20 min read

April Fools Special: Newsjacking with Lance Looper

Tie your brand to a current event to boost brand recognition and reinforce corporate values.

Lance Looper, TREW Marketing Brand and Content Strategy Director, has watched newsjacking evolve from a PR best practice to a well-honed content marketing strategy since his early days in the business. In that time, he's seen many successes but some BIG crash-and-burn attempts as well. 

In this episode, Lance and I debate the benefits and risks of newsjacking, and he shares four questions every marketer should consider before jumping in:

1. Is there a tie between this event and my brand?

2. Did someone get hurt?

3. Is the timing right?

4. Is this funny or offensive?

The bottom line: while newsjacking needs to be super timely (so speed is important), it also needs to be approached with thought and care. 

Resources

 

 

Transcript

The following transcript was created by an AI Bot which has yet to learn slang words and decipher Wendy's Texas accent. While it is no substitute for watching/listening to the episode, transcripts are handy for a quick scan. Enjoy!

Have you ever noticed that some companies will take a current event and then tie it to their brand in a memorable and clever way? Well, that strategy is called Newsjacking. And on today's episode, I've brought in a guest to discuss some of the risks and the rewards of this strategy and how to get started.

 

Let's do this. Welcome to Content Marketing, Engineered. Your source for building trust and generating demand with technical content. Here is your host, Wendy Covey.

 

Hi and welcome to Content Marketing, Engineered. On each episode, I'll break down an industry trend, challenge, or best practice in reaching technical audiences.

 

You'll meet colleagues, friends and clients of mine who will stop by to share their stories. And I hope they leave each episode feeling inspired and ready to take action. Before we jump in, I'd like to give a brief shout out to my agency, TREW Marketing. TREW is a full service agency located in beautiful Austin, Texas, serving highly technical companies.

 

For more information, visit trewmarketing.com. And now on with our podcast.

 

Well, hey, everyone, and April Fools, I am here today with Lance Looper. He's the brand and content strategy director for TREW Marketing and has been on the show at least one other time so far. Right, Lance? That's right. Thank you so much for being here.

 

And you're going to laugh when I tell you why I thought of you for our April Fools episode. That can't wait. Well, you know, we both worked it. And I am one of the things that and I used to do is news, Jack April Fools, if you will, and create some fake whether it's a press release or a news story or a new product even. And as I recall, you got sucked into some of those content projects, didn't ya?

 

I did. The writing the April Fool's news release was part of my responsibility over the years, and it was among the things that the executive team cared the most about. The April Fool's releases were scrutinized far more than a lot of our product releases. So I have fond memories of April Fool's and the sense of humor that I carried into a lot of the things that it did. Oh wow.

 

I, I imagine that wasn't easy with all the scrutiny and having to balance things just right. And and so that's why I wanted to bring you on. You know that in, you know, a little bit about news. Jianqing so I think we have a great discussion today. But before we do, I just wanted to check in with you. What are some of the big projects you're working on right now with TRU?

 

I'm working on a couple of things that are a little bit outside of my comfort zone, so I'm excited about learning some kind of new new tips and tricks. So we're working with a test and measurement company to launch a pair of high performance test products. And we're doing it through paid social media campaign and we're targeting specific buyer personas. So everything is really focused and that's been really fun to dove into those personas and to talk about some of the creative that speaks to the pain points.

 

And then I'm also working with a client to rename a product that promises to be a big part of their twenty twenty one plan. So getting the new name just right is really important.

 

So those are a couple of things that I'm working on with you right now. Great.

 

And and of course, when it comes to brand positioning and messaging for companies, I know you do a lot of that type of work. And and we have a lot more coming your way soon. Lance.

 

It's about it's one of my favorite types of projects. I love it.

 

Great. Well, today we'll be talking about a different type of content, which is or a content strategy, which is news. Jianqing So for those listening that don't know what that is, perhaps you could just give us a quick overview of what it is and why brands should perhaps consider the strategy.

