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. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Scratching the seven-year itch

What were you doing seven years ago tonight?
Odds are it was more fun than what I was doing -- which was sitting at my desk and launching this blog.

I don't have a very clear memory of  that night -- and that seems strange to me now, given how important this blog became to my career. Rather, I have a hazy recollection of coming home and feeling sort of fed up. It seemed clear to me that the entire world of B2B journalism was entering an extraordinarily exciting and important era of rapid change. But my working life was filled with people who didn't share that belief. I really just wanted someone to talk to about this stuff. But my family, friends and coworkers weren't interested.

So I came home, turned on the computer, and started talking to ... whomever happened to be out there in the newly born blogsphere.

If you don't know what happened next, feel free to take a look at this post from September of this year. In it I tried to spell out how wonderful and important this blog became to me, but how I had lost my taste for it.

But if there's anything that has changed more than my relationship to this blog, it's the world that I wrote about here. B2B media is dramatically different from what it was in 2004. I'd like to think I played a small part in that change. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Reviewing the past

Early this morning I received an email from someone who described himself as a "longtime fan" of my work. He wanted to share a link to a piece he'd read on FINS, the career site owned by Dow Jones. The article, titled "We're All Media Companies Now and We're Hiring," is about the extraordinary surge in hiring of traditional journalists to create content for non-publishers.

The writer of that email was kind enough to point out that the article "sounds like what you've been preaching for a long time." And there's no doubt that is true. This new world of content marketing (or, if you prefer, brand journalism) has excited me tremendously.

But I've also developed some concerns about this new world. If you're one of the hundreds of B2B journalists who has made (or is considering) a move into content marketing, I urge you to read my recent conversations with John Bethune. You can find them here and here. You should also read John's interview with Jesse Noyes, one of the better-known and more talented players in the brand-journalism world. (Note that Jesse draws an interesting distinction, calling himself a brand reporter rather than a brand journalist.)

Predicting the future

I didn't intend  to write anything about tonight's anniversary. But that email from a longtime reader left me feeling like I should say something.

Then, in the late afternoon, the Content Marketing Institute and Junta42 published their annual list of predictions for the upcoming year in Social Media and Content Marketing. Joe Pulizzi, the boss at Junta42 and CMI, had asked more than 80 people to share their predictions. But his favorite, according to his blog post today, was mine.

And I realized that I couldn't think of a better birthday gift for me and this blog than this:
Joe, as you probably know, is the father of the content-marketing craze. And I, at least for today, am his favorite child.

So as we enter 2012, as new challenges arise in B2B, and as this blog begins its eighth year, check out my predictions and those of some of the smartest folks in the content-marketing world.

(If you're interested, check out what I said on the six-year anniversary of this blog here.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

An interview with me on the woes of content marketing

As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don't intend to blog here at the rate I once did.
But as I promised in that not-quite-a-farewell post, "I won't abandon this site, nor will I stop writing entirely about the news and business of business news."

Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that I won't stop talking entirely about the news and business of business news. Because I still do a lot of that.

So if you're interested in such conversations, you might want to read John Bethune's interview with me about what's going wrong in B2B content marketing.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Always do what you are afraid to do

I don't want to be a blogger anymore. And that works out just fine, since I'm clearly not a blogger anymore. Or at least not in the way I was back in the early days of social media.
I launched this blog late in 2004. But things took off the following year. It seems remarkable to me now, but I published 272 blog posts in 2005.
But that volume dropped steadily as more and more people entered the game and as the game grew less interesting to me. Last year I posted just 12 times. The piece you're reading now is just my fourth of 2011.
I've never been one to insist upon a clear standard of what is, and isn't blogging. But it seems clear to me that whatever it is I'm doing on this site, it's no longer blogging.
I may be using blogging software. The search engines may still classify this site as a blog. But I'm not a blogger anymore.

