How to Newsjack Without Being a Tool

It happens often. Someone comes along and explains a concept that advertising, marketing, and PR agencies have been instinctively doing from the very beginning. But now, it has a name. Now, it’s a trend. And once it becomes a trend, what was once a simple idea gets misused and overused. The subtlety is lost to trend-obsessed agencies.

Newsjacking is such an idea. Newsjacking is a tactic where a brand leverages breaking news events to generate attention. The example that gets thrown around most often is Oreo during the black out at the 2013 Superbowl. Oreo tweeted an image of a single Oreo cookie in the spotlight, surrounded by darkness: “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark.” This Oreo tweet had thousands of retweets and favorites. People loved Oreo’s ability to create such a timely message. Since then, more digital agencies have been watching and waiting for the right news story to come along which they can piggyback onto.

David Meerman Scott is the self-described “founder of the newsjacking movement.” He’s a great author, and I recommend his book The New Rules of Marketing & PR, but the idea of creating content in a timely fashion that leverages current events isn’t new. Instead, Scott in his book lays out the concept in a great and compelling way. He goes deeper into how newsjacking works in a digital environment and why timing is absolutely everything. The problem is all the people who didn’t read the book and didn’t attend the conference who are jumping on the newsjacking bandwagon—to some truly dreadful outcomes.

Newsjacking goes wrong when the writer is tone-deaf to the news that’s breaking. For example, during Hurricane Sandy, Sears tweeted a chipper reminder that people could buy “generators, air mattresses, and more” all at their local Sears store. Urban Outfitters informed shoppers: “This storm blows (but free shipping doesn’t)!” Then, Gap chimed in: “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?”

The most cringe-inducing example might be from Team Work Online who tried to turn the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines 370 into a promotional opportunity. “Malaysian Airlines 370 has vanished. Do you feel like employers can’t find you? Let’s get your ‘black box’ engaged. Let’s start the ‘pings.’ Here are some tips on how to get noticed in a very crowded job market.”

The key is to be timely without being crass, to be in-the-know without being in-the-way. Here are some tips for leveraging current events and not being a jerk about it.

Tip 1: Stay away from tragedy

There’s no way this ends well. If there’s been a horrible event, you can tweet to offer your condolences. You can extend your thoughts and prayers to the friends and families. But then, please do not follow-up with a coupon or a reminder about your weekend sale. It’s completely insensitive.

Tip 2: Be timely or leave it alone

The whole point of newsjacking is to respond in a timely manner. It requires digital marketers able to move quickly to get approval, to create and upload the content. Posting a week later simply doesn’t help your cause. You need to be vigilant with what’s trending in the news. In some instances, you can anticipate newsjack-worthy moments: elections, awards shows, festivals, sporting events, and anything else that has captured our collective attention.

Tip 3: Keep it simple

Oreo’s newsjacking worked because it was simple. (The power is out at the Super Bowl. You can still eat an Oreo in the dark. Done.) If you’re trying too hard to make a connection between your brand and the relevant trending event, then it may be better to leave it alone. Fortunately, trending news events are happening constantly. The more you look out for them, the more likely you are to identify what works.

Newsjacking is about being opportunistic. And yet, opportunities pose a risk if they are poorly timed or poorly executed. Good agencies have always been able to respond with the right message at the right time.

In the digital space, the right time could literally be in real time.

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