Thursday, December 06, 2012

Investigative reporting and content marketing

I have a thing about calendars. I tend to think in terms of anniversaries and cycles, and I'm often conscious of completely inane and useless pieces of time-based trivia about my past. It's not unusual for me to remark over dinner, for example, that "it was exactly two months ago today that we last ate this!" Or to comment while getting dressed in the morning "the last time I wore this jacket was on that trip to Boston exactly a year ago on Saturday!"
Needless to say, my family is less than enchanted by this habit.
So I can only hope that you, dear reader, will be less than annoyed when I mention that
a) it was exactly a year ago today that John Bethune published an interview with me about what's gone wrong in B2B content marketing.
b) and it was exactly a month ago today that I submitted my annual predictions to the Content Marketing Institute in which I argued that something is about to go right in content marketing.

You should go read all the predictions at CMI. There are tons of insightful remarks this year by tons of insightful people. Read those. Then come back and we'll talk about what I said.

The Sacred and the Profane

So let's review. My prediction looked like this:

Content marketers have mastered much of journalism: analysis, profiles, how-to articles, etc. But no brand has attempted the most sacred form of journalism: the investigative piece. That changes in 2013. Some brand will do solid, hardcore, investigative work -- not of its industry, but of a tangential subject of interest to its customers.
Imagine a baby-food company, for example, investigating the dangers to children of outgassing VOCs. 

I chose that example deliberately, because it's similar to an example I gave in a comment on an article called "Content Marketing is Not Journalism." Check out the article. Read the comments. Consider the nature of the argument.
If you read that piece I think you'll come to the same conclusion I come to -- this is nuts. They're arguing that content marketing can't be journalism because content marketers wouldn't tell a story about "about killing babies with Bisphenol A."
But as I said in my comment, content marketers have told the story about killing babies with Bisphenol A.
The real issue, it seems to me, is that content marketers didn't break the story about killing babies. Content marketers aggregated it. They added value to it. They distributed it.
But content marketers didn't break the story.
(Note: a review of the coverage of Bisphenol A shows people behaving badly across the publishing spectrum. The best, early work on the dangers of BPA showed up in peer-reviewed journals. After that,  advocacy groups began to receive some coverage in the mainstream press. But that same mainstream press consistently published counter-science pushed by manufacturer's public-relations wings. You'd be hard pressed to find any serious investigative work by journalists on the subject for the first few years of the controversy. What you can find, easily, is the sort of he-said, she-said nonsense that dominates journalism when the subject matter is difficult to digest. The sole exception to this was the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal -- which did the tough, investigative work beginning way back in 2007 and never let up.)

Until some content marketer somewhere breaks a story of such significance -- until someone does solid, hardcore investigative work - then content marketing will remain a lesser form of journalism.

( I feel obliged to interrupt myself and make note of the obvious -- if only to prevent people from posting comments that make note of the obvious:
There's nothing wrong with lesser forms of journalism. Not everything that journalists do is magnificent and holy. There is a place for celebrity journalism, just as there is a place for weekly newspapers that focus on high-school sports, trade magazines that teach people how to sell more widgets, local TV broadcasts filled with gruesome crime stories, and newsletters aimed at spreading paranoid theories in order to promote investments in gold.
Furthermore, not every piece of content that a corporation creates is a piece of journalism. Nor should it be. Corporations, even those that produce "great" content marketing, also produce marcomm, press releases, advertisements, instruction manuals, etc.)

The thickness of skin: the depth of coverage

The problem, of course, isn't that solid, hardcore investigative work is hard (although it is.) The problem is that it generates hate.
If you've worked in journalism for awhile, you know all about hate. People hate journalists. They write nasty letters. They sneer at us. They accuse us of lying, of stupidity, of being in the pockets of corporations and political parties and secret cabals.
And if you've worked in journalism for awhile you've learned to sort of like hate.
Hate motivates us. As does love. For isn't that what we mean when we say that journalism's purpose is "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"?
Marketers, on the other hand, tend not to welcome hate.
As I said in that interview -- did I mention it was exactly a year ago today? -- with John Bethune "my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of these companies don’t have a culture that is open to journalism. These companies don’t have the stomach for news and the confrontations it can promote. They panic when someone complains. They’re afraid of controversy."
But that will change. I believe it's changing now as more and more talented and experienced journalists enter content marketing.
And there's a model we can use to guide us during this change.
Consider this:
Corporations and their marketing and public relations departments are responsible for an extraordinary amount of charitable work. Companies choose a "cause" and they champion it. They sponsor walk-a-thons and volunteer drives. They associate their brand image with some form of "good." In many of these cases they seek to solve a problem -- poverty, disease, lack of education, etc.
This is comforting the afflicted.
Investigative journalism is the flip side of this. Investigative journalism seeks to uncover the roots of a wrong. Why are people in this area poor? Why are children sick? Why can't Johnny read?
What I'm predicting, specifically, is that brands will begin to look at both sides of the coin as part of their content-marketing efforts.
Why can't a baby food maker investigate VOCs?
Why can't one of the companies that associates itself with pink ribbons and the search for a cure for breast cancer also fund and publish investigative work into what causes the disease?
Want an example from B2B? (This is, after all, a blog about B2B journalism.) Have you seen the wonderful work being done to get truck drivers involved in battling human trafficking? That movement comforts the afflicted and seeks to "cure" the problem. Bless them for that.
But why can't a truck manufacturer flip that coin, hire a few reporters and look for the people behind this obscenity?
Of course it will be hard. Of course you might get sued. Of course people will hate you.
But trust me, there is great joy to be found in afflicting the comfortable. There is great joy, too, in feeling the hate.
There are also great branding opportunities for companies that can take it.

