A Marketing to Media Translation Dictionary For Journalists Turned Content Marketers
Translating is a tricky business. I took seven consecutive years of French classes, and most of the time, my teacher was a Lebanese-American woman named Hala Kim. She liked to remind us that English was her fourth tongue—after Korean, Arabic, and French. In Madame Kim’s unique blend of languages, she’d always say we needed to “be careful to listening.”
My teacher had a charming way of wording things in English because her personal vocabulary was like a complicated French-accented soup: a linguistic bouillabaisse. That’s how complex and lovely things can get when you pour in terms from multiple cultures. In the marketing world, professionals tend to glom onto useful marketing buzzwords as a shared language, and those terms can actually prove useful to professionals in adjacent industries.
As the marketing and media industries continue to look more and more alike, their lexicons overlap too. Ultimately, marketers and media employees want the same thing—engaged audience members—but we’ve all been taught to talk about attention and audience using industry-specific terms.
For all you media folks out there who are planning a switch to marketing, we’ve put together an introductory translation dictionary for you. You can also use this dictionary as a lead tool if you’re a marketing exec who wants to hire a team of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers for your brand’s blog. You’ll need to speak their language to recruit them, and veteran newspaper reporters don’t necessarily know what “map against your KPIs” means.
No matter why you’re reading this, these thirteen alphabetically listed terms should help you communicate across the divide. So let’s get started!
Call to action (CTA)
A call to action (CTA) is a bit of language in a blog post or piece of content that prompts the audience to do something specific.
The primary difference between marketing and the mainstream media (which I’ll call MSM from here on out) is that every single piece of marketing content should require specific action on the part of the reader, even if that action is just” read more”. For a brand, it’s not enough if 1,000 people read a blog post—those people need to click through to more content, subscribe to an email newsletter, or make a purchase. Content marketers never make content for content’s sake.
Meanwhile, a media company like Hearst might publish a feature article in the print edition of Esquire magazine, and the sole “point” of that article might be “make the reader feel like they really get Chris Evans.” Functionally, it’s fluff. Artistically, it’s likely reaching for the standard of a classic celebrity profile like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
To many, injecting a CTA into a piece of writing is to sully the art form. A CTA is what makes a piece into “sponcon,” or sponsored content. But increasingly, CTAs are looking like useful tools for the MSM. Many media companies have begun putting CTAs on their websites—the pop-up warning you that you’ve reached your third free article for the month and will soon need a paid subscription is one example. A lead form for a magazine’s free email newsletter is another.
A content marketing platform (CMP) is software for organizing the content marketing process. It looks a lot like a CMS (content management system), but a CMP is designed to help marketers do their jobs effectively. A CMS, on the other hand, serves many different kinds of professionals at once.
Most writers at media companies simply use the CMS as a place to paste in their writing. At media companies run by tech executives like Bustle Media Group, writers may routinely use a CMS for social packaging and basic SEO metadata too, but they still typically turn to platforms like Parse.ly and Chartbeat if they’re interested in their audience metrics.
Over in the marketing world, all that audience data is usually baked into a CMP. At least, it’s there if you’re using a good one. You wouldn’t buy a CMP without data reporting capability, and the really stellar options have a transparent workflow management interface.
A content campaign is a plan for the strategic use of content marketing around a specific goal. This one is a pretty one-to-one translation of “editorial package.” I heard colleagues say “package” and “packaging” constantly while writing for magazines and media companies, and now that I’m in marketing, everyone says “campaign.” Why? No idea. But there’s your translation.
Just like an editorial package, a content campaign is a multi-format publishing plan that might comprise social media posts, videos, gifs, email newsletters, press releases, merchandising, print media, and blog posts. It is the central effort of several content-adjacent teams to get people’s eyeballs on a particular piece of content.
A data-driven strategy or program refers back to data gathered from different avenues on a brand’s target audience. In the MSM, journalists who routinely parse out study findings and crunch numbers in order to report on them often self-identify as data journalists. Not every journalist is a data journalist—that’s how Nate Silver was able to create FiveThirtyEight with a central data-breakdown “gimmick.”
It may be difficult to work as a journalist in the MSM without having any knowledge of statistics, but it is completely impossible to do similar work in marketing without those skills. Though a lot of media still relies heavily on anecdotal evidence like interviews, opinions, or criticism, marketing lives and breathes data.
In the mainstream media, one celebrity’s personal experience with divorce is a compelling enough story to stand on its own. No MSM writer is going to interrupt their lede about Bradley Cooper and Irina Shayk divorcing to dig deep into the national divorce rate, but a content marketer at a dating app company probably pumps out a blog post per week on that data.
Gamification is a psychological trick that inspires us to enter sweepstakes, pour hours into Candy Crush, and buy all our lotions at Sephora just to watch those loyalty points rack up. (Just me?) Even if you’re not a marketer, you’re probably familiar with the concept of gamification—it’s the way brands turn engagement into a game-like process that rewards active players with little incentives.
Some especially savvy media companies have played with gamification in recent years. Inverse.com’s email newsletter reward habitual readers by racking up points, which readers can spend in the media company’s webstore. The New York Times has published several stories that use interactive UX designs, and these psychologically “reward” readers for clicking around with funny animations. This gamification of a company’s own website is also a hallmark in data visualization journalism like the stories on FiveThirtyEight.
Hub and spoke
To use a hub and spoke model in content marketing is to center all pieces of content around a single enterprise project. It’s a metaphor: there’s a hub at the center of a bicycle wheel, and each spoke that supports the shape of the tire connects back to that central hub. Content marketers like to advise writers to focus on a “hub” piece—usually a long-form e-book or whitepaper—and then build supporting pieces of content around it, like spokes.
