By Aaron Agius published February 26, 2015

9 Lessons Content Marketers Can Learn from Traditional Journalism


The internet has radically changed the state of journalism, but content marketing is a relatively new field that can still benefit a lot from the practices of traditional reporters. In the interest of improving the field of content marketing overall, here are nine lessons from traditional journalism that every content marketer should know to better engage and build trust with readers.

1. Create multi-purpose headlines

A 2013 contrastive study from Sage Media shows that most newspaper editors prefer headlines that serve two purposes – capturing attention and conveying information. Many content marketers, on the other hand, create headlines for SEO purposes rather than to engage with their readers, ultimately failing to inspire people to read the articles.

This isn’t to say that you should ignore the importance of including keywords in your content titles, as they remain strong SEO signals. However, if your headlines read awkwardly – as if you’ve struggled to work in clunky keyword mentions – you’ll want to rework them to appeal to both readers and search-engine spiders.

Consider the following article headlines clearly scripted for SEO purposes in 2008 as shared on an archived version of a Suite 101 page:

  • Second and Third Grade Math Fractions Lesson
  • Goals for Teacher Improvement
  • Negligence And Canadian Tort Law

Though those articles performed well seven years ago, they would do a poor job of engaging with today’s reader. When the keywords from the 2008 headlines are entered into Google now, the following headlines appear:

  • Introduction to Fractions Lesson Plan, Worksheet Activity, Teaching Elementary Math
  • 5 Goals Teachers Should Shoot For This School Year
  • Torts – Best Sources in Canadian Law by Topic

Clearly, these headlines weren’t as heavily optimized for SEO, but they still rank well and more importantly, they’re far more engaging and informative for potential readers.

2. Avoid using click-bait headlines

A few months ago, Facebook conducted a survey that showed 80% of readers wanted headlines to communicate the purpose of the article, inspiring the social media site to create a policy against click-bait headlines.

Traditional journalists always have understood that while headlines need to be interesting enough to lure readers, they also need to genuinely communicate the content’s message to earn the reader’s trust.

In fact, in some ways, content marketers must put even more of a premium on headline construction than print journalists. The sales of print publications depend largely on above-the-fold, front-page headlines – either the issue is intriguing enough to make the sale and generate revenue for the publisher or it’s not.

For content marketers, headlines represent only the first step in the sales process. If a headline reads too “spammy,” the reader won’t likely engage further with the brand, significantly diminishing the ability of the marketer to close the sale.

Use this understanding to create digital headlines that both capture readers’ attention and inform them on the content’s subject. It’s a difficult balance, but one that can be achieved with practice. Let’s take a look at one of the examples to see this process in action:

Example: “Goals for Teacher Improvement” is a headline that doesn’t really tell readers what to expect from the content. How many goals will be covered? What’s the time frame for achievement? Why is it important for readers to take a look at the article anyway?

Now look at the improved version: “5 Goals Teachers Should Shoot for This Year.” This headline does a much better job of managing the readers’ expectation of the content. It:

  • Conveys that five specific goals will be laid out, making the scope of the article much less nebulous and giving readers a better idea of what to expect.
  • Uses “this year” to indicate that the content is timely and can be implemented in a way that will lead to immediately attainable improvements.
  • Creates a sense of urgency, giving readers a reason to click right away in order to avoid falling behind other teachers.

3. Know your audience

Understanding your readers is the key to creating content that will resonate with them, a reality that conventional journalists have understood for decades. In his book, The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age, James G. Webster writes: “Very few readers get the total package anymore. And so even on an editorial level, our understanding of audiences, and what motivates them to give us their time and attention, has never been more important.”

This concept is even more important for content marketers who typically target a more niche audience than those targeted by conventional media publications. Take, for example, Cosmopolitan magazine, which targets a broad audience of self-identified trendy women in any geographic location, or The Wall Street Journal, which tailors its content to business readers in a huge variety of industries.

Now, compare those media outlets with a Los Angeles law firm that focuses on intellectual property. Because the firm’s target audience has much more specific needs, it is vital that this type of business – and any other content marketer targeting a niche following – learns as much as possible about its potential readers.