But if I'm no longer a blogger, then what am I?
It was blogging that transformed my career. When I launched this site I was largely unknown in the world of journalism. I had launched one of the first B2B news sites in existence. I was an online producer at the early CNN property that later became CNNMoney. I was an executive in the early days at I had been given the good luck to be around in the early days of digital journalism, but no one knew me. I was just a guy with a moderately good resume, a substantially large ego and a firmly held belief that I had something important to say to the B2B publishing industry.
That was the perfect recipe for blogging. And it worked for me.
By 2006 I had morphed into "Paul Conley, the blogger." I was weirdly famous in some cool media niches. I hosted sessions at the Folio:Show, the College Media Advisors convention, the ASBPE national convention and ABM's Digital Velocity conference. By 2008, I had become "THE Paul Conley, the controversial blogger." I was the keynote speaker at both the ASBPE national convention and the Southeast Journalism Conference for student journalists.
Then something happened.
Two years ago this month I wrote a piece suggesting that the media revolution had ended. The previous decade, I said, had been one of "ceaseless change and challenge ...a madcap series of never-ending developments (that had been) glorious and exciting." But the heady days of the revolution, I said, had given way to a less interesting era of incremental change.
After that, the number of posts I made on this blog began to plummet.

Last night I took a look at a blog post by my friend John Bethune, who runs the B2BMemes site. It was, as always, a wonderful and insightful bit of writing.
As I reached the conclusion of his piece, I saw that at the bottom of the page he has a small list of sites that he calls Brilliant Blogs -- and my blog was on the list.
And I thought, "that's so nice."
Then my hand moved and my mouse drifted over the link to my blog and a little descriptor popped up that said "occasional comments on trends in B2B media."
And I thought, "that's so ... accurate."
I've gone from being "Paul Conley the blogger" to being "Paul Conley, occasional commenter."

A few months ago I came across a piece on Clientonomy, the wonderful site from Alistair MacPherson about the consulting industry. Mac asked the question I've heard asked a thousand times -- "How Often Should You Blog." His answer was the same that any sensible person would give you, "there are no hard-and-fast rules."
But it was the opening paragraphs of his piece that resonated with me.
"But let me ask you something," he wrote. "How many songs should a composer write? How many movies should a film director shoot? How many dances should a choreographer create?"

When I was Paul Conley the Blogger, things were simpler. (How many blog posts should a blogger write? Lots of them.)
But now that I don't think of myself as a blogger, now that no one thinks of me that way any longer, I need a different answer.
How many posts should an occasional commenter make?
How often should a consultant blog?
Or --- and this is the question that seems somehow right to me -- how many essays should an essayist write?

A mind that startled us
I had a little bit of free time this summer, and I spent much of it wondering what it was I should do with free time. Obviously, I didn't spend it blogging. Although I did spend some considerable hours thinking that I should do exactly that.
Nor did I get in shape, volunteer for a worthy cause, visit a museum or mount a protest against one of the world's many outrages. Although I did make plans to do all of those.
But I did accomplish one worthy goal -- I began to re-read Emerson.
When I was a young man in Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a bit of a hero to me. I know now that I misunderstood much of what he wrote. That was inevitable. I was a cynical teenager, educated by rationalists. The work of the great Transcendentalist must remain elusive to such a child.
But something about Emerson stuck with me.
First and foremost, I wanted to be Emerson. I envied his intellect. I longed to think big thoughts, to understand nature and God and man. I envied, too, his lifestyle. There was no appeal to me in the solitude of Thoreau's cabin. I wanted Emerson's life: to write, to travel the country on speaking tours, to mingle with great minds and then return to a home in New England when the weather suited me.
I wanted to be a public intellectual.
I wanted, more than anything else in the world, to be an essayist.

At some point in adulthood, I drifted into an easier version of that dream. I wrote, although not of things of great importance. I found bright and articulate people for conversation, but maintained a working-class suspicion of well educated intellectuals. I moved often -- changing apartments and cities, but returned nearly every autumn to Massachusetts.
Then, I started blogging.
And what was my blogging life in 2006-08 if not some third-class version of Emerson's? Writing, travel, acclaim -- my work was hardly Emersonian, but I became a sort of Emerson lite, a semi-intellectual for B2B media, discussing meta tags rather than metaphysics.
And I loved every minute of it.

But that was then.
Now the blogosphere that once seemed so full of fresh ideas feels like an echo chamber. Once there was a revolution, and I yelled through the entire thing because Emerson taught me that "sometimes a scream is better than a thesis." Now the revolution is over. Where once I could not shut up about the media industry, now there seems little reason to talk, let alone to screech.
So I don't want to be a blogger any longer.
I want instead to be the man I wanted to be when I was child.

