Brand journalist or content marketer – a job title debate

Content marketing or brand journalism – what’s the difference? And which job title will get you more work – brand journalist or content marketer? To some they are the same thing but there is debate over the definitions. Firehead blogger (and journalist) Fiona Cullinan tries to spot the difference…

I’m a trained journalist. I now use my journalism skills to create or edit content for brands. Does that make me a brand journalist?

As someone who struggles to settle on a job title that works across the board, brand journalist is a potential option. It feels a more comfortable fit than content marketer but what exactly does it mean and how is it different (if indeed it is)?

The term ‘brand journalism’ seems to be bubbling up at present. There has been a SXSW presentation on the topic, UK journalist Andy Bull is gathering an online resource and writing a book on the subject, and last month I was interviewed by a masters student doing her thesis on brand journalism (wow, the term has gone academic). She asked some great questions, one of which was:

What is brand journalism and is it different from content marketing?

I’ve become aware of the terms ‘brand journalism’ and ‘content marketing’, and the overlap with what I do as a journalist, only in the past two years.

But brand journalism isn’t new. It has been around in various forms for years. It seems to have developed out of the explosion of customer-facing branded magazines, the growing set of digital and social business tools that allow businesses to interact directly with customers, and the ability to make content choices based on what users are searching for or what customers need at different stages in the business cycle.

If I had to define it from my point of view as a journalist working for brands, I think it is this:

Content marketing is the practice of creating content based on what clients want to know in return for getting their ‘eyes’ on the brand. Brand journalism takes this into new territory by applying the skills of the journalist to the job.

To me, that means it is practised by a trained, often external, hired journalist rather than just applying journalistic ways and means. Because the whole ethos of journalism and marketing/PR is different. Cue sweeping generalisation…

My experience is that content marketers are more often employees who have a vested interest in the brand. They come from a marketing background with a marketing skill set and focus: demographics, brand messages, user personas, the customer buying cycle, servicing customer information needs, getting brand news and campaigns out there. They know the brand inside out.

Likewise, a journalist working for a brand is more likely to be an externally hired content person and will bring their own skills to bear on the work: being the reader’s advocate, hunting out the good stuff about the brand, sub-editing content specifically to boost click-throughs, fact-checking beyond the source material supplied, writing for a broader audience in a more neutral way, asking ‘why should we publish this’ whenever a marketing exec asks to post content on the blog. A brand journalist can help keep a brand honest.

I’m sure there are content marketers out there with very different experiences – I’d love to hear them if so.

Same, same but different.

Still we have the same goal: to get the right content in front of the right people at the right time. But how that is decided on, done and delivered can vary with the skills and interest that each brings. Journalists are often consummate headline writers, for example; marketers are not. Journalists might want to push for coverage of topics out of the brand’s comfort zone; in-house marketers may prioritise the brand needs over those of the reader.

I know I’m generalising and I’m sure there are some practitioners who can do it all. But I think it boils down to this: if I were a marketer, it wouldn’t feel right to call myself a brand journalist; in the same way that, as a journalist, I don’t feel I can lay claim to the title of content marketer.

Each knows a little about the other’s skills, strengths and motivations but each is still predominantly informed by a different work experience and training background.

Will brand journalism survive?

I wonder if brand journalism is just a useful bridging term for this generation. People have a concept of what it means – applying journalism skills and tools to a brand’s communications – but perhaps the next generation of J-schools and marketing degrees will adapt and train their students across multiple disciplines (public relations, marketing and journalism) to form a whole new hybrid job title.

I think the reality is that, although some journalists are making the transition and many marketers and PR people are, the next generation of content marketers/brand journalists is unlikely to come out of journalism.

But who knows? Like print, the future is no longer set in stone.

As for which job title will get you more work, content marketer may be the more widely known term but it could be that brand journalism becomes a specialist subset of that. (I mean, what if investigative reporters were sponsored by brands – could that even work? How far can journalism push brands in terms of quality content?)

The truth is, I’m still not comfortable calling myself either and have probably got more work as a simple blogger or web editor.

Is there anyone else out there struggling with their new media job titles?

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  1. Most definitely. The world of technical communication has been going through a similar debate for several years now. My offical job title is “Senior Technical Writer” but I don’t feel that is a true reflection of what I do anymore.

    The issue is I think that so much of our content now needs to be reusable, yet produced for different media from the same source, that writing content is something I don’t do a lot of. The “Senior” in my job title signifies that I have experience and I certainly provide a lot of strategic direction, industry knowledge and mentoring for the rest of the team. As a result I feel that I am more of a Content Strategist or Content Specialist. Maybe even a Manager of some sort although without the line management responsibilities.

    To be honest though, I don’t feel that just because I’m officially a Technical Writer that my skills are not valued. I try not to get too hung up on job titles. It is how your skills are valued and used that is important.

    • I agree about not getting hung up on titles and sometimes a job title depends on who you are talking to and what they are likely to understand. Tbh, it was all so much more straightforward when I was just a straightforward journalist.

  2. Hi CJ…this is an excellent post and I think sums up the issue well. From what we are seeing in the states, a brand will hire a Chief Content Officer, Content Marketing Director or VP of Content Marketing to own the brand’s content strategy. A major part of that strategy would be hiring in-house our freelance journalists to accomplish the marketing goals of the content marketing strategy.

    So, the two go hand-in-hand.

    Brand journalism, as a term, makes a lot of marketers uncomfortable, especially as the marketing side continues to struggle with the political issues of internal content creation (especially with the PR team).

    Ultimately, the goal is the same…to create valuable, compelling information that is useful to prospects and customers, which ultimately leads to a change in behavior.

    Keep this stuff coming!

    • Thanks Joe – I think brand journalism as a term makes journalists uncomfortable also. There’s an event/debate on how it is impacting on traditional journalism coming up in London at the BBC next month.

      You also make a good point about PR and other departments being uncomfortable with the “political issues of internal content creation”. Actually, I think this is one of the things that a ‘brand journalist’can help with since they are very familiar with publishing to an audience, and I’ve often answered concerns on that front. Of course there are other political issues – consistency of message, timing with PR releases, legal team concerns, any others? Surely most can be resolved with good communication?

  3. Thanks Colum, Joe and Fiona.

    I think it comes down to the idea of content as a business asset being new territory for (most) businesses, so terms are still being defined as we define our new (and morphing) roles.

    We all know a job title is a job title is a title – this is a classic example. We need to get past the hangup on semantics and get down to the real work. I think with a good strategy for branding, marketing, content… there are many roles that work hand-in-hand, whatever you call them. No need to fight it out.

    This new approach to handling content can make us look a bit revolutionary, troublesome – or at least challenging to the old normal. It’s a pity, of course, because it shouldn’t.

    If we’re working on using content as a business asset, then surely most of this job title carry-on could, as Fiona mentioned, be resolved with good communication. And I would add clear internal structure. But that’s part of the revolution bit.

    A rose by any other name…