Thursday, November 05, 2009

A tale of two audiences

I visited the campus of Northwestern University a few weeks ago to do some recruiting for a client. Things worked out OK. I met a few interesting students. And at least one of them may get a job out of it.
But the overall experience of my day on campus was a bit disconcerting, as has often been the case when I visit with academics and students.
And, with one notable exception, things were disconcerting in the same way they've been for years now.

The more things change ...
First, let me mention the exception.
For the first time in the five years or so that I've been visiting with students, every single person I met at Northwestern had at least basic multimedia skills and some Web experience. I cannot begin to tell you what a relief that was.
On the other hand, I saw too much of the same-old nonsense I've come to expect on campuses. One student handed me a cover letter with spelling and grammar errors. Most of the students who signed up for an interview had failed to do even cursory research on me or my client. One didn't even know my name. Not one student could correctly answer my all-purpose, do-you-know-anything-about-business questions (1. Approximately where did the Dow close yesterday? And 2. Roughly what would it cost to buy an ounce of gold today? I was willing to accept anything remotely close to 10,000 and $1,000 as answers.)
And, of course, none of the students seemed to have any idea at all about B2B publishing.

When my day ended I left the old, dusty journalism building and walked about 15 yards to a brand-spanking-new building where a colleague was to give a presentation about opportunities in marketing.
And that brief journey was like walking into an entirely new world.
Whereas only two people had attended a presentation earlier in the day with me and a recruiter from the Village Voice, this room was packed with students from Northwestern's new program in integrated marketing communications.
More importantly, the students in the marketing meeting were engaged -- typing notes on laptops, asking good questions. They seemed excited and eager to learn.
I fell in love with those students.
That was the exact opposite of how I felt about my time with the journalism students.
Most of the future journalists seemed, well, disinterested. Only one seemed truly enthusiastic about the profession. They were largely unprepared and disengaged. Most didn't take notes until I suggested they do so. Two of them needed to borrow a pen.

The nice kids
I shouldn't have been surprised.
Because what I saw in those two buildings was, in a nutshell, what's happening across the entire communications industry. Journalists (and journalism teachers and students) are making incremental adjustments to the new world, but marketers and public-relations professionals (as well as teachers and students in those fields) are morphing like crazy.
Most of the marketing people I know love the new world. They're excited. They can't seem to believe their good fortune to be working in a field where the rules are being rewritten.
But many journalism folks I know can generally be described as somewhat less than thrilled. Those differing sentiments among professionals (and academics) must have an effect on students.
There's also no doubt that the economy has had an impact.
Prospective journalists are being told time and again that jobs are disappearing.
Marketing/p.r. students, on the other hand, seem to understand that the skills they are acquiring have value.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I'm not saying anything new.
It was more than three years ago that I first wrote of my concern that B2B journalists were adopting the techniques of conversational editorial more slowly than were the public relations and marketing executives of the industries we cover.
And it's been more than two years since I started writing about content marketing, which I see as the the most exciting and fastest-growing area in B2B publishing. And content marketing is nothing more (or less) than marketers learning to perform the tasks of journalists.
But what I saw at Northwestern was new, at least to me: that in academia, as in business, the marketing space is attracting an extraordinary new type of communicator; while journalism programs are producing a more skilled, but not-so-very-different-from-the-old-days type of person.

If you're interested in spreading the word about B2B among journalism programs, there are some things you can do.
First, reach out to the j-schools in your area. Offer to do a guest lecture. Make yourself available for interviews.
Second, offer your support to the ASBPE Foundation. Funding for the foundation is in short supply. It could do with your help. Among other academic-related efforts, the group hopes to endow a university chair for an "ASBPE professor of business-to-business journalism."

If you'd like to learn more about what's happening in the world of B2B marketing, public relations and content marketing, the Web is full of great resources.
Three of my new favorites are Mengel Musings, owned by Amy Mengel; the B2BBloggers site, dedicated to "shaping the future of btob marketing;" and Social Media B2B, described as "exploring the impact of social media on B2B."

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out!

    I'm so glad that you test the waters with students/recruits for general business knowledge. That's an area that I think is really lacking in a lot of journalism (and PR) programs. There's so much focus on new media, but students still need to understand the context of how a business operates and what the success metrics are.

    @amymengel

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  2. Great--if disturbing--post. I've thought of Medill (my alma mater, BTW) as among the more B2B-savvy schools, reflecting Abe Peck's influence. So that ignorance now is of special concern. Many thanks, too, for underlining the ASBPE Foundation's mission. As its new president, I'd love to build funding to allow us to create a chair position at some worthy institution.

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  3. Hi Roy,
    It's funny. About a week before I visited Northwestern, I got an email from a recent grad of Columbia.
    She was asking why journalism schools don't teach anything about B2B.
    I told her that as far as I knew, the only major j-school that dealt with B2B was Northwestern. And I said that was because of Abe Peck.
    While I was on campus, Abe's name came up a few times....but it was always someone from the IMC program who mentioned him!

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  4. Although you don't touch on it here, you once saw an opportunity for B2B publishers in content marketing. Stephen Saunders recently made the same argument over at Folio:, if in a more sensationalist way ("It's a huge threat! No, it's a huge opportunity!"). Do you still see this as an opportunity? Or are we just hurtling towards the end of B2B journalism as we know it?

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  5. Hi John,
    I did touch on it. You just missed it...that's a likely side effect of my writing posts that are too long. It's hard to read the whole thing :>
    In this post I said "... it's been more than two years since I started writing about content marketing, which I see as the the most exciting and fastest-growing area in B2B publishing."
    I do see content marketing as a gigantic opportunity. This is particularly true for individuals, i.e., people with good skills and experience in B2B are finding themselves in demand in the content-marketing space.
    But I also believe that we are "hurtling towards the end of B2B journalism as we know it."
    Very few B2B publishing companies will be able to respond well to content marketing. And it's inevitable that as marketers do more content marketing, they'll also reduce their spending on advertising with traditional B2B publishers.

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  6. Paul,

    Thanks for this post. Educating stuff and also disturbing in some ways. B2B is a far under addressed subject in most Journalism schools that I have found.

    Also, I am honored that you listed Social Media B2B as one of your favorite resources. Thank you so much for including us.

    Thank you,
    Kipp

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