 

Yeah, music is is just using current events to help tell your story. That could mean just bringing awareness to your brand by commenting on a current event or trending news topic. It could be explaining how trending news is impacting your industry. So if it's something that has like macroeconomic effects on your business or your industry, it might be your responsibility to educate your publics on how that's happening, or it could be to reinforce part of your corporate philosophy on certain topics.

 

Web marketing in particular, is a great audience for newsgathering because content is key when it comes to Web marketing and real time content is is really effective, especially when you can tie it to something that people are already hearing about in the real world. Another reason that I'm really fond of news is going into some of the research in anticipation of this conversation. It sounds like there is a the perception that news jacking kind of became. Relevant between 2011 and 2015, I will argue that it goes back even further than that.

 

So I started my career in two thousand in public relations, like traditional media relations and news.

 

Jianqing is really the first track you figure out in PR if you're pitching a news release to a list of media contacts. Tying it to a current event is a pretty good way to cut through the clutter. The first example that came to mind was when I was very new to the industry. It was in 2000 during the highly contentious, drawn out 2000 presidential election.

 

And one of my with the hanging chads, sort of one of my clients, was a software company that made software products for like the first generation of handheld devices. And these were devices that weren't necessarily wireless. You could just do something kind of mobile. And then if you had to email or something, you could write it on your device, but then have to send it. You'd have to wait until you're plug it into your desktop somewhere. But one of the things that we pitched was what software it was before they were called applications.

 

But what's one handheld software with the presidential candidates find useful? And that was the first time that I was able to cut through with with news jacking like, oh, this is this is a way to make my clients offering relevant based on something that people are hearing about anyways. And then it just kind of I guess with social media and web, the emphasis on Web content, it kind of blew up from there. And today, I mean, there are entire media properties that are now based on news jacking.

 

They make what's happening in the world relevant through their particular world view, usually for entertainment, like websites like Deadspin and The Onion and BuzzFeed. Five things you need to know about the royal family. It's not really dependent on any original reporting, but they're kind of building their brand on jumping on trends and educating their readers on what's happening. And and companies and brands can do the same thing just by being aware and being ready to react to things. But it's also not without its risks.

 

I was just about to say, it sounds great. However, I heard a lot of things in what you just described about it needs to be relevant and you need to do it care. So I take it things can go badly.

 

Yes. News jacking is it's one of those things that's fraught with risks. And the risk reward ratio isn't really always applicable. Like you want to be timely and you want to be present and you want to be relevant and just jumping on something that you care about or you find interesting or you feel like making commentary on isn't always the best approach to news. Jacking and picking the wrong news to Jack is is pretty risky. One of the things that I would encourage people to ask themselves are, are people hurt?

 

Like if you're responding to a storm or like in Texas, we just recently had a apocalyptic snowstorm, that it was like nothing anybody in Texas had ever seen. And it was really hard for brands to restrain themselves from commenting on it. But people were dying and it was pretty ugly for a lot of the state. And so you want to be careful when it comes to things like that. You also want to risk not being timely. So the taking the snowstorm, for example, it's too late to really comment on that if that was something that you wanted to do, because everybody's heard about it and it's kind of played out when it comes to news.

 

Jacqui, you kind of want to be at the very beginning. You want you want your piece to be discovered at around the same time people are discovering the original trend or news topic. So timing is really important then.

 

If you get that wrong, you risk either letting if you're too soon. It's kind of like not being in on the joke, your audience not being in on the joke. And if you do too late, you kind of come off as maybe a little slow. So that's that's risky. So picking the wrong topic, not being timely. And then finally and the one I would emphasize the most is it's just so important for whatever you do to be reflective of your company values.

 

So you don't want to news, Jack something that you don't have anything else to support. So, for example, if if part of your corporate responsibility mission maybe is sustainability, then it would be pretty easy for you to take advantage of sustainability, values or trends or things that are happening in the industry to comment on that and then have something else to point them to. But if if something is trending and you just feel like it's getting a lot of traction, then you want to be part of it without anything else to support it, it could fall a little flat.

 

So those are some of the things to keep in mind, it's news jacking is really tempting and it can be really effective, particularly if humor is is mixed in. But just giving, given how permanent things are nowadays is there's just some things to be mindful of.

