Photo by Sam Wheeler

Make brand journalism slow

Brand journalism — however you define it — feels really gross to a lot of people. And yet I really want to do brand journalism.

When I started a job in marketing, working for an open source software company called Red Hat, my writing process had to change. In my previous job, I spent a lot of time doing research and getting to know the people I was writing about. I would spend years in the field, log hundreds of hours of interviews, and clear out entire library shelves. I was working in academia at the time, so I was given the time that I needed to dig deeply into a topic. Everything moved at a slower pace.

In marketing, though, spending that much time on something can feel excessive. Because even if you took the time to write something of length, who would read it? So often, we’re told that our readers don’t have time to read. They have short attention spans and want to skim, especially online.

And yet, if we look at reading habits, we see that readers sometimes want to read. I mean, really read.

Earlier this year, I was at a narrative journalism conference at Boston University and everyone was talking about a study that Tom Rosenstiel of The Brookings Institution had just published (read the PDF). The study confirmed what every writer in the room knew from their own experiences:

“People like quality and depth and will stick with a well-told story.”

Of course, Rosenstiel is talking about journalism, not marketing. But it highlights that our willingness to pay attention is highly contextual. Given the right expectations and a good story, people will read. And they’ll keep reading. Even on their phones.

Take Paul Ford’s 2015 article in Bloomberg Businessweek as an example. What is Code? is a 38,000-word article about software engineering. Yes, you read that correctly: 38,000 words about software engineering. When it landed on newsstands, it took up an entire double issue of the magazine.

Let’s stop for a second and acknowledge that most journalists, when they define “longform,” set the threshhold at 1,000 words. Ford’s article is 38 times what most journalists consider “long.”

Who in the world would read this?

Answer: a lot of people. In fact, according to a Bloomberg spokeswoman, the article generated more traffic than any other article since the launch of Bloomberg’s business site. And if you start reading, it’s easy to see why: Ford’s writing is incredibly compelling. It takes a complex topic and not only helps you understand it, but makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of it. It’s hard to put down.

I can keep citing examples of longform journalism and how successful it can be. I could tell you about The Lonely Death of George Bell and the 3 million people who read it. I could tell you about the 39 million people who listened to the first season of Serial. Sure, these are all breakaway hits, but they demonstrate exactly what Rosenstiel tells us: People will stick with a well-told story.

I’m one of those people who read What is Code? and The Lonely Death of George Bell. I subscribe to The New York Times, mostly for the features. I listen to This American Life every single week.

I give them so much of my attention because they’re so damn interesting. They’re worth the time.

I want my own writing, even in marketing, to be just as good and compelling. More than anything else, I want to give people content that they love. My writing should add to their life, not interrupt it.

So, why not borrow the techniques of longform, narrative journalism to do that? I’m talking, of course, about doing brand journalism.

The possibilities of brand journalism are intoxicating, but damn it stupefies and scares me. Blurring the line between marketing and journalism is dangerous. Objective journalism is a pillar of democracy and we need it now, perhaps more than ever. It shouldn’t be hijacked by marketing.

Still, I’m left with a lot of questions. Is it possible to do brand journalism right? Can I borrow the techniques of longform journalism without confusing readers, without misleading them? Can brand journalism ever not be gross? Does calling something “branded content” make it less gross?

These are honest questions for which I don’t have answers quite yet. But I’m about to find out.