Traditional publications routinely test their headlines and content to see what connects with readers. The digital nature of content marketers’ work provides them with a much greater number of tools and techniques that can be used for this content-testing purpose:

  • Use your comment sections to pose questions to readers to understand their positions and interests. Respond to all comments left and ask follow-up questions that further enhance your knowledge.
  • Make good use of tools such as Google Analytics, Alexa,, and the analytics tools provided by social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the demographics of your audience.
  • Analyze previous content to see what worked — such as which blog posts received the most social shares — to determine what content formats readers find most appealing and which subjects resonate best.

Understanding your readers takes work, but it’s worth the extra effort to deliver more engaging content.

4. Verify authenticity of every claim

Journalists have long known that readers aren’t forgiving of reporters who don’t check their facts, and content marketers should strive for similar due diligence. If you aren’t 100% confident that the information you gather is accurate, dig deeper to develop a more thorough understanding. There are a number of different ways you can do this:

  • Review source material independently. If you see a statistic quoted or a study referenced, don’t just take it at face value. Instead, find the original report and confirm that the citations or conclusions are accurate.
  • Contact sources directly. It’s common for content marketers to reprint source quotes found on other websites, but a reprint doesn’t fly in the world of traditional journalism. Instead, reach out to the quoted experts (or other professionals with expertise on the subject) and gather your own, unique quoted content.
  • Hire fact checkers. If you’re pressed for time, it may make more sense to pay someone to verify the sources. A good fact checker should be familiar with your subject material and can be hired on a freelance basis.

As a content marketer, you should consider doing firsthand research on the topics about which you write. For example, if you’re creating content about a software program that a client just launched, ask if you can try using it yourself to get the full experience of the product. You also may find it helpful to interview software users to gather their firsthand accounts about what the product can and can’t do.

5. Balance current news with evergreen content

Traditional journalists make it a point to create timeless content that can be used when another article is shelved at the last minute or an unexpected boost in page count creates additional space. Your editorial calendar should function the same way. Covering current events in your industry is certainly important, but you’ll want to balance this with evergreen content to meet your audience’s needs.

Finding this balance can be tricky, but the following guidelines can help:

  • Brainstorm and produce evergreen content ideas for at least three months at a time. One of the easiest ways to do this is to think about the questions your customers ask most frequently. Building content pieces around the answers to these questions results in materials that can be deployed successfully at any point.
  • Use your analytics to determine the appropriate publishing ratio. Different audiences will respond differently to editorial calendars that feature more news than evergreen content and vice versa. The only way to know what will work best for your audience is to test publishing ratios and measure the data generated by your experiments.
  • Conduct regular editorial meetings to determine how and when front-page topics should change. Take a lesson from traditional newspaper staffs and bring every member of your content team together periodically to assess how well published topics are performing and when changes should be made.

Of course, you always need to be flexible when it comes to publishing newsworthy content. If a major news story breaks out in your industry, it may be important to run with it – even if you’ve already met the number of news-related blog posts your weekly publishing ratio dictates.

6. Minimize distractions

A recent study from the University of Houston found that readers are about 26% more likely to remember stories they read in the newspaper as compared to those they read on the internet. Assistant Professor Arthur D. Santana, the study’s lead author, cited a number of possible reasons, but the efforts traditional journalists undertake to minimize distractions seem to be the most plausible explanation. Newspaper formats allow traditional journalists to minimize distractions because they can present only one or two pages at a time. Content marketers, on the other hand, must contend with multiple points of entry in a single view – banner ads, related post links, calls to action, etc., that all prompt viewers to leave the page they’re reading.

While it’s true that content marketers need to include calls to action to meet conversion goals and links to external sources to support their points, you also must be careful about introducing unnecessary distractions that could steal readers’ attention such as:

  • Web sign-up forms
  • Numerous flashy banner advertisements
  • Email subscription boxes
  • Multiple images
  • Unnecessary links to internal or external content pieces

Certainly, all of these potential distractions have their place on websites, but marketers should evaluate how much each one is worth when compared to the potential sacrifice of some readers.

7. Practice brutal honesty

As a content marketer, your voice may be biased toward promoting a given product or service, but you can still take a lesson from traditional journalists’ need to be brutally honest.

Reporters take great efforts to disclose possible biases influencing their work to provide an honest depiction of the article’s context and facts. Doing so helps them to earn readers’ trust – something that content marketers should make a priority as well. Here are some ways to build trust:

  • Describe the nature of your relationship with third-party reporting or external contributors, noting if any financial arrangement exists.
  • Clarify the context on which you recommend external articles, products, or resources. Are you a satisfied user yourself? Are you being compensated in some way? Are you merely repeating a recommendation you’ve heard from others?