But even I -- as pretentious a man and writer as you are likely to ever meet -- has doubts that I can be anything more than what I have already been -- a blogger, a businessman, a consultant and journalist and executive.
And yet ...
Emerson, of course, found the answer more than a century before I asked the question:
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till ... We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope."

Every artist was first an amateur
When I look back over recent posts on this blog (or, more importantly, when I look over the unfinished pieces that sit on my computer,) it seems clear that I've been trying to change the how of my writing. Whatever blogging might be, there has been less of it here than there once was. I've not put my heart into blogging for a long time. And it shows. The muse befriends me no more.
Instead, I'm yearning to write pieces that are longer, less frequent and more thoughtful. I yearn, too, to stretch beyond journalism, media and business. I want to write of the world, not its niches.
Whatever an essay may be (and brighter minds than mine disagree over their structure and tone), essays are what I want to write. That is the plot of ground I was given all those years ago. That is the soil I must till.

I'm not leaving B2B media. Nor am I closing my consulting business. There are mouths to be fed. Besides, I like working with the people of B2B.
I won't abandon this site, nor will I stop writing entirely about the news and business of business news.
But I will also write about other things -- things less timely and more timeless. Some of those things I'll publish here. Others will go elsewhere.

Because I'm no longer a blogger. Nor am I an occasional commenter.
I'm an occasional essayist with blogging software.

(Editor's Note: If you're interested in learning more about the craft and history of the essay, you should check out the work of my friend Dan Conley [no relation.] Dan has a website, a blog and soon a book about Montaigne, the French writer who invented the essay.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

A suggestion for my obituary

I've spent a considerable amount of time in the past decade or so trying to convince journalists (and their employers) of the value of the agnostic link. -- a link that points to a competitor or rival. My argument is that journalists have an obligation as journalists to point to information of value no matter where they find it. Thus if a competing brand publishes something that your readers should see, you should link to it.
I understand how difficult this can be for journalists. We are often, by our nature, fiercely competitive. I understand too how hard this can be for publishers -- particularly in B2B. They are often tasked with making money in very small niches where success depends on how much advertising money you can attract away from rivals.
But for me (and for others like me) the use of the agnostic link is a no-brainer. Journalism's purpose is to inform, amuse and educate. So when someone publishes something that is informative, amusing or educational, I should make sure my readers see it.

Recently I've been involved in a project that requires talking with a large number of journalists and publishers about agnostic links. What's been particularly interesting about this project is that there has not been much disagreement about the value of such links. It seems that much, if not most, of the industry has accepted the value of content aggregation, content curation and social media. And those three subsets of the publishing world are built upon agnostic links.
In fact, for every journalist in this project who wanted to argue about the value of agnostic links, there have been three or four who were far more interested in talking about how people once hated such links. These journalists wanted to know who were the first journalists to use agnostic links. They wanted to know when the major journalism brands started using them. And they wanted to know who came up with the phrase "agnostic link.'
As it turns out, the answers to those questions are, as near as I can tell,:
  • Early bloggers created the idea of the agnostic link (although clipping services and the B2B newsletters that mimicked them engaged in a similar practice for decades.)
  • As I mentioned in this earlier blog post, the big names in journalism embraced agnostic links in mid 2006.
  • It might have been me. At any rate, I'm going to take credit for it.
Paul Conley, the journalist who coined the term "agnostic link," died today at the age of 135

So here's the funny thing. I used to be 100 percent convinced that I had heard and read the term "agnostic link' dozens of times before I started using it. But over time, I've run into more and more people who tell me that the first time they saw the phrase was on my blog. Or that the first time they heard it was at a speech I gave.
Then, just this morning someone asked me for some background on the phrase, so I plugged it into Google and found, as I have numerous times over recent years, that the top return is a piece I wrote in November 2006 called "Getting religion about agnostic links."
And I said to myself -- I give up.

