7 ways to think like a journalist when creating content
Creating good content is so much more than regurgitating an annual report. To do it well, you need to think like a journalist.
21.08.14 Gerry Kiernan
Know your audience
Listening to your audience and successfully interpreting their needs and wants is a core journalistic skill and one that every content creator needs to have at the heart of their content strategy.
You’d be surprised what a keen interest newspaper and magazine editors still show in their readers’ letters. Before social media and online comments, it was their only way of knowing who they were talking to.
These days, you’ve also got social channels, user comments and importantly, metrics tools like Google Analytics. So use them well. Monitor, interpret and learn about your readers’ habits. Does your audience find content from your homepage or from another site? Is one subject particularly interesting to them?
Top tip: Use comments and feedback from your customers on your website and social media to build up a profile of your target audience(s).
If you haven’t heard of the inverted pyramid, we’re about to introduce you to a tool that will make your life much, much easier. It’s what news journalists use to structure their stories.
The essential and most interesting parts of the story are placed at the start of the piece. Then, if you’ve managed to capture your readers’ attention, they can move down to the less important background and supporting information. Unlike a narrative structure or essay, there’s no ‘big finish’ – you start with the meat of the story then follow up with extra details.
Top tip: People tend to read differently online – they scan rather than read the entire story and rarely make it to the end. Work with that tendency by making content easy to scan-read and using the inverted pyramid technique.
News journalists are trained to engage their readers from the get-go (see inverted pyramid). They don’t waffle, they get to the point and they use plain English. The same holds true in our time-poor digital culture. You have seconds to attract and hold your readers’ attention, nano-seconds if it’s online, so make sure you’re worth their time.
Sure you can open with a quote or tease a question to intrigue readers. But remember your readers are there to find out more information or to be entertained, and quickly.
Top tip: Delightful, descriptive prose for its own sake, no matter how well written, is not only self-indulgent; it’s a commercial folly. You will lose readers quicker than it takes to ask ‘why haven’t we made any sales recently?’
A strong headline
Every journalist worth his/her Pulitzer-prize nomination knows a good story isn’t read without a powerful headline to draw people in. It’s the top tier of your inverted pyramid.
A strong headline doesn’t always have to be a killer headline. But it does need to be clear. You can tease and intrigue but you should never confuse or be obtuse. Consider ‘Ways To Lose Weight’ vs. ‘Stretch Yourself Slim With 5 Exercises’. The first is generic and flat, the latter much more informative.
Top tip: Don’t over-promise in a headline – make sure you deliver clear information so as not to disappoint your readers.
Journalists know the value of developing an original news angle or a feature treatment to make their stories stand out from the pack.
A strong topical hook is what draws people in. Tap into themes and ideas that have already captured peoples’ interest. They’ve read about it in the paper, they’ve seen it on the 10 o’clock news, and now they’re intrigued to hear what your expert has to say on an aspect of the story.
Top tip: Beware of piggybacking your service or product on an irrelevant or inappropriate topic. Just because there is catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh, for instance, doesn’t mean you should link your insurance services to it.
Shake up your content types
You know your online audience love infographics but why not think about creating a blog or video series which answers your readers’ most frequently asked questions?
The trick is to maintain your brand’s personality or tone of voice within different content types to stop your content becoming predictable. Newspaper and magazine journalists use many different content types such as Q&As, reviews, quizzes and break-out boxes.
Creating content in the same tired old format won’t keep readers returning to your digital platforms, so try surprising them now and again.
Top tip: Using different content types will work as long as you don’t go off-piste with your tone of voice. Keep the tone consistent as you vary the format.
Stick to an editorial plan
It may sound like a contradiction but planned spontaneity is key. Anniversaries, famous birthdays (of products and companies, not just people), national awareness days and upcoming events can all be used as hooks for shareable, topical stories.
Some magazines plan months, even years, ahead to secure exclusive behind-the-scenes on set features, for instance. Many a lifestyle journalist can be found sampling Christmas dinners in supermarket press offices in July.
You know your industry better than anyone else so use your knowledge to plan content before your competitors.
Top tip: It’s worth having a handful of stories in the bag in addition to those scheduled in your editorial plan. You never know when you’ll need to break into them in case of emergencies.