While it may feel strange to offer these types of disclosures to your readers, doing so can lead to increased brand trust and the perception of your brand as an ethical authority.

8. Look for the bigger picture

Historically, the most effective journalists write stories that play into larger trends. Following trade media to gauge the direction of your industry will give you the insight to see the big picture.

As you might expect, you’ll have an easier time building a loyal reader base if you demonstrate such a thorough understanding of your industry that you’re able to offer solutions to your audience’s toughest issues and provide reasonable speculation about the future.

One way to do this would be to recap all the new stories published over the past year that pertain to a relevant topic in your industry by highlighting the commonalities among them. You also could write about a recent event in the context of previous events. Consider the following examples (one hypothetical and one real):

  • Suppose your industry is affected by the recent economic stimulus policy in Europe. Rather than simply recap the event, discuss the outcomes of similar practices in the United States or Iceland to help readers understand what to expect.
  • When Google penalized two content-publishing platforms last year, Search Engine Watch’s Jennifer Slegg wrote about how the penalties reflected Google’s clear commitment to penalizing spam content marketing strategies and issued recommendations that all publishers should follow.

Keep in mind that, while readers may find particular stories interesting, they’re generally more interested in learning about the broader implications of the articles they consume.

9. Create fresh material

Some journalists often use recent stories as a source for their own content. Old-school journalists have always strived to stand out by conducting their own analyses and interviewing experts, instead of using other articles as sources. Content creators would be wise to take this lesson to heart in order to maintain the interest of their readers and stand out from industry copycats.

Now, I want to hear from you. How do you think traditional journalism contributes to the process of content creation? Or does it represent a dated approach to sharing news? Sound off in the comments.

Want more instruction on how to manage today’s biggest content marketing challenges? Sign up for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. Access over 35 courses, taught by experts from Google, Mashable, SAP, and more.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Aaron Agius

Aaron Agius is an experienced search, content and social marketer. He has worked with some of the world’s largest and most recognized brands to build their online presence. See more from Aaron at Louder Online.

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  • Adam P. Newton

    As a former music journalist, I want to cosign this fantastic article. I found this information to be supremely helpful and relevant, especially points 2, 6, 7, & 8. Simply put – be straightforward with your readers. They’ll appreciate it more, they’ll be more likely to return, and you’ll gain their trust.

  • Adam P. Newton

    As a former music journalist, I want to cosign this fantastic article. I found this information to be supremely helpful and relevant, especially points 2, 6, 7, & 8. Simply put – be straightforward with your readers. They’ll appreciate it more, they’ll be more likely to return, and you’ll gain their trust.

    • Aaron Agius

      Thanks Adam!

  • Angie Lynn Jackson

    I would add Tip 10: Provide SUBSTANCE. If you follow tips 1-9, it will likely come naturally. With everyone cranking out content and the availability of fast and cheap (and very superficial) freelance-written posts, a lot of published material today is little more than space filler. Publish this stuff often, and sooner or later you will lose your followers who can find better information elsewhere. Go for substance and, like Adam said in the previous comment, you will earn trust and loyalty.

    • Aaron Agius

      Substance quality is definitely what everyone should be focusing on above all else.

  • Angie Lynn Jackson

    I would add Tip 10: Provide SUBSTANCE. If you follow tips 1-9, it will likely come naturally. With everyone cranking out content and the availability of fast and cheap (and very superficial) freelance-written posts, a lot of published material today is little more than space filler. Publish this stuff often, and sooner or later you will lose your followers who can find better information elsewhere. Go for substance and, like Adam said in the previous comment, you will earn trust and loyalty.

  • Howard Rauch

    Excellent article!!! I noticed there are several references to headline writing. I would like to add to that list. Most of these suggestions apply to B2B content:

    (1) Use compelling numbers in headlines when appropriate — especially if you are writing for a B2B audience. This lesson seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I have been a “Best Headline” judge for several years at the AZBEE awards sponsored by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. Absence of numbers remains a glaring deficiency.
    (2) If you use a headline and deck format, avoid “overlap” — meaning that the message in the deck should elaborate on the message in the head rather than be repetitious.
    (3) Headlines always should use active verbs. That was the real deficiency in the weak examples mentioned in this article.
    (4) If you’re going to be “cute,” be sure the result still is a headline offering instructive value. Some editors fall into the habit of writing for their own amusement rather than concentrating on expressing article take-away value.
    (5) Good headlines accompanying newsy content should indicate what the author discovered rather than what was covered. There is a difference.

