There are a ton of tips out there about how to apply journalistic skills to marketing. Most focus on telling a better story. But there’s more to it than that. I’m talking about journalistic research.
This is not standard marketing research. It’s more like a true investigation. Journalistic research is less about polling, focus groups, or studying what your audiences say. It’s more about focusing on what they do — where they go in real time (in digital and social spaces) and how they go about discovering the things that matter most to a brand.
We use this information, a level of audience intelligence, to help brands develop better strategies for how to engage and connect with their most important audiences. This can work across business to business (B2B), business to consumer (B2C), internal or governmental audiences.
For instance, we’ve applied this approach across the cable industry, helping major national content producers and distributors better understand how and where to educate consumers considering cord-cutting. We’ve also aimed it at global brands with massive supply chain problems, and consumers and governmental agencies seeking to improve outcomes in healthcare.
So, what should brands know about taking this approach?
The process begins with questions.
Agencies are often fed a series of known facts by brands, which the agencies assimilate into some kind of storytelling. A journalistic approach is more about interrogating such facts (in the nicest way!). It’s about diving deep into data — what can be known about the audiences — and analysis.
Companies need to regularly challenge beliefs about their audiences’ needs.
This requires the ability to study conversations and behavior (online and off) to discern the actual story and the inherent opportunity with the audience. This kind of research and knowledge can reveal a great deal about the people you seek to influence, and the people and things influencing them today.
There is a multitude of off-the-shelf tools that can be leveraged to help a brand better understand its audiences. Some popular ones that we use include Brandwatch, Sprinklr, Affinio and BuzzSumo. Whichever tools you choose should provide insights on digital/social conversation, audience behavioral clustering, and the specific types of content most commonly shared among particular audiences. But this process is less about the tools themselves and more about how they’re used. You need to make sure you’re asking the right questions to get to actionable answers.
For instance, you don’t want to inquire about when a platform is most commonly used — you want to know when your audience is most commonly using a particular platform. This audience intelligence will ultimately determine the most relevant channels for a brand, and where and when to aim what kind of messaging to whom.
It’s also important to have high-quality analytical thinkers on the backend of the results, discerning actual meaning. This takes a curious and engaged team focused on interpreting and questioning results.
Brands are not a natural “home” for this kind of work. They tend to (properly) focus on institutional marketing frameworks. Production teams are often led by creative directors, and they can be saddled with institutional knowledge about “what works” and even “what is true.”
Journalistic research is not what you find in a typical marketing framework. It doesn’t start with creative direction; it informs creative direction. It brings another layer of veracity to a creative direction and to the brand’s aim. And to be clear, journalistic research is not likely to send a brand in a whole new direction. It’s more likely to increase understanding. It’s about learning what else is true. It informs the audience approach in a more multidimensional way.
We’ve found that this journalistic model of research often results in an enhanced ability to find authentic, highly resonant stories. Because, to the audience, the stories will be formed in a way predisposed to resonate with active search and discussion among audience peers and influencers.
The approach is architected for authenticity. It will at least come across as less salesy and more helpful in search. It’s definitely not “advertising.” And where a lot of marketing work is built around particular frameworks with inherent rigidity, this journalistic approach is more about the distillation of complexity. It’s inherently more agile. And it’s outcome-based.
As a former journalist, the irony is not lost on me that journalistic research is also lacking in journalism these days. In the cash-strapped nature of many local and national news organizations today, real journalistic research is among the first things to go. It’s been diminished by content companies because learning is more expensive than simply talking. And you don’t have to be more than a very casual observer to recognize that talking has replaced reporting on news channels at a furious pace. It’s a great truth: Talk is cheap.
Great storytelling — measured the only way it should be, by the receiver — requires a fair amount of intelligence-gathering upfront. That audience intelligence helps the storyteller learn not just what to communicate to a given audience but how to communicate it. This should be understood as among the most critical components of any kind of storytelling.
We are starting with the audience over all else. And we’ve seen this approach lead to a stronger business strategy itself. It measurably changes hearts and minds and drives conversion.