How HSBC uses journalism to reach new customers

Business Without Borders
Can a bank create journalism? It’s not a Zen koan, just what any journalist would be wondering after looking over HSBC’s Business Without Borders website, which recently won the bank and its editorial partners an industry award and which relies heavily not on canned stories but on original, fairly impartial reporting.
As traditional news companies have declined and brands producing content have become ubiquitous, there’s been a lot of nervous prognosticating from the journalism world about a future in which corporate communications offices  play the role of Hearst and Pulitzer. Custom content spending reached an all-time high  of $16.6 billion last year according to the Custom Content Council. The knock on that content is that when it isn’t gratuitously promotional, it tends to be crappy. (The logic: ads produce sales, so they get the resources. Content’s return on investment is less well-defined.)

But corporate content producers are learning to let go of the need to advertise all the time and let editorial people do their thing. And while the brands don’t have the cachet of traditional publishers, they have money and the weight of news producing is shifting, slowly, toward those with the means to hire journalists for original work.

HSBC’s tack was to start a news site focused on helping American and Canadian businesses that want to expand abroad. Recent articles explore how changing policies in China could impact international companies, whether international companies need political risk insurance and why American companies should consider going public in Canada. Some of the content is behind a subscription wall but membership is free (the site claims 10,000 members and over 10,000 visits a day).

“We feel we are meeting a need for information that’s not all that plentiful on the internet right now,” says HSBC spokesman Neal McGarity. “Because of the economic challenges here domestically, more and more businesses are looking to grow themselves by diversifying internationally. Websites like this not only gives you access to some helpful information but also the opportunity to discuss it further with us and we’re certainly very happy if that happens.”

So what makes the HSBC site different from a typical marketing ploy where the visitor is funneled, inevitably, toward a sales pitch? Keeping it useful to the audience, not the publisher.

“HSBC has been very progressive in understanding that in having more voices with their content, that it’s just a better way of creating a dialogue with viewers to the site who are ultimately potential customers,” says Deborah Stokes, who edits the site on behalf of Rogers Communications and spent twelve years as a senior editor at Canada’s National Post. “Certainly we are working closely with HSBC to support their marketing initiatives, but it’s independent content and independent voices. The message in our content is about international business, not necessarily about HSBC.”

A few articles—like this one about the U.S.’s booming export market in India—reference HSBC research and the site occasionally profiles business members that sign up as subscribers, but much of the content could pass for the Wall Street Journal or The Economist. In fact, some of the stories come from those publications as well as Canada’s The Globe and Mail. Three quarters of the website is original reporting, says Stokes, with the rest coming from media partners. There are also Canadian versions in French and English.

The result: HSBC and its editorial partners won a Pearl Award for best microsite from the Custom Content Council in October. According to Stokes, the site’s success demonstrates the importance of putting readers’ needs above the company’s marketing agenda. “I think the most important thing is being attentive to your readers and your audience,” she says. “Ultimately, that’s who you’re trying to appeal to and to satisfy. When a marketer understands that as HSBC does, that’s a very successful combination.”

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.

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