely content but are unable to get the necessary approvals in time.

Above all, it means a change in mindset. Brands that truly want to engage with their customers will need to start acting like journalists, wondering less about how to get their customers to buy more of their product and more on how to keep them entertained and engaged. The sales will follow.

Image via Shutterstock

  • LinkedIn Icon