In a wired world, where everyone’s a content creator, and the commingling of traditional reporting, writing, blogging, and marketing is much discussed, Google is latest to blur the lines. Last month, the company introduced a complete suite of tools for journalists through an initiative they call News Lab.
In a blog post introducing the initiative, Google explained that it wants to collaborate with journalists, citizen journalists, and entrepreneurs to help build the “future of media.” To ensure that they’re part of that future, the News Lab site provides free tools and datasets to help journalists research, report, distribute and optimize their content. In line with Google’s mission, “to ensure quality information is accessible and useful everywhere,” the News Lab has also established a number of partnerships with media and tech startups which the company describes as being focused on “empowering new voices in media.”
But these tools are not just for journalists; in fact many of them will be more familiar and just as useful to content marketers. Looking through the suite of tools, none of which are actually new, it was hard not to reflect on my own hybrid journey though the journalism, media and advertising landscape.
Tools that support accurate, complex data, verifiable sources, and historical context, like advanced search, news archive, public data explorer, and reverse image verification, are very much the bread and butter of my work as a reporter and magazine writer. On the other hand, tools that help writers conduct customer surveys, optimize content distribution, and analyze traffic were things I was only introduced to when I moved into the advertising business.
I used to think that marketers were the data obsessed ones, looking to target specific audiences, gauge responses to product, and then tweak the message and distribute accordingly, while writers were more loyal to facts and were assumed to have a higher creative vision in mind.
But that era of separation is long gone and as Joe Lazauskas, Editor in Chief of Contently’s Strategist wrote last month:
“If you work in editorial and data isn’t a big part of your life, I would join the chorus and politely suggest you get your shit together.”
He was talking about the need for writers to act more like marketers and use backend analytical data to make editorial decisions, shaping content, to some degree, as a result of metrics.
However there’s also a plethora of data to be used on the front end. It can be used for powerful idea generation, and for researching and reporting stories in time-tested ways that have served journalists for years.
So I’ll happily add a new voice to the chorus and suggest that if you’re a content marketer, who isn’t producing, verifiable, well-researched, data-based writing, you better get your shit together too.
How Marketers can use News Lab tools to be Better Writers
Verify the authenticity of claims
One of my first jobs in publishing was as a researcher and fact-checker for a men’s magazine. I’m not going to go so far as to call the writing in FHM journalism, but I will vouch for the veracity of the content I published.
One thing is for certain, whether it’s hunting down interview subjects, calling government organizations, or trolling through old newspapers articles, you usually have to dig before you can call something “true.”
That’s why marketers love good statistics; numbers have the power to sound so true. But do yourself a favor and find the source of particular studies, look at findings, and ask whether the conclusions drawn are themselves accurate. People like to say numbers don’t lie, but study design and framing really do make all the difference. Use Google Scholar and Advanced Search to get to the original source and draw your own conclusions.
Even more appealing than a strong statistic is a gripping photo. However, fake photos are rampant on the Internet—exposing them has even inspired a weekly column in the Washington Post. Google’s Reverse Image Search lets users fact-check images and determine where and when an image has been published.
Use large datasets to tell stories visually
Reporters regularly use datasets to find patterns or trends, to strengthen claims they make and to tell stories visually. The News Lab’s Public Data Explorer is limited in scope, housing mainly economic data, but there are myriad other sources of data out there. You’re in luck though if your brand has its own datasets, as the tool will let you upload your own data and provide you with several visualization options
Write trend pieces
In writerly circles, it’s hotly debated whether the trend piece is even a legitimate form of journalism. In fact, mocking the form often seems like a better investment of time. However it’s undeniable that readers love the sweeping generalizations and comfort of a good trend pieces.
Google Trends, which allows users to compare the volume of searches per term, makes it easier for writers to come up with trend pieces, potentially even lending a data-based legitimacy to typical “one, two, trend” data that drives many magazine features.
So while News Lab’s tools could clearly make a marketer a better writer, it turns out this isn’t the whole story
How Writers can use News Lab tools to be better Marketers
For all its ennobling of traditional journalism, the News Lab is also coaching writers and journalists, many of whom are, for the first time, in a position where they must market their own brand in order to publish their articles. The writers who want to survive will, perhaps begrudgingly, take a page out of the marketing handbook and get deep into audiences, analytics and optimization. If you’re one of those writers, heed the following advice:
Know your audience
Market research, traditionally conducted from behind the glass, has always guided advertising campaigns. It’s been a long accepted, if underfunded, line item in marketing budgets, based on the understanding that the systemic collection and analysis of data leads to the soundest strategic decisions.
With customer surveys Google has essentially automated market research and positioned it as a tool for journalists by allowing users to create surveys on any topic. Writers can now “get a clearer picture of people’s opinions and perspectives,” and back up stories.
The tool allows users to filter research groups and target by country, region, demographics, and ask 14 different types of questions, including multiple choice, ranking and open-ended. Distribution of surveys comes at a cost though, and it makes you wonder if this isn’t the first in a set of premium tools the News Lab is rolling out.
Create content that works
Magazines and newspapers have always tried to understand their audience demographics and preferences, but usually that information resided with the highest-levels of editorial staff, and hid behind the Chinese Wall that was the advertising department. Feedback on specific articles was non-existent, save Letters to the Editor.
The game has completely changed.
Google Analytics is one of many tools a writer can use to figure out who is visiting her site, which
pages are read most often, where readers come from, and which pages are viewed over the course of a visit. But really, Google and YouTube analytics are only the beginning. Tools like SumoMe, Simple Reach, and Kiss Metrics will give you real insight into how engaging your content is and guidance as to what editorial choices will help you grow your readership.
Maximize distribution with at a lower cost
You want more readers? Go mobile. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, 39 out of 50 news sites get more traffic through mobile than through desktop computers. If your website or blog is not made for mobile, Google Play Newsstand optimizes your content layout, allowing you to publish digital magazines in editions, with sections and articles that can be updated any time and that are viewable both on and off line.
So what’s going to happen next?
Are newsrooms really going to start using News Lab? Is the initiative actually going to the further democratize journalism and empower the everyman to report newsworthy stories? Is Google, the search giant, the self-driving car developer, and the frequent target of anti-trust lawsuits really going to take the side of journalism, which it describes on its website as a force that “communicates truth to power, keeps societies free and open, and leads to more informed decision-making by people and leaders”? Will any of these great tools be adopted by non-journalist content creators, thus raising the quality of content across the web?
Certainly, only time will tell. For now, all we know is that there are a bunch of free tools to play with out there and they are available to everybody, whether they have a press pass or not.