I don't intend to be Bob Greene, the Chicago Tribune writer credited with inventing the term "yuppie." If my memory is correct, Greene spent years insisting he had done no such thing.
Nor, apparently, will I be Joe Pulizzi, who invented the term (and the industy) "content marketing." Content marketing has changed the very nature of the publishing game. "Agnostic links" also changed publishing. But it was the practice of agnostic links that were revolutionary. The term "agnostic link" didn't catch on and instead seemed to fade in popularity as the actual practice grew.
Still, I'll take any footnote I can get in journalism history.
So here's my request. If someday in the distant future, despite my best efforts, I should die, I want Folio magazine to write a brief piece saying that I coined the term "agnostic link." And I want that piece to link to obituaries on eMediaVitals, min, Junta42 and Publishing Executive.
Then I will rest in peace.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Am I big enough for marketing automation?

My career tends to be riddled with serendipity. I seem to find what I need through good fortune, rather than through any organized effort. Whenever I ask “how did I get here,” the answer is usually “because I got lucky.”
Let me tell you a story about what I mean:
I’m a consultant. That means I run a small business. But it’s about as small as a business can be. It’s a one-person operation with nothing to sell other than what’s in my head. If, heaven forbid, I were to get hit by a bus, my business would die with me. By the same token, if I decided to retire, my business would retire with me.
Lately, this has begun to trouble me. I’ve started thinking about ways to expand … looking for ways to turn my tiny consulting business into something that more closely resembles a real business -- with products, and employees and other such things. In other words, I started thinking about how I could convert Paul Conley Consulting into something that could exist without Paul Conley.
So I thought about it. And worried about it.
Then I got lucky.

Luck of the Draw
One day, staring at my Twitter stream, I saw that Jonathan Jordan, the business coach who tweets under the name @MindfullyChange, was offering a free hour of coaching to the first seven folks to respond to his tweet.
I responded … and I won.
A few days later, I spent an hour on the phone with Jonathan. It was eye-opening. I learned a tremendous amount, but one thing stood out: it became clear that I was uncomfortable with the tasks that are required to grow the business. I like to deliver consulting services. But I’m not crazy about selling consulting services. Thus I wasn’t selling.
Fortunately, this reluctance to actively market and sell my services has not been much of a problem. I’m booked solid nearly year-round. Between referrals, repeat business and the use of the Junta42 matching service, I find enough work to fill my time. But after chatting with Jonathan I realized that the only way to expand my business beyond what I can accomplish working alone would be to expand my marketing/sales role, while delegating more of the hands-on work to others.
(No doubt, entrepreneurs who are much smarter than I said something like “no kidding, that’s obvious” when reading that last paragraph.)
Yet with no real sales skills to speak of, I was perplexed about what to do next.
So I thought about my conversation with Jonathan. And I worried about it.
Then I got lucky, again.

Fortune Smiles
A few days after my chat with the business coach, I received an email from Junta42 saying I had been matched with a potential client. (I won’t go into all the details here, but if you’re a content provider in the B2B content arena, you really should be in Junta42’s vendor/customer matching system. For everyone else, you just need to know that Junta42 vets vendors like me, investigates our experience and then matches us with marketers who need help with content.)
I reached out to the prospect. We traded some emails. I had a few phone conversations with company executives. Then we struck a deal.
As is often the case when I land a new client, I have to rapidly get up to speed on them and their industry. That was true here as well. So I started researching my new client, a company called Whatsnexx, a new competitor in the marketing-automation space.
And several minutes into my research I realized that the answer to how to expand my sales/marketing efforts might be found in the world of marketing automation.
(No doubt, those smarter-than-I entrepreneurs just said “no kidding, that’s obvious” a second time and then hit the BACK button on their browsers. Everyone else may want to read a little further.)

Klaatu Barada Nikto
A few days ago my toddler daughter watched as I tried, and failed, to make a major repair in our home. Her heartfelt advice was “Don’t worry, Daddy. You can buy a robot to do it.”
That’s sort of how I’ve come to think of marketing automation. It’s the robot that does things I cannot do.

If you’re not familiar with marketing automation, I’ll try to explain it. But first, let me offer you a piece of heartfelt advice of my own: Don’t accept anyone’s definition of marketing automation.
In my entire career I’ve never run into an industry that has such a difficult time defining itself. Rather than agree on the parameters (in the way that all grocery chains accept that they are grocery chains or all car makers accept that they are car makers), marketing-automation companies seem to be engaged in an endless pissing match about who is and isn’t a marketing-automation company and what is and isn’t marketing automation.
Reading that stuff will make you nuts. No doubt talking to vendors in the space will do the same. So for now, let’s just use my definition: Marketing automation is a giant robot that can help you market things.
OK, so far?
Good. So let’s look at what’s inside the robot.

Connecting things to connect with your connections
Marketing automation is nothing more, and nothing less, than a system of making connections. Most marketing-automation companies do things that, for example, link your Web site analytics to your email-marketing efforts. Some marketing-automation companies connect CRM systems (like Salesforce) with other databases and communication systems. Some companies do large-scale integration of databases. My client, Whatsnexx, provides its services through a proprietary system that avoids the need for that integration. Almost everyone in the field is engaged in linking things that are not necessarily linked (PPC campaigns, call-center activities, ad placement, social-network marketing, etc.) Everyone in the field is engaged in making it easier for businesses to market and sell.
If you read this blog and are not a member of my immediate family, you probably work in editorial in B2B publishing or B2B content marketing. Odds are you’ve never heard of marketing automation. But odds are that your company is already engaged in it....or is looking at possible vendors.
But as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not a big company. I’m a one-man operation. So the question for me was “Am I big enough for marketing automation?”
The answer is “yes, sort of.”

What's it cost?
Prices for marketing-automation solutions vary widely. But there are a number of players, including Whatsnexx, with prices that start at around $500 a month.
Some of the less-elaborate solutions such as Loopfuse and Genius offer free versions for small businesses.
The problem, however, is that all of these solutions require that you have some sort of marketing systems in place. If you don’t have anything to connect, then you’re not big enough for marketing automation.
I asked Jacques Spilka, the Senior Customer State Marketing Strategist for Whatsnexx, a version of the “Am I big enough for marketing automation” question. He said “All you really need to do MA is a list of contacts. Everything else is marketing to that list.”
But remarkably, for someone who has been running a business all these years, I don’t really have a list. I don’t have much of anything to connect. I run some Google ads. I have some basic Web analytics. Recently I started using the free version of Zoho to keep track of my customers and leads. But my prospect list is nothing more than a subset of my connections on LinkedIn and a handful of people that send me emails.
So before I can honestly say that I am big enough for marketing automation, I’ll need to get more serious about the whole sales and marketing thing and build a proper prospect list.
I guess it’s time for another session with my business coach.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Quantifying quality

I spend a lot of time thinking about content quality and how to measure it.
This won't come as a surprise to anyone who's worked with me in the past. Much of my consulting business involves quantifying-- how many pieces of content created, of what types, with which characteristics, over what time frame, collecting how many pageviews, generating how many leads, etc.

But those are simple metrics of performance and production. There's not much challenge in them.
Measuring content quality, however, is something else entirely.
That's hard. That's complicated, challenging and -- particularly to some journalists -- controversial.
But I like the the difficult and disputatious. Which probably explains why I run in circle-eights and giggle whenever a client asks "how do we know if our content is good?"

New gig
A client asked me a version of that question a few weeks ago. And so, for the next few months I'll be helping a major B2B publisher measure quality.
How? The way I always do it:
I'll work with editors across the company to get consensus on a list of content characteristics that indicate quality and can be measured objectively. (For example, one measurement involves scoring a piece of content against a quality scale, i.e., an enterprise story is worth more than a story based on a press release; a story based on a press release is worth more than an edited press release, an edited press release is worth more than an unedited press release, etc.)
I don't attempt to measure quality indicators that are subjective. For example, I admire a well-crafted sentence as much as the next guy, but I won't count the number of elegant phrases per 1,000 words, because I can't get consensus on what makes for an elegant phrase.

