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The Business of Writing: Working with ‘branded’ or ‘custom’ publications

The business of writingWhen Valerie Khoo wrote this piece on the Writing Bar, the Australian Writers’ Centre blog, I knew that I had to include ‘branded’ publications in this (not very regular) series. The fact is that general, mass-media publications are on the decline – and with them go opportunities for freelance writers. But, at the same time, as Khoo points out, many corporations are making publishing a core part of their consumer and business outreach strategies, meaning that niche publications are on the rise.

What I’m talking about here is writing for a publication that may be stamped Coles, Telstra or Woolworths. What I am not talking about here is writing sponsored blog posts or advertorials, which are different kettles of fish and require their own posts.

To find out exactly what is involved in writing for custom or branded media, I asked Stuart Ridley, Editor of Smarter Business Ideas, a magazine produced by Bauer Media on behalf of Telstra Business, to answer a few questions about it all works.

As a freelancer, do I need to approach pitching to a ‘branded’ or ‘custom’ publication differently than if I were approaching a consumer title?

Stuart Ridley: “Yes and no. Before pitching to any publication do your homework: start by reading several recent editions to get an idea of the topics covered. If the publication has a website, search it for any topics you’re interested in covering. We get too many pitches on themes and topics we’ve already covered.
“Next, find out who the regular contributors are, and which types of content they tend to create for the magazine. Unless these regulars move on, it’s unlikely you’ll get to do a story that’s in their patch or beat. We get countless ‘marketing’ and advertising advice pitches from content marketers… but we already have an independent journo writing about marketing for us. He was a multi-award winning marketer in his previous life.
“Likewise, check the bylines on the branded content. Does the publication use the same writers for the branded pieces all the time or mix it up?
“Don’t bother pitching a story idea for branded content because the topics are developed by our editorial committee working with the client. Instead, present evidence of your experience and expertise. Smarter Business Ideas runs a lot of stories about ICT, so you need to show you understand the industry and tech trends.”

How will the client relationship affect the writing of the story?
SR: “The big difference with a custom magazine is that any story idea needs to be reviewed by the client/sponsor as well as the editorial team. Your idea will be tweaked to suit the magazine as well as the interests of the client/sponsor. Once we’ve agreed on a topic we’ll supply a comprehensive brief with the agreed angles we want you to take, approved sources etc. Yes, there’s an element of ‘control’ about the choice of sources, though it’s not too bad. Obviously we can’t promote a competitor of any business that currently supports the magazine.
“Roughly one-third of our content is branded, and we commission a small group of journos who have also worked client-side at some point in their careers. They know how to take the client brief and turn it into a story… and have the patience to deal with multiple rounds of client revisions. Branded content tends to pay better but you’ll earn every cent! You have to be diplomatic. We can’t risk any writer falling out with our client or sponsors, so you have to produce great work on brief and on time while keeping your cool.”

Do I need to use case studies relevant to the client?
SR: “Absolutely. While we’re open to suggestions, they’ll still need to be approved. In most cases the client will present a shortlist of their customers who are suitable for case studies. Again, you’ll get a comprehensive brief.

Why are so many companies looking to create custom publications these days – and what does it mean for freelancers?
SR: “Anyone involved in any publication has some kind of agenda… businesses that fund custom publications are more explicit about their intentions. Sure, they want to promote their take on trends and issues but in many cases they also want to show that they ‘get’ their audiences/customers. And to do that they need to reach them.
“A business could run ads, use PR to get stories and support competitions in a bunch of mags with varying ROIs, depending on the combined reach.
“One of the best ways to influence a lot of your customers is to deliver an engaging mag directly to them – and then of course, you can more easily measure the audience response.
“Great custom publications are focused on what the readers want. They deliver quality content that really engages great clients support this approach because they want to earn goodwill/respect/loyalty in return.
“Some custom publications have more resources than their newsstand equivalents… they can commission new research, in-depth features and extensive photo shoots.”

What do you look for in a freelancer for Smarter Business?
SR: “Professional journos. You need to write well, on brief and on time of course. You also need those old school journo skill of finding fresh angles, great collections of anecdotes and stimulating insights. Research and attribute your sources properly. Never plagarise!
“We won’t commission work from anyone else. We get the value of content marketing. We’re not going to pay you to promote yourself. So…  accountants, marketers, lawyers, business coaches can make great sources for our journos, but we won’t commission pieces by them.”

Follow Smarter Business Ideas on Facebook or Twitter to keep abreast of what the mag is up to.

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