How Freelance Journalists Can Use Their Editorial Skills to Pitch Brands

By Steph Ullman May 20th, 2021

If you attended journalism school recently, you probably heard professors repeat the same two mantras: First, traditional journalism is on the decline, and second, you’ll need to pitch for your life if you want to graduate from scrappy young hopeful to real live reporter.

This was the gospel handed down to me in the early 2010s when I was working toward a journalism degree. Since then, the 24-hour news cycle has completed its metamorphosis into a nonstop social media-fueled frenzy. In this competitive environment, shoehorning your way into journalism can feel like pushing water uphill with a rake.

Even if one does manage to kickstart a freelance reporting career, many journalists eventually swap their press badges for brand-focused work with less grueling turnarounds (and often, higher paychecks). In fact, this was my exact path.

If you’re an ex-journo looking to break into content marketing, know this: Your skillset will get you far. Here’s how to use editorial chops to successfully pitch brands, as told by CEOs, founders, and marketing professionals.

Editorial superpower: Conducting extensive background research

Journalistic research exists at the nexus of speed, accuracy, and quality. For this reason, editorial writers are regular Sherlocks in content marketing when it comes to mining for information. To pitch brands, start by diving into the organization’s published content, then identify what they’re missing. That gap is where you come in.

Nikki McLaren, in-house SEO and content developer for equipment manufacturer Spaceguard, told me about a recent pitch from a writer who had clearly done their homework. “They were able to name and link to some of the articles that had been written for us previously—both on our site, and others that had been posted on our behalf on other platforms,” she said. “It really impressed me, as I knew they’d done a little digging into the company and our current content goals.”

Before sending out that pitch, make sure your past content examples are targeted.

Once you’ve gotten familiar with a brand’s existing content, use your newfound knowledge to curate your writing samples. “Before sending out that pitch, make sure your past content examples are targeted,” suggested Performio founder David Marshall. “And if you don’t have anything of that nature, set aside a day or two to create some high-quality spec work.”

Editorial superpower: Keeping your finger on the pulse

A journalist’s entire career hinges on their ability to translate topics into stories. According to Arthur Iinuma, president of ISBX and a veteran pitcher whose work has been published in Entrepreneur, Inc, and TechCrunch, finding a newsworthy angle is equally valuable in a brand-facing context.

“It’s important to keep abreast of new developments in an industry,” Iinuma said. To stay on top of trends in the beats he works on with brands, Iinuma subscribes to industry newsletters, listens to podcasts, and follows relevant accounts on Twitter.

If you want to go the extra mile, use your journalistic eye to find sources and data that prove your topic’s importance, and include concrete numbers in your pitch.

“If you’re addressing a problem in an industry, back up your claim with statistics from a reputable source,” said Brad Touesnard, founder and CEO of SpinupWP. “Save your best stuff for the content itself, but have a [hook that the brand] can consider along with your pitch.”

Editorial superpower: Writing head-turning headlines and ledes

Every journalist knows a captivating headline is worth its weight in gold, and the same is true in content marketing. So follow some of the tried-and-true rules of copywriting—write like you talk, and keep it concise. Overly buttoned-up or long-winded pitches can push brands away, even if they’re ultimately looking for something longform.

The content writers that really shine through are the ones who are able to inform and persuade in just a few sentences.

Mike Nemeroff, CEO and co-founder of custom apparel shop Rush Order Tees, underscored the value of delivering quality over quantity when it comes to pitches. “The content writers that really shine through are the ones who are able to inform and persuade in just a few sentences,” he said. “Even if I receive a good pitch that drags on, it typically won’t win over one that’s short and sweet.”

How to pitch brands

If you’re already familiar with pitching editorial publications, you’ve got a head start on the process. Pitching brands isn’t drastically different, although you’ll want to make a few tweaks to your template—the major one being that while journalism is rooted in objectivity, brand content is inherently biased. The same way you’d consider all the painstaking ways to make an editorial story balanced, give careful thought to how to position a content marketing piece so that it showcases the brand in a positive light, but still offers value to the audience.

Additionally, every pitch that leaves your desk should follow a few golden rules:

  • Personalize your email from subject line to sign-off. Boilerplate pitches typically get sent straight to the trash. Same goes for pitches that don’t showcase a writer’s personality.
  • Nail the tone from your very first email. While you want your own flair to shine through, make sure the overall style and language is aligned with the company’s previously published materials. Research the company’s mission, vision, and values ahead of time to make sure you’re striking the right tone. Think of it as abiding by the brand’s version of AP Style.
  • Don’t bury the lede. In the same way you would use an inverted pyramid approach for journalistic writing, put the crux of your idea front and center when you pitch brands. Focus on illustrating the value you can create. If the company wants your CV, they can find it on LinkedIn.
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