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Inside the Mind of a Journalist in the Business of Content Marketing

mind-journalist-content-marketingCameron Conaway straddles two worlds. He’s an award-winning freelance investigative reporter focused on human rights. He’s also the content marketing manager for Flow, a task-management solution. Cameron believes journalists’ ethos can inspire marketing teams, and he entreats marketers to take bigger risks with content.

CCO: Few marketers hire journalists to create content even though the topic gets lots of play. Give us your pitch. Why hire journalists as opposed to any number of talented writers?

Cameron: The tides are turning. More and more people are looking to bring trained journalists on board. And more and more journalists are actually looking to get out of their industry and move into roles with brands.

At the heart of it, journalism is an act of public service. And everything I’ve learned about content marketing has been about providing quality, valuable content. Journalists already have that in their DNA. In addition, they have mastered the fundamentals of writing. They know how to hook a reader. They know how to work on deadlines. They’re used to the pressure of either the beat or a newsroom, and they know how to produce quality content day in and day out.

CCO: You straddle two worlds: you’re a highly regarded journalist and you work on the brand side producing content marketing. What motivates you to do both?

Cameron:  I actually didn’t begin my career in journalism. I studied poetry in graduate school, and the economy was by all accounts collapsing when I graduated in 2009 with a poetry degree. [Laughing] I started teaching Shakespeare and then teaching basic writing classes at colleges.

At the end of 2010, because we were already burnt out as educators and ready for something radically new, my wife and I moved to Thailand. We had been there a few months and I saw a 60-second video from CNN about boys being trafficked for sex in Chiang Mai, a northern part of the country. I felt like that 60-second clip didn’t do the story justice, and poetry wouldn’t create the immediate impact the story deserved, so I went to Chiang Mai and wrote a long-form piece about sex trafficking. That was the start of my journalism career. Most of my work thereafter had to do with modern slavery.

The deeper I got into the journalism industry as a freelancer, however, the more I realized many of the stories I enjoyed most were from brands. At the same time, I was struggling to track down payments from media companies. I would write a story and then I’d have to follow up every week for six months about getting paid. And when my story would finally go live, there was zero marketing effort from the publishing company to help promote it. The system seemed broken on a variety of levels but especially for those actually creating the content.

On the other hand, brands seemed to be doing the opposite; they were paying writers on time and had the marketing side figured out in a way the industry I worked for simply didn’t.

So without intentionally doing it, I was trying to learn what I could from both industries. I saw an opening at Flow and applied to be their content marketing manager. It’s been the best team I’ve ever worked for. At Flow, we’re trying to chart what the future of work will look like, so I’m interviewing people and telling stories just as I do in journalism.

CCO: How do marketers find great journalists – both those who publish excellent work and those who can succeed as content marketers?

Cameron: Find freelancers who have written articles you admire, because chances are they’re looking for work. Four years ago, I didn’t aim to be a content marketing manager. To be honest, it happened initially because I was desperate. I was an adjunct professor being paid an unlivable wage, and I was trying to hold down a journalism career but was always chasing down payments for stories. Most freelance journalists aren’t aware that opportunities exist with brands, and most brands aren’t equipped to know how to look for and then onboard journalists.

Find freelancers who have written articles you admire b/c they’re looking for work via @CameronConaway Click To Tweet

A lot of marketing companies I’ve talked to are trying to pitch long-time journalists from The New York Times or The Boston Globe — many of whom are full-time journalists dedicated to their media company. That’s a failed approach. They need to connect with independent journalists.

CCO: To make the relationship work, what type of setting do brands need to provide?

Cameron: There has to be a level of creative freedom built into the workplace culture. By this I mean that colleagues are always sharing interesting stories with each other, have the curiosity and listening skills to field new ideas that may grate against their preconceived notions, and are ultimately willing to take some risks with content. Many brands want to play it safe with their content, and this often leads to them embracing the easy default — turning on the generic content machine. We’re still learning as we go at The Modern Team (the blog Conaway authors for Flow), but the difficult discussions we had before launch about why our potential readers deserve bold, valuable content (and how we could do it) continue to shape our direction.

Some degree of remote work is important as well; most journalists want to get out into their communities rather than sit at their desk from 9 to 5.

CCO: To what extent do you think universities are preparing journalists for the potential of working on the brand side?

Cameron: Not at all.

I’ve taught in academia for years, and many journalism classes are still led by traditional journalists who either aren’t aware of or haven’t had to learn about the way the industry has changed over the past five or 10 years. Measuring content analytics, developing social media campaigns, creating a method to promote content once it’s published … these aren’t yet part of the discussion, and in some circles they’re even frowned upon. While journalism schools are focusing on the ethics of conducting interviews, and on creating true and engaging narratives, content marketers are learning how to get eyes on that content, and then how to turn those eyes into consistent and loyal readers. Content marketers and journalists have so much to teach each other.

#Content marketers & journalists have so much to teach each other says @CameronConaway Click To Tweet

CCO: You write rigorously researched, beautifully crafted long-form stories about modern slavery and environmental issues, including your recent piece for Newsweek about the Ganges River. Is there a place for ambitious long-form content published by brands?

Cameron: Absolutely. I joined Flow, in part, because I saw members of its team had published thoughtful, opinionated pieces that were as long as they needed to be. In Mark Nichols, the editorial director, I saw a terrific copywriter who studied journalism in college and wasn’t afraid to take risks in his writing. In Cyrus Molavi, our current product manager, I saw a data-driven researcher with a deep interest in storytelling. And in Flow’s founder, Andrew Wilkinson (who also founded MetaLab, the design firm that made Slack), I saw an exceptional thinker and creative writer who had amassed quite a following for his ability to challenge the status quo. I interviewed with a bunch of companies, but Flow was the only one that had storytelling in its blood.

In fact, they were the only company I interviewed with that didn’t say “quality content,” the industry term so watered down it’s come to mean, at best, “a long piece that has been edited.” They talked about the role of empathy in storytelling, and they were actually more interested in my process for creating stories than in how many bylines I’d racked up.

Every content marketer wants to create content that stands out, and there’s a ton of disposable advice out there about how to do it. But the how jumps the gun. Start with why you want to do it. If your first thought about why is because you want to collect leads or drive traffic to the company website, I don’t believe you’re ready for how.

CCO: You’ve published five books, and achieved success in poetry, journalism, and mixed martial arts. You show a level of hustle that’s really unusual. Where does that come from?

Cameron: The doggedness learned through (mixed martial arts) fighting set the foundation for my writing career. As a smaller fighter, I didn’t have the luxury to throw jabs from the outside. I had to enter into the pocket, step into where the pain happens in order to understand it, and transform it. That’s been the torch lighting the way for whatever success I’ve had as a writer.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly print magazine.

Connect with Cameron Conaway for CMI’s Twitter Chat at 12 p.m. U.S. EDT Wednesday, July 5. Follow #CMWorld.

Hear Cameron speak at Content Marketing World 2016. Register today and use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute