Monday, October 15, 2007

Five days of questions for B2B media

I don't claim to have the answers.
But I do have questions. And this week I'm going to ask five very important ones. Every day from now through Friday I'll share with you the sorts of questions that buzz around in my head ... and that should be buzzing around in yours.

A few days ago BtoB magazine asked Tad Smith, chief executive officer of Reed Business Information, to discuss his investment plans for next year (Disclosure: Reed is a client of mine.)
You can see his responses here.

What was most interesting to me was Tad's statement that he planned to boost spending on online editorial, but that he would do so by spending money on non-editorial staffers: " If you ask someone in California how many people you need to start a Web site, the response is three engineers and one editorial person. If you ask the same question in New York, the response is three editorial people and one engineer. To me, a dollar today spent on site engineering is better than one spent on building editorial content. This may seem counterintuitive, but there's too much focus on content. What you need is content that is more easily found and, when found, more enjoyable to read. That is all about engineering. We want to have sites where people come to enjoy the great content we already have. "


No doubt that's the sort of statement that outrages a good number of journalists. But the truth -- ugly as it may be -- is that Tad is right. For most B2B publishers there is too much focus on the art of content creation and and not enough on the science of content distribution. Editors are creating tons of articles. But since few editors have the skills or interest to optimize their articles for search, much of their effort is wasted.
It's comparable to producing a newspaper with a staff of hundreds of journalists but not a single printer.

Even more worrisome is the widespread problem in B2B publishing of misunderstanding how people consume content on the Web. Much of what we ask people to read online is just plain unreadable on a computer screen.
There is no excuse for producing a text-heavy monstrosity like this site from CMP. And why would anyone think the design of this Grand View Media site is acceptable? Or, for that matter, go back and take a look at the remarkably Web-unfriendly look of the interview with Tad. As I wrote nearly a year ago, BtoB Magazine seems unable to grasp the fundamentals of writing and designing for the Web.

In the past few weeks I've had conversations with a number of executives who made note of two interesting, disconcerting and possibly related facts.
First, after publishers have closed underperforming magazines, they've found that page views of the related Web sites have not suffered -- even if the sites are no longer being updated. In fact, once the editorial staff "was out of the way," as one exec said, a little search-engine optimization led to a boost in page views. Publishers have found that these sites -- full of evergreen, useful, "how-to" content -- could be profitable. The trick is to sell ads against search-engine friendly article pages, and not to "waste" money on staff to create new content.
Second, a much larger percentage of editorial staffers than anyone wanted to admit are proving absolutely incapable of functioning in the new media environment. The problems seem to be emotional and cultural, rather than intellectual. And they may be insurmountable. Or, as one senior editorial executive told me, "I just don't have the patience anymore for another conversation with another middle-aged white guy who thinks he's being mistreated by the world because I want him to know what a f**ing title tag is."

And so, this is today's question:
What is the correct ratio of art to science, creation to optimization, words to design, editor to engineer for each of us and our publications?

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1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting discussion to me, a young editor with only a few years in the industry, and hopefully many more to come (although it will probably be in the digital capacity, not in print.) I have has some experience with digital media, working on our websites, and it has been frustrating and disheartening across the board. I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be more focus on the presentation of information and making it easy for people to find what they need. There is a significant lack of that here. It feels like companies are just paying lip service to being part of the digital world, then failing in two parts: they are not dedicating the resources to build attractive sites that work properly and they are not training the eager editors that want to learn and be involved. There are some of us out there willing to cross the divide if given the education and opportunity.

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