This time next year

I was recently named one of 25 journalists to watch in content marketing. That's an honor, and not one I mean to belittle.
But the list that I long to see is something deeper, more meaningful.
I don't expect to be on that list. At present I deserve no such honor.
But the list is coming. I believe this.
Soon there will be list of "content marketers to watch in journalism." And some of those content marketers will be on that list because they have proven themselves to be investigative reporters.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Vanity, predictions and trumpets

You know those Google vanity alerts that incredibly arrogant, egotistical and self-centered people use to alert them whenever someone mentions them anywhere on the Web?
I have one of those.

It's a good thing too.
Because otherwise amid the hurricanes, nor'easters, power outages and business travel that have marked my life in recent weeks, I would have had no idea that the good people at the Content Marketing Institute said something nice about me. It turns out that it's hard to read email newsletters by candlelight on a computer without power. So by the time the lights went back on, I had an inbox full of stuff I had no time to read. So I deleted a slew of newsletters.

The vanity alerts, however, survived the purge.

The tricky thing about those vanity alerts, however, is that they also tell you when someone has said something not-so nice. And that's what I thought had happened when the alert told me I was mentioned in an article called "Failed Content Marketing Predictions Revealed."
Fortunately for me and my ego, the article discussed not just the predictions from earlier this year that were wrong, but also those that were correct.
As Joe Pulizzi put it: 'For 2012, Paul Conley predicted that, “Public-relations departments and advertising agencies will make a big move into content marketing. Uh, Paul… you got that right.'

You can, and should, read Joe's entire post. It contains insights from people who are brighter than I. And unless they have vanity alerts that prompted them to write Hooray-I-was-right blog posts like this one, you may have no idea how bright they are.

What you can't read ... at least not yet ... are my prediction for content marketing in 2013. I submitted mine a few days ago. And when the Content Marketing Institute publishes its full report on the industry for 2013 next month, I hope my predictions will be included.

Then next year around this time, assuming that I'm right (as any incredibly arrogant, egotistical and self-centered person would) I'll brag about it here again.

In the meantime I'll be working on my latest project; developing a software program that will play the sound of trumpets whenever someone on the Web says I got something right.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

That was fast: 25 journalists to watch in content marketing

A few years  ago I received a LinkedIn connection request from an old college friend. It had been nearly 20 years since I'd seen him, and I'd missed him. So I was pleased to accept the request to connect virtually.
A few hours later, in one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments that make living in a major city so perfect, I turned the corner of a crowded street and there he was -- walking toward me in the real world.
He was as surprised as I was. But he recovered from the shock faster and with his sense of humor in high gear.
"Wow," he said. "this social media stuff really works."

I was reminded of that meeting last week when I announced that I was returning to blogging. As I said in that post, my blogging hiatus had led to a dramatic drop in where I appeared in search results. I'd gone from being ""famous" enough to generate new business through search to a place where "...I was no longer famous at all ...not even in the media niches where I had worked for years and years."

So I jumped once more unto the breach and began to blog.

Then, a few hours later, in one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments that make living in the modern world so perfect, I logged onto my email and found that I had been named to Kapost's list of "25 journalists to watch in content marketing."

And when I recovered from my shock, I said aloud to my empty kitchen, "Wow. This blogging stuff really works."

If you're so inclined, take a look at Kapost's interview with me about life as a journalist in the content-marketing world. Drill around a bit. Look at the other interviews too. There are folks on the list who are far brighter and more interesting than I.

But I'll also ask you to look around a bit at Kapost itself. In particular, take a look at the announcement from earlier this summer when Kapost announced a partnership with Eloqua.

That partnership, in my mind, is significant. When I announced I was returning to blogging, I made mention of what I see as the emerging challenges in B2B publishing. I listed several subjects that captivate me in 2012. One of those was " the integration of marketing automation and content production systems," 

Kapost and Eloqua may be the first companies from those worlds to team up. But they certainly won't be the last. In my next post I'll talk about why the combining of such systems is important to B2B publishing, and what it means for B2B journalists. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fame is fleeting; Search is forever

A year ago this month I made a decision to cut back on this blog. I promised that I'd publish things here from time to time, but I was not going to post with anything like the frequency of earlier years. That was, apparently, a very bad decision. 

Allow me to explain.

