Journalists and reporters are really good at getting info fast, putting it together and “inhabiting” a topic.
To do that, they’ve developed a handful of valuable skills: They can parachute into new subjects and figure out who they need to talk to at a company and what they need to know. They know how to interview to tease out great details and can move quickly to provide fast, relevant, and high-quality (when done right) information.
And they know how to frame a story so readers can get the most out of an article.
Stealing some of these tools can make your writing smarter, crisper and more useful for whatever audience you’re targeting.
So, let’s parachute in:
The all-important nut graph:
This one paragraph does some pretty heavy lifting. The nut graph tells people what your story is about “in a nutshell,” and what’s at stake. It’s there to answer the reader’s question: “So what? Why should I care?” And for content marketers, this question is also, “what immediate pain points am I solving for my business audience?”
The nut graph is much more than just saying what the main information of your company or marketing campaign is, i.e. Amazon has a new smart speaker called the Echo. Instead, it tells people why they should care, i.e. This speaker and its artificial intelligence assistant inside are part of a watershed period in technology in which people will be able to control their gadgets by just talking to them – and why this adds “time units” back onto a person’s life (in theory). That offers a much bigger picture than just, “Look! My company is launching this new initiative.” Think in editorial content units, not PR or sales terms.
In this vital piece from The Wall Street Journal, the reporter uses the nut graph to describe a burning “controversy” involving cargo shorts:
“Relationships around the country are being tested by cargo shorts, loosely cut shorts with large pockets sewn onto the sides. Men who love them say they’re comfortable and practical for summer. Detractors say they’ve been out of style for years, deriding them as bulky, uncool and just flat-out ugly. In recent days, the debate has engulfed the nation.”
Sure, you can write a story about cargo shorts without a nut graph, but it could mean your readers won’t know why you’re writing about them…and maybe neither do you.
Be an expert at anything in an hour-(ish):
The news is unexpected, so reporters learn how to delve into new subjects every day. Digital content creators and content marketers know a bit about what this is like, since they must delve into a new client’s business quickly and thoughtfully, so they can create the best (and most audience-focused) content for the job.
Using some reporter tools may help get you to that goal a little faster and easier. Some of these tools are obvious (Google search, news stories, links at the bottom of Wikipedia articles), but that will only get you so far.
After figuring out some of the right questions to ask, call up an industry analyst, professor or some other expert. Be honest about how little you know about a new subject — that will get you a lot further in actually learning what you need to know. Seemingly stupid questions are often the best questions to ask. Pro Tip: commit to interviewing 3-5 executives at your client’s company and 5-10 of their most active customers. Your content track will then begin to take shape – regardless of topic or vertical.
Google Scholar and Google Alerts
For deeper dives, Google Scholar provides loads of research studies. It’s best to search by topic. This resource is particularly good for longer-term projects that involve sciences, technology or engineering. Be warned: Some of these papers can be pretty dense, but others are written (mostly) in straightforward English. Google Trends is also a great resource.
Pro Tip: Create a Google Alert for your client’s company, its key executives, as well as all of the topics you have been charged to cover. Combined with the insights you’ve gained from the 1-1 interviews, you will be an expert on a matter of weeks, maybe less.
Also, compile a list of industry researchers (Gartner, Forrester, eMarketer, IHS Markit, etc.) and their areas of study, so you can use their experts and research when you need.
Shortcut: Conduct Q&As with executive stakeholders inside the company (your client) and the key B2B influencers in the new space you’re working in.
Interviewing is more than just listening:
When interviewing potential clients, ask for details, details, details. People love talking about themselves and their work, but you often need to guide them to get more description. Getting these kinds of details will help you elevate future research and stories and help you better understand your (and your clients’) customers so that you can create better digital content for them. These details become the action steps your target audience will be able to use.
A need for speed:
Lots of content fits well as evergreen stories, perfectly good to publish today or a month from now. But, there are huge opportunities in generating stories about the news of the day to gain attention from customers, reporters and the public.
A great example of smart, quick-turnaround content is Adobe Digital Insights’ holiday shopping analysis reports. They send updated shopping data twice a day for Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, giving the media valuable resources right when they need them. A big benefit of offering this information so fast is that Adobe is often cited in news reports, even though other researchers come out with similar data, just a little later.
Obviously not every organization has the resources to pull off this kind of work, but it’s worth thinking about how you can generate rapid-response content using your (and your client’s) expertise.
Pro Tip: once you publish a piece of digital content on your website, it’s essential to create and publish the social version on Instagram and/or Facebook. And include social video to the specifications of each channel. The KPIs here are more qualified traffic to your post – which leads to paid retargeting/remarketing opportunities.
A word about photos:
So you’ve got a solid story with a smart nut graph. Now, where to get photos to make this whole thing pop?
A lot of news publications subscribe to Getty Images, though that’s not cheap. For a cheaper option, royalty-free photos are available at Shutterstock and Unsplash. Shutterstock now has an “editor” function so it’s easy to resize images and overlay text.
If you have a DSLR camera, or even an iPhone 7, you may be able to snap some of your own shots. One more option is creating a small library of professional shots for your company, similar to a newsroom archive, though that may take some time to build up.
OK, that wraps it up. Good luck using some of these ideas for creating better digital content the next time you have to parachute into a new assignment. YOU’RE AN EXPERT NOW.