If a writer in the MSM were to write a single definitive feature story and then spend the next few weeks writing short blog posts about the same story, well, they’d be accused of being derivative. There’s a vast cavern between reporting on a beat and repeating yourself, and that’s what keeps “hub and spoke” out of the minds of most media writers. The only time you’ll see an editorial strategy of this kind in the MSM is if a newsroom is particularly attached to search traffic (as marketers are). When I worked at Inverse, a website modeled after Bryan Goldberg’s now-ubiquitous “search-driven” strategy, we called hub and spoke strategy “topic swarming.”
Ideation just means pitching or brainstorming. Sometimes marketers use a ten-dollar word when a ten-cent word will do. (See also: “utilize” and “leverage” when you could just say “use.”)
To be “journalistic” in your content marketing work means that you operate “somewhat like a journalist.” You technically interview people at your company and write Q&As. You apply for press passes to trade conventions and cover them the way a journalist would cover a convention. It’s a sliding scale, though. Occasionally, “being journalistic” means you are close to a journalist as a bottle of orange Gatorade is to an orange.
Here’s the thing, though, and I say this from experience: a lot of professional writers in the MSM are just as “journalistic” as content marketers. If you cover the film industry, for instance, and you’re not at a trade publication, chances are you’re not actually breaking “stories” as often as you are publishing explainers and breaking down fan theories. That kind of writing is closer to “making content” than it is to “doing good journalism.” So in this case, marketers just found an apt word to describe a multi-industry phenomenon.
Your key performance indicators (KPIs) are a group of measurable values that demonstrate how swiftly a marketing department is working toward its business objectives. Example: if your business objective is to increase your brand’s sales enablement program, your KPI for that goal might be “we will produce twenty-four new marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) this quarter.”
Sidenote: you might be wondering why KPIs are “key” performance indicators instead of just “performance indicators.” The answer is that marketers love to say the word “key.” You’re not just gathering coworkers in a room—you’re inviting key stakeholders. You’re not just telling an audience what a slideshow is going to involve—you’re giving them key takeaways. Don’t ask me why “key” is key—it’s just one of those marketing industry mysteries we don’t talk about, like “how did they get Henry Rollins to speak at Content Marketing World?!” and “why am I the only one in this office who washes their own coffee mug?!”
You’ll often hear marketers ask for a project or story’s demonstrated return-on-investment (ROI), which is just a fancy way of asking, “How did this do?” If you’re an MSM writer or editor, you might associate ROI with audience metrics like page clicks and social shares.
Marketers tend to have a deeper understanding of ROI because they wear more hats than the average writer at a website or magazine. At a media company, functions like social media strategy, newsletters, video, UX design, SEO, and aud dev are typically split across a team of people, but in a content marketing department, everyone does a bit of everything. That’s why all marketers are responsible for proving ROI on their work, whereas writers are often just told how their stories are doing by other teams.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of formatting online content according to parameters set by Google’s algorithm, in order to make that content appear higher on a search engine results page (SERP).
Most writers know what SEO is in a vague sense, but they’re probably not responsible for implementing a strategy. Most media companies tend to separate search data from the pitch process, drawing a line in the sand between the science and art of publishing effectively. For marketers, that line is irrelevant, because the art of content creation will always come second to the science—however, you do need both to do content marketing well.
Because of a lack of education on the subject, many writers think of SEO as simply turning their headline into a question that readers might Google. Content marketing requires a more nuanced understanding of optimization, from meta data to keywords and longtail subject authority.
If a piece of content is “snackable,” it means it’s designed to be engaged within a single sitting. A long-form piece of writing is not snackable, but an infographic posted to social media is snackable. Because content marketers typically work in a more diverse array of media formats than writers, they come up with ways to categorize these offerings.
Again, marketers fall in love with buzzwords, but you don’t have to say “snackable” to get a job in the industry. You can just call a social graphic or an infographic or a gif whatever it is.
Admittedly, this is the one content marketing buzzword that creeps me out. A “thought leader” is just an industry critic, talking head, or influencer, but something about that particular phrasing reminds me of Charles Manson.
I’m not alone either. In 2017, progressive outlet The New Republic published an op-ed calling thought leadership a hollow product of income inequality in the Western world. Thought leadership in a business setting, the article argued, is sort of weaponization of TEDTalk-style presentations, and a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. “The rich have empowered a new kind of thinker—the ‘thought leader’—at the expense of the much-fretted-over ‘public intellectual,’” David Sessions wrote. “Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg ‘develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.’”
So, it’s up to you whether thought leaders are harmless LinkedIn influencers or agents of late-stage capitalism. You should just know the term if you’re working in content marketing because a lot of folks fancy themselves thought leaders.
User-generated content (UGC) refers to any online media created by the audience members following a brand. Because marketers want to inspire relationships with their audiences, even more so than the average writer, they tend to put emphasis on UGC. If a brand asks followers to tweet their own stories about a product, or take a photo at a branded event and share with a hashtag, they’re requesting UGC.
Interestingly, MSM writers like to joke about avoiding UGC—see the whole “reply guy” controversy, the “don’t @ me” mindset, or the persistent “don’t read the comments” meme. It’s all done playfully, but the punchline is that an MSM writer doesn’t really want to be bothered with feedback from random readers. Social shares are appreciated, but a modern critic or reporter doesn’t like to think of themselves as embroiled in a constant conversation with the general public. Marketers, on the other hand, are ravenously hungry for that back-and-forth.
Now, this is just a list of thirteen marketing terms that require a bit of context for the average media employee. There are hundreds of more buzzwords, disappearing from industry conversations as quickly as they arrive, but if you know this set, you can have a productive conversation with a content marketer. So go forth and network!
Translating is good business. A content campaign is a plan for the strategic use of content marketing around a specific goal.