Late in May of this year I found myself engaged in a frustrating conversation with my preschool-aged daughter. One of her friends had told her that people who are are on TV and have their own Websites are famous -- and that famous is the most wonderful thing a person can be.

My daughter, remembering that I’d worked on TV and have my own Website, was thrilled. So when I came home that afternoon she announced in a voice filled with both pride and glee that I was famous, just like Harry Potter and President Obama.

I tried to explain to her that I was no such thing. But I seemed only to confuse her. She was adamant that because I had been on TV and have a Website, I was famous. "Just Google yourself," she said. "You'll see."

So I did.

I opened a browser, went to Google, typed in my name. And there I was. There I was in this blog. There I was on Twitter. There I was on LinkedIn and there I was mentioned in an article in Folio magazine.

Now being visible in Google is hardly the same as being famous, as you know. But that's not an easy concept for a child to understand. Particularly when she insists on searching the names of some other folks she knows ... none of whom showed up on the search engine results page.

So I tried another tactic. "It's not fair to search just for someone's name," I said. "That's not what being famous is about. You have to search about what they do, you have to search about what they're famous for, then you can see if they're really famous."

"So," my daughter said, "search for stuff from your business. Search 'B2B journalism.'"

So I did. I entered "B2B journalism" into the search box, braced myself for a conversation about how Internet famous isn't the same as really famous, hit return....and ... much to my dismay ... I wasn't there.

Now perhaps you're not surprised. Why should you be? It's extremely unlikely that anyone other than me would know what the Google SERP page looked like a few years ago for the term "B2B journalism." But for a very, very, very long time anyone searching for that term would get returns from my blog, my site, interviews with me, or articles about an appearance I made somewhere.

But it turned out that on this day everyone except me showed up on the SERP.

My surprise must have been visible on my face, because my daughter figured out the problem quickly. "Don't worry," she said. "You're famous to everyone who knows your name. Daddy is famous to people who already know him."

Hide Personal Results

Now of course, I know that no one reading this post cares whether or not I'm ranked well by Google for search terms. You don't care that the Google algorithm doesn't think "Paul Conley" and "B2B journalism" are synonymous.

This isn't a problem for you. Search results that don't point to me aren't broken.

But this is a problem for me.

My consulting business is dependent upon search. Clients have learned about me by searching for terms that -- at least in the past -- pointed to this blog or my site. If a publisher or content marketer wanted help with editorial, they would search for terms that would eventually lead them to me.

Now after that conversation with my daughter I did some quick research that showed I still ranked well for a slew of terms that have led to business in the past. This, of course, was welcome news.

Nonetheless, I found it bothersome from both an ego and business point of view that I was no longer ranked well for the biggest and broadest terms in our industry.

In my sort-of-a-farewell post of a year ago I wrote how by 2006 I'd learned that "I was weirdly famous in some cool media niches." Now I'd found that I was no longer famous at all ...not even in the media niches where I had worked for years and years. I was not as famous as Harry Potter. No journalist could be. But once I'd been sort of the B2B version of Xenophilius "Xeno" Lovegood -- a minor character, for sure, but a character with a name. Now I was suddenly un-famous. If they made a movie about B2B journalism I'd be listed in the credits as "journalist with glasses" or some such thing.

What have you done for me lately

In the days after that conversation with my daughter, I took some steps to improve my rankings for a few key terms. It turned out that a recent update of the software on my site had given Google the message to not index my site. That, as you would imagine, was not what I wanted.

So I fixed that ... and within a few days my site popped back into search results for a wide variety of terms.

But I'd stumbled upon a deeper problem. Google's algorithm seems to be giving an ever-increasing weight to recency. As the content world has moved deeper into real-time publishing, Google seems to be assigning more search value based on age. Links are, of course, still the most important part of the algorithm. But Google now seems more interested in content that received one link recently, than in content that received two links two years ago. Two links from Twitter right now are worth more than 20 links from before Twitter existed.

Perhaps it's always been like this. Perhaps I didn't notice it because I had once posted so frequently. 

But here's the thing: I wasn't posting frequently any longer and it was hurting me in search. And that has the potential to hurt my business tremendously.

So I decided to return to blogging. Nothing else yields the search results my business needs. Twitter doesn't do it. LinkedIn doesn't do it. Bylined articles don't do it.

Blogito, ergo sum

Fortunately, I may have some ideas worth blogging about. 

I spent a good portion of the summer chatting with folks about what I see as the emerging challenges facing companies that create content. 

I don't have all the answers to these challenges. I don't pretend to even understand exactly what the challenges are. Rather, I see these challenges approaching and I want to think about them. And as I said on this blog some six years ago, for me "the act of blogging has become part of the act of thinking." 

So as this blog relaunches you'll see fewer posts about the themes I cared about eight years ago (multimedia production, journalism training, etc.) and more about the things that captivate me in 2012 (collaboration systems, management of distributed workforces, internal communications, the integration of marketing automation and content production systems, editorial quality metrics, etc.)

Whatever part of the content world you come from -- traditional publishing, content marketing, brand journalism or public relations -- there may be something here for you worth thinking about too.