More, better or both?
There can be quality scores for individual writers, brands, departments, etc.
The truly interesting work begins when you analyze those scores along with other metrics.
Suppose, for example, a B2B brand has a below-average quality score, as well as poor Web metrics (low pageviews, uniques, etc.) and below-average output (content/per author/per week) figures. The most common reaction is that the editor should be fired.
But what if the brand served an industry that was contracting and where company research indicated that potential revenue growth is nonexistent.
In such a case does it make sense to hire and train someone new? Or should you stick with the sub-par performer and make plans to shutter the brand in the near future?
Or imagine a brand that makes great money, scores well-above-average on quality and where output per editor is nearly double the company norm. Should you cut the training budget and give those folks raises? Turn the editor-in-chief into the division's content director?
How about a brand with extraordinarily high quality scores, painfully low output numbers and pageviews that are half the size of its competitors? Sounds like senior-writer syndrome, to me. You've got a great journalist producing a small number of wonderful pieces per month. Does the brand have a monthly print product? If so, there may not be a problem. But does the cost/expense ratio suggest a Web-only future for the brand? Then you have a huge problem.

Culture clash
In my experience, measuring the quality of content inevitably leads to a discussion about the quantity of content.
The assumption is that there is an inverse relationship between quality and quantity. Journalists tend to argue that they can do more or they can do better, but they can't do both.
But my experience is that this is untrue.
First, as a general rule, I've found that the worst writers almost always also produce less content than their peers. (There are, however, some talented writers with low productivity, just as there are awful writers who produce an awful lot.)
Second, I've found that even the most talented and prolific people in any content operation often have work habits that hurt quality and lower productivity.

The relationship between quality and quantity was at the center of a recent blog post by the always insightful John Bethune.

Citing a recent ad from ReadWriteWeb seeking an editor "“to produce 5 solid web tech news articles a day, 5 days a week,” John suggests that to traditional, print-based journalists this "new ethos of digital productivity is not just foreign, it’s al-Qaeda foreign. They are publishing terrorists, threatening the placid print way of life."
John goes on to say that although he sympathizes with his fellow print veterans, he wonders if "it just our old print ways, our preconceptions and work habits, that make digital workloads look so extreme? We say that quality will invariably suffer with increased output. But does it?"
Before you answer that question for yourself, I strongly recommend that you read John's entire post.
And pay particular attention to the comments, where my friend Robin Sherman raises his concerns about the quality/quantity relationship, where John responds to those concerns, and where I said:
"As an industry, we’ve sunk into a seemingly endless series of arguments in which we compare apples to oranges. We argue over the quality levels that can be achieved with Twitter versus what is possible in long-form narrative. That’s as ridiculous as comparing the works of Shakespeare to a newspaper headline. The truth is that there are great plays and there are great hedes. There are great stories and there are great tweets. There are epics and sonnets and there is also haiku. There are wonderful stories written on the fly. And there are magnificent works that consume a lifetime."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It takes six years to become a doctor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery... or to read this blog

Six years ago today I launched this blog.
My initial reaction to reaching this milestone is that I should say something about how quickly the time has slipped away. I feel I should say something like "it doesn't seem possible that six years have passed."
But that feels like a lie.

The truth is that when I look back over the past six years, it seems the time has dragged on forever. I want to scream "Six years! It feels like 600 years!"

Back when all this started, B2B journalism seemed so extraordinarily exciting. Time was flying. There was an urgency about things. Less than a year after starting this blog I had a sense that large numbers of journalists in B2B were making themselves unemployable by refusing to keep up with the pace of change. I wanted to do something to help. I felt invigorated and enthusiastic.
Now hundreds of those people are gone. But hundreds more remain. And as a result of the lingering malingerers, much of traditional B2B publishing turned into a technological and journalistic backwater.

But one man's stumble is another man's opportunity.
Thus the most amazing change from six years ago is how much of the B2B editorial world (both people and dollars) has moved into content marketing -- a term (and arguably an industry) that didn't even exist when I launched this blog.

A few hours ago, Junta 42 released its Content Marketing & Social Media Predictions for 2011 from 100 of the content-marketing industry's "thought leaders." (Disclosure: My predictions are included.)
I was excited to see the predictions. But before I even started reading them I was haunted by the question: Could anyone put together a credible list today of 100 thought leaders in B2B editorial that are NOT in content marketing?

For that in a nutshell is what has changed since this blog launched. At the start it seemed that each day introduced me to another remarkable, fascinating, ambitious person who believed that a new era of B2B journalism was emerging. Many of those folks were quite young. All of them were thought leaders. Getting to know them was the most extraordinary experience of my career. Those people were excited about B2B. And they kept me excited.

Now many of them are gone -- drifting off to law school, MBA programs and the like.

Many others, of course, are still in the business of B2B editorial. Perhaps half of those have moved into content marketing. Some others are still struggling to turn their traditional publications into something more suitable for the present era.

And so today, at the six-year mark, I feel I should say something to the folks who have been here since the very beginning:

Here we are. Six years later. And I'd like to thank you. Every comment, every email and every tweet from you has been great. More importantly, those all-too-rare meetings in the real world have been remarkable. You folks have been wonderful.
I'll be back with more posts in 2011. And you are all welcome to come visit. But I feel obliged to tell you something.
If you had enrolled in dental school on the day I launched this blog, you would now be an expert in pulling out other people's teeth. And certainly that has to be better than reading a blog that feels like having your own teeth pulled.
So think about that before you spend another six years here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The excellence craze

(Editor's Note: A custom publisher interviewed me last week for its company blog. As it turns out, at least one executive at the company wasn't crazy about my thoughts on the state of publishing. So the company opted not to publish the interview. I, on the other hand, am crazy about my thoughts on the state of publishing. So I'm posting the interview here.)

Question: Content marketing: Integrating print forms, such as a magazine published by a brand, with digital platforms. What kinds of trends are you seeing?

Paul Conley: I don't see much interesting in terms of integration. It seems to me that electronic content has surpassed print in most respects ... particularly quality. There are exceptions (long-form narrative, for instance, still works best in print.) But very little of the print world is making a successful expansion into digital content. Rather, it seems to me that most brands have digital products that are becoming much better than their print products.
Here's why:
Traditional, print-based custom publishing is primarily a way to serve an existing, captive audience. Whether it's an airline magazine stuck in the slot in front of your plane seat, or the four-color magazine that you get every quarter when you join a trade association, the print product is designed to serve an existing audience. A custom-published magazine is a perk that an association gives to members, it's a reward that a company gives to customers.
That made sense given the traditional tools that custom publishers had: print magazines, mailing lists, distribution systems run by clients, etc.
In addition, traditional, print-based custom publications existed for years as part of a very small media universe. This is particularly true in B2B, where an industry might have had one or two trade publications and one or two custom publications serving the entire marketplace.
But with the rise of the content-marketing or brand-journalism movement, suddenly everyone could be a publisher. Companies that would never have spent the money needed to produce a custom-published print magazine, began leaping into online publishing at an extraordinary rate. I saw a study recently that said 26% of B2B marketing budgets in the U.S. are now tied to content marketing. I doubt that print-based custom publications every got more than 1% of the total B2B marketing spend in this country.
Obviously, brands are not dedicating that level of their marketing budget to reach existing customers. Instead, brands have learned rapidly that they can use content as a lead-generation tool. Instead of putting an article in a magazine and sending it their customers, they distribute it online, in social media, through content-aggregation services and syndication networks. They track who has read it, who passed it on, who signed up for more information, etc.
At first, this worked quite well and rather easily. It wasn't expensive. It was certainly cheaper than traditional advertising or custom publishing. But as the early adopters found success, everyone jumped in.
This has led to what I think of as "the excellence craze." In B2B, where I make my living, it seems like every company in every tiny niche of every industry has become a content creator. There are a thousand voices competing for very small audiences.
There's only one way to compete in that environment -- to be extraordinarily good. The only way I can ensure that my voice is heard is if my content is fantastic. That's completely new for B2B, where both trade publishers and custom publishers have seldom felt the need to be great. In a market with only three of four voices, only a crazy person would spend the money to become great. It was good enough to not be the worst.
I'm seeing money spent on content that is vastly more engaging than what was available just a few years ago. The other day I reviewed a bunch of material that UPS created to win customers in the pharmaceutical-logistics world. There were white papers and videos and loads of other items. And they were all great. Now UPS has an extraordinarily large budget. You would expect them to be able to spend the money to be great. But I see similar levels of greatness at loads of small businesses, consulting companies, etc.
All this is a roundabout way of saying this: brands that have put X amount of effort into producing print products are learning that they have to put 10 times that effort into producing electronic content if they want to compete.
Thus the electronic products (Websites, microsites, videos, podcasts, social-media campaigns, white papers, blogs, etc.) are of much higher quality than the print products that share the same brand name.

