Humanizing Messages in Technology Journalism

By Robert Israel

As president and CEO of Horn Group, Sabrina Horn has helped numerous start-up technology companies and older brands communicate their messages through technology journalism and become more agile in an ever-evolving marketplace. Based in New York City, she has also navigated the agency she founded 23 years ago through many technology changes.

I recently spoke with Horn about the changes she’s noticed in tech journalism and how brands, publishers, and content creators alike can brace themselves for even more disruption in the industry.

Question: Many decision makers at top-tier technology organizations say they are having trouble embracing new-world tactics to reach audiences. Increasingly, they are finding it difficult to get content discovered and to scale programs that work. Is this the result of a cultural shift? How can brand marketers better position their messaging?

Answer:For the past couple of decades, we have seen several periods of transition, many of which are the results of economic swings that change the way we communicate. Now, we are going through a period of transition. Ten years ago, everyone was saying that technology journalism would do away with beat reporting. That’s not true. Nothing is ever dead. It is evolving. Getting messages out there has become more complicated. I’ve often said that if you’re not a technology company, you have to become one. You can’t be resistant to change. You have to learn to use it to succeed.

Q: In what specific ways is communication evolving?

A: Years ago, technology companies focused heavily on product news, such as getting word out about what a product does. There is a different emphasis today. Things have shifted from telling “what” to telling “why and how.” Messaging has to be more visual, more social. You have to tell a story, and humanize that story. For example, we had Forbes as a client and worked to show how that company, even with its long history, was acquiring a new technology platform and how it is staying in the game. We told the story through technology journalism that covered the company’s past while making sure to show its new face, too.

Q: Is technology journalism evolving to keep up with these evolutionary shifts?

A:Because technology touches everything in our world, we are seeing more generalists emerge among technology journalists today. A generalist might report on how technology is influencing politics, for example, and how it is helping a candidate win an election. There are always going to be reporters who cover specific beats, like digital security. These reporters are experts, steeped in this world day in, day out. That is not changing—and the emphasis placed on having a strong news hook is not changing either. But there is less emphasis on exclusivity and more emphasis on quality reporting.

Q: Given these changes, how can companies get messages out there?

A:Increasingly, you need to ask how an audience is going to react. It goes back to humanizing a story. It’s important to tell stories that reach people. In many ways, it requires that you return to the basics: telling a story well, describing why something is useful, and showing how it is different.

Q: Does this require a change within companies in how they disseminate messages?

A:Yes. Today, there are many more social channels to consider, as well as events and conferences. There is also the visual medium to consider—making sure videos inserted into websites tell stories clearly. There is print and online content to manage. The role of the chief marketing manager is transforming into the role of chief communications officer. Because there are so many channels, the person in this role has to stitch them together and make sure the people that report to him or her get the messages out effectively and in a timely manner.

Q: Companies are now using more than one public relations agency to get their messages out. Take Postano, for example: They hired Horn Group for a specific role, but have also hired other agencies for other tasks. Is this a recent development?

A:It is not a new development, exactly. We noticed this shift around five years ago. We’ve become accustomed to working with other agencies, and we do so all the time. It is important to make sure boundaries between agencies are clearly defined—”who’s on first,” and all that.

Q: So, effective messaging is really looking at the whole while also managing the sum of its parts?

Yes. There are many layers of the onion, and with brand awareness, you have to think of the whole as well as the layers and how they work together to ensure you have a seat at the table and achieve a greater presence.

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A previous version of this report appeared in The Content Standard, published by Skyword, Inc. (Boston).

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