 

So what I'm hearing is you really need to slow down and be very thoughtful about your strategy and look at it from different angles before you just jump in and take the plunge.

 

Yeah, I would I would approach these reacting like crisis planning. I would I would think critically about what topics are off limits. And just like companies go through media training with executives to kind of game out, what types of questions might be asked or what would happen in certain scenarios.

 

I would do the same thing with your communications team and just figure out what are the things that our company has a sort of a stake in commenting on. What are the things that are core to our either our offerings or just our corporate philosophy? And so I would treat it. I would definitely treat it proactively and just think critically about what what is and what isn't allowed. And an informal playbook, just like you would do in a crisis plan, can help.

 

Mm hmm. I saw during covered a lot of companies use that opportunity and it's hard to call that news jacking because this was it like a little blip of news, right? This was like a change of life for the world.

 

So would you put covid underneath checking category? And if so, did you see any good examples of new checking done?

 

Well?

 

Yes, I actually I would put it in that category, but it was sort of an evolution and people were really quiet about it at the beginning. And I remember it was just about a year ago when everybody started going inside to stay. And when I and I started it true right around the same time. And one of the things that I noticed is our customers and our clients are science and engineers. And we're talking to very technical audiences and a couple of things that our clients did.

 

And I wish I could take credit for making these decisions. But it wasn't me was they would talk about coronavirus in ways that were definitely relevant to them. So I came across two blog posts that our clients had written about what it's like to to perform their engineering functions in quarantine. And so one of our clients posted a blog post just describing what it's like to move their test feeds from their office to their home. And it was just a really good way to first comment on coronavirus because it impacted everyone.

 

So it got to be aware, not commenting on it was we had more carried more risks than commenting on. Interesting. Nobody was was not impacted by it.

 

So being silent on it could have come off as a little bit tone deaf, and especially in an engineering environment where collaboration is really important and having like a lot of different skill sets in the same physical space is often required to bring up new products. But these clients were able to kind of bring in the aspect of coronavirus in this case, the part about quarantine and kind of doing things in isolation in a way that wasn't sales and it was just sort of saying, hey, this is where we're at now and this is how we're adapting.

 

And both of those early examples were very technical in nature. And so it was like, I can see our audience is really diving into it and comparing what they were doing themselves with what our clients are doing.

 

So Grono up some reassurance of their customers, like, oh, OK, they're still operating. They're still holding the bar high for quality. They're adapting. OK, I feel better now about working with this company.

 

Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Cool. Yeah, well, I remember we had our undebated to marketing over what to say and how to address this, and one of our unique things was we've always been a virtual workplace. And so even before the acronym, I was it w f h work from home. Yeah. And even though there is an accurate acronym for it. And so one of the things we thought we could do early on is just to help others that were trying to adapt.

 

Give our advice of, hey, we've been doing this for 13 years now. Let us tell you some of the tips that make it work so successfully for us. So I felt like that was a good, simple way to share back.

 

Yeah. And that was that was an interesting thing for me, just coming into true new. And so I was getting used to working from home, really at the same time the rest of the world was. And there were a lot of things that I was doing with my clients that I could tell that they weren't used to. And there were things that I was bringing into that my true colleagues weren't used to because they just had been doing this for so long.

 

Like, I just assumed that, like, video on a Zune call was was the norm. And a lot of my clients were like, oh, it's interesting that that we use our cameras all the time now when we used to not do that.

 

And so there's just like interesting idiosyncrasies that people that haven't been doing it bring in to now that everybody is doing it. I don't I don't think anybody has mastered our conference technology yet. I've never had a call that has started smoothly, even though we do it every day, multiple times a day, that hasn't gotten any better than we were in the office, like trying to mess around with the buttons and getting people off me know.

 

So I don't know who came up with it. Right. But I heard that the top twenty twenty phrases, you're on mute, dead with a bullet, I'm sure.

 

Well, Leon, this was excellent advice. Do you have any any parting advice for our listeners that wanting to consider this strategy or perfected?