    • Aaron Agius

      All very good additions, thanks Howard!

  • Nathan Fowler

    Excellent article

    • Aaron Agius

      Thanks Nathan.

  • Terri Zora

    Great article. Another lesson we can learn from journalism is “don’t bury the lead.”

    • Aaron Agius

      Great addition Terri.

      • Terri Zora

        Thanks, Aaron. I worked for a newspaper for several years before coming to the Internet marketing world and that was one thing that I learned from my friends in the newsroom.

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Aaron, I agree that this was a helpful and thoughtful article. It would be great if we saw an “arms race to quality” in content marketing. (Heck, journalism could use one too.) Your advice here feels like it’s a long ways from where we are today, though. Maybe Facebook slapping clickbait will make a difference.

    I feel compelled to say though, in the spirit of #7 Practice Brutal Honesty, that your Twitter presence is disappointing: it’s full of All Caps Headlines Shouted At Your Audience. And most of it is more of the interminable “How To” genre. In scanning over your last three or four hundred Tweets, you rarely engage with anyone other than to thank them for spreading your content. That was disappointing to see.

    Good stuff in this post, though. Makes me want to re-think my own all-too-often slapdash MO in blogging these days. Thanks!

    • Aaron Agius

      Thanks Marshall. For me it’s about ensuring i have a presence on different social channels, but also knowing that i need to focus on different channels that personally bring me the greatest ROI on my time and help me achieve my goals. At the moment, Twitter is not the focus and so i would prefer to be able to be found there and share some great content, as opposed to focus a large amount of time on the channel.

      • Marshall Kirkpatrick

        Oh man, Twitter is the best! 😉 What other channels do you find more ROI from? Am I missing something?

        • Aaron Agius

          LinkedIn is working really well for us at the moment. Great for content distribution, brand authority building.

  • Alex Braun

    Amen. This is something we’ve been talking about for a while as former publishers that transitioned into content marketing in the mid-2000s.

    Nobody needs a license to be a journalist, but most great journalists have been trained for years—and at a young age—to gather stories in a certain methodical way. You have to really believe in the power of storytelling to stick to the journalistic process and not cut corners.

    The way search algorithms are evolving, high-quality content has more marketing value than ever, and full-service marketing and advertising agencies have started to realize that quality is going to be more important than quantity moving forward. The trouble is, it’s very difficult to train people with an ad background or who wrote for “content factories” to suddenly start producing high-quality journalistic work. And it’s potentially even more difficult for an agency to put the right processes in place to make their content team function like a newsroom, because the business side often has no idea how to adapt the billable hours model to that kind of system.

    Times have been tough for journalists and publishers in the past 15 years, no doubt. But they have the knowledge agencies are going to need to adapt and be successful.

    • Aaron Agius

      Great quality content will always be key and the search engines definitely favour it. Thanks for the detailed comment Alex.

  • Brian Belfitt

    Hi Aaron,

    Knowing your audience is half the job done. Once you know who you’re writing for, you will be able tweak your articles in that fashion. I also like the idea of multi-purpose headlines. They can help to boost your search engine CTR. Authenticity is another important factor. Nobody likes an unauthenticated post.

    Thanks for sharing these tips.

    • Aaron Agius

      Appreciate your added tips Brian, and completely agree.

  • GoPromotional

    Marketers are data driven. They hate mysteries and unsolved problems. But content marketing is all about telling a story, and stories are all about mysteries and unresolved problems. Great post!

    • Aaron Agius

      Thanks for your comments, appreciate it.

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  • UberOnTime

    What do content marketers and journalism have in common? Leads and sources to back their claims. Great article Aaron.

  • DanielPageASEO

    Great list! Wanted to let you know that we included your article in our best content of the month:

    • Lisa Dougherty

      Appreciate it, Daniel!

  • Robert Lakin

    Show, don’t Tell. Back up statements with facts, figures and anecdotes. Another journalist technique that content writers should follow.