 

Yeah, I mean, I would I would definitely think critically about what what is off limits to you? One of the things that if your company or your brand commented on would make sense and what, what, what in today's environment where social justice is really important and there's a lot of trending topics that are just moving humanity forward, and it's it's really tempting to get on to some of those and especially things that happen locally. Like, unfortunately, all too often we're dealing with tragedies that are very localized.

 

And I would consider a playbook for what happens in your town when something like that happens. How would you respond to a tragedy that happens in your backyard? It may not be something that's relevant to your business or your industry, but you need to consider whether or not being silent on a topic is a service to your company or your community. So think about those things. What would you say and what would you do in case something like what happened recently in Atlanta and Colorado happened in your town and what are you what are you actively doing now that would kind of support anything that you do?

 

So one example that I like to use is my former company, Silicon Labs. They have sort of three pillars of their corporate sustainability. One is one sustainability, one is people. And then probably one is innovation. But they whenever they lose something or whenever they comment on a current event, you can always tie back to one of those three things. So think about your corporate positioning and corporate philosophy and one of the things that can help drive that forward when it comes to selecting the things that you want to do.

 

Jack, I would also like don't be afraid to plan ahead and don't be afraid to jump on a trend, even though you might not necessarily be able to offer something directly to it. You can do that when you plan ahead, like consumer brands love things like the Oscars and the Super Bowl, which is great for consumer brands. But technology brands, we have our own events. We have like CBS and Embedded World. And even if you don't have a presence at those shows and still you can still the news, Jack, and reference them and especially as things moved online.

 

So planning ahead, I think, is a something that can't be overstated when it comes to news jacking. There are also a few questions that I would encourage people to ask. We may have already covered these, but ask yourself if something is relevant. So when it comes to news, jagging kind of speed is of the essence.

 

You want to you you want your reaction to be kind of on the upswing. People are still kind of hearing about what's going on. That makes sense, but you also need to stop long enough to say, well, is this relevant for us? Ask yourself, is someone hurt? And if the answer to that question is yes, and I would just tread very lightly. And is what you're doing in response going to help someone? Or is it are you just commenting on something?

 

And then I would also at the when you get close to deciding on what you're going to do, I would take a really critical look at what you're doing and just ask, is it appropriate? Make sure you're reading the room appropriately. Coronavirus was a really good example of it. Took a while to be comfortable talking about it. But then once people realize that this is affecting everyone, I mean, there's no escaping this. They got comfortable talking about it.

 

And when they did, it was really in the context of this is how it's affecting us and this is what we're going to do. I have not seen like a lot of ham fisted examples of people misstep when it comes to coronavirus where where I see mistakes made. It's like when they're responding to something in real time that storms a lot of times. If you if you just look at some of the bad news and examples, hurricanes come up a lot for some reason that I wouldn't be they'll make a comment on something.

 

And and then when the dust settles there, people are hurt and houses are destroyed. And it just it just comes off as a little bit clumsy.

 

So like you said, when lives are at risk, in particular, that one is that was very tricky.

 

And of course, there's always exceptions. One of the things about news jacking is it can be unpredictable. And I think some brands can get away with things that other brands can't. And I'm going to use another consumer example here, because this is this is new to me until I just started researching this. But a few years ago when the Chilean miners were trapped underground for, I think sixty nine days, there was like a big deal. It was it was national news.

 

And everybody was sort of waiting anticipation of what they're going to get rescued or not.

 

I didn't know this, but when when they came out, they were all wearing brand new Oakley sunglasses know as well.

 

And Oakley had like some very high end sunglasses to them, sent them down into the hole. And when they came out, like because they've been underground for so long, their eyes were sensitive to the sun. Wow. That and that has generally garnered a lot of praise like it was it was looked at as a good move on his part. It was thoughtful and timely and it got a lot of great coverage. That's the kind of thing where I don't think I'm much of a visionary because if I were you, I would have probably said, I don't know, that could come off as opportunistic.

 

So it's really difficult. And you kind of have to know your own brand and what kind of credibility your brand has has built up. So for every for every rule or for every caution that we're talking about, it really comes down to who you are as a brand and what what you have to to back that up. In Oakley's case, they had these sunglasses that were really high end that were serving an immediate purpose. So it was probably a no brainer.

 

But from my perspective, I'm a little bit cautious, something so I could see it both ways.

 

They're in it. And it seems to me like this is a muscle. The more you exercise, the more comfortable you get. And you have more of an inner gut feeling this will work and this won't because of what you've done in the past and what I'm taking away from what you're saying is it starts with your crisis communication plan in a way, and maybe incorporating events with crisis communication planning. And if you have this plan that you're executing to, then when new things come up, it might be easier to react because you've been so thoughtful about everything else.

 

And yeah, it's just taking some of that some of that, like, crisis plans I bring up because they are they're so thoughtful. All the executives are involved. They happen over the course of months and maybe years. And the bigger the company, the more complicated they get. And just a lot of thought and forecasting goes. And there's a lot of, like, scenario building when it comes to a crisis plan.

 

Yeah, and I'm in no way advocating for an equally cumbersome new plan. The important part to take away from that is just don't be afraid to leverage what's happening in the world and start a conversation with your audience. But just game it out a little bit, game out the scenario from the types of news you want to jump on through the customer. Experience when somebody interacts with the piece that you lose. Jack, what are they going to do next?

 

And when they take that next action, are they going to hit a brick wall and wonder wonder why true marketing is suddenly interested in whatever the heck there's nothing on their website that supports this. But if you identify those areas that you're already interested in, then you're already kind of putting some energy behind, then it'll kind of narrow the scope and give you kind of credibility when it comes to what that customer interaction is, instead of just commenting on something just like you would add in a conversation.

 

But having tight back tie back to your to your core values and why you exist in the world where technology companies now is a really exciting time, because every day something dazzling is happening with technology and it's just sort of a ripe atmosphere for news jacking. And our audiences are really interested in what companies like SpaceX and kind of innovative companies are doing, even though it might not necessarily be tied to their core. Just new things are happening every day. And technology in particular that I, I get excited about in our audiences get excited about.

 

Well, Lance, you and I collaborated not too long ago on an article for Forbes on News Jianqing, so I'm going to make sure that that article is included. I know a lot of the same advice that we talk through today is located within that. Are there other resources you can point people to? And also how can they connect with you?

 

Well, you can find Lillington. I would love to interact with anyone that way. That's probably the easiest way for the news tracking topic. I would encourage your podcast subscribers to donate. Don't be intimidated by it. This isn't something that requires a significant amount of of your time. It just an ounce of prevention goes a long way. And I think having one or two people just to to game out scenarios on things that are appropriate, things are appropriate.

 

What are some of the core values of your company or your brand that would lend itself to taking advantage of trending news or topics would go a really long way in saving your saving time when it comes to being able to respond in real time to something you've already had some of these conversations and then save you some embarrassment when you might do something that might otherwise be ham fisted or clumsy. Got it. OK. Well, I hope people leave this episode feeling inspired to try it out, but with a measure of cautiousness as well.

 

And, you know, we're in an environment now where digital content is. I mean, our appetites for content is voracious. And responding to things in real time, being able to tie even like actual content blogs and white papers and things to things that are happening in the world is a tried and true kind of tactic to make your message relevant. But also just keep in mind that everything is permanent and you don't want to do something today that in three weeks is going to seem stale.

 

And I go back to going back to consumer brands because they're really good at it, especially with social media. When consumer brands can appeal to someone who's watching the Oscars or the Super Bowl with food because people are hungry for a soda because someone's thirsty, it's just it's a broader audience. And humor comes in really easily at that point. Well, humor is a little bit tougher for tech audiences, but when you can get it right, it is so effective.

 

Just a little bit of planning will help you keep your foot out of your mouth. Perfect.

 

Thank you so much for sharing your expertize in this area today, Lancey. Appreciate it. Thanks for joining me today on content marketing. Engineered for show news, including links to resources, visit true marketing dot com slash podcast. While there you can subscribe to our blog Inari newsletter and order a copy of my book, Content Marketing Engineer. Also, I would love your reviews on this podcast, so please, when you get a chance, subscribe and let me review on your favorite podcast subscription platform.

 

Thanks and have a great day.