Question: That surprises me. I would have expected you to predict that the demand for higher quality electronic content would be coming soon, but you’re saying it’s already here. So how are these companies achieving higher quality in content? Especially the smaller businesses that may not have big budgets?

Paul Conley: There's really only one way to get higher quality content. You have to pay for it. What seems to be happening is that the giant brands (UPS, IBM, etc.) are pouring considerable resources into creating high-end material to use for content marketing. Often that involves hiring a content staff. For example, Intel recently launched a news service and hired a number of well-known journalists to run it. Folks like that are following the Symantec model. Symantec is a big player in tech-security news.
But not every company, even the large ones, are bringing content creators in house. Rather, they seem to be spending money on middle men. Sometimes those are well-established players in the advertising and public relations space like Interbrand. (Interbrand, by the way, runs one of the best content-marketing sites I know. Check out BrandChannel.) Sometimes these middle men are newer players ... boutique agencies that specialize in a vertical or a particular medium. LaunchSquad and SocialTract are among the companies in that space.
The smallest brands seem to be the ones that are most likely to do direct hiring. They're recruiting "social media experts" and such to create content. If you look through the ads in places like MediaBistro you'll find lots of gigs like that ... decent jobs for folks with little to no experience. These gigs don't pay a lot. Maybe they pay around $50,000 a year fully loaded. But most brands in B2B can take that money from their ad or marketing budget and move into content marketing in a big way. Maybe they drop the print ads they've been running in a trade magazine to pay for it. But what they get is constant, all-day interaction with their target audience through digital platforms.
The end result of all this is that there's a battle for folks with content-creation skills in digital media. A newspaper reporter with 25 years experience in print is nearly unemployable today. But someone who can write, record audio and video, and has worked with Twitter and Facebook for even a year can pick and choose among lots of opportunities. They can go to work for big brands, middle men or small firms.

Question: Do you expect this trend to higher quality will continue for the next five years?

Paul Conley: I do. The only alternative is to go with the low-cost models offered by the content farms. Those companies (DemandMedia, Seed, etc.) are likely to move into B2B just like they have made tremendous inroads in B2C. But those companies are volume plays. Their material is cheap ... but not very good. It's perfectly appropriate for search-driven content. But you can't engage an audience with it.

Question: Also, what kinds of devices are audiences viewing this type of content on? Are you seeing more content being created for specific devices, such as mobile or iPad? Are they getting any traction?

Paul Conley: I think it's too early to say. You may remember that I wrote on my blog for a long time that I expected we would soon see "an iPod of reading," a device that would change the way we consumed text, just like the iPod changed how we consumed audio. Well that day is clearly upon us. The iPad and the upcoming competitors will change how we read. They are already doing so. Most importantly, they are changing how we find content. I'm fascinated by Chris Anderson's idea that the Web era has ended. Apps may spell the end of search, serendipity, and the possibility of a nobody becoming a major content creator overnight. The Web gave us all that. But apps may take it away.
But as much as these new devices may change things, we can't say yet just how they will change things. It's sort of like those very early days of the Web browser. Anyone paying attention then knew that something remarkable was about to happen. But most of what did happen turned out to be different from what we expected.
But the smart players today aren't waiting around to see how things will turn out. Smart brands are already creating interesting app-based content. I still read and interact with a ton of content on my laptop at work and home. But when I'm not sitting at a desk, I read news (NYTimes and Bloomberg), shop (FreshDirect), plan meals (Jamie Oliver), exercise (RoundTimer), and play games (SmartGo) through branded apps.
But those apps probably don't represent what the market will look like in just a few years.
That's why one of my pet peeves is when executives talk about "needing a strategy" before they do something with apps or with Twitter. That's the same sort of thing that media folks said for years about the Web. But apps and social media will leave you behind, just like the Web did.You don't need a strategy. You need to get excited about possibility. If you wait until some platform has traction, you'll find that the way it gained traction was by spinning its wheels for awhile on top of your carcass.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Coffee's for closers

(Editor's note: As the world of B2B content marketing grows, ever-increasing numbers of journalists are moving into the field. In addition, a large crop of new grads are coming into the business ... often with little to no understanding of how content marketing works or what role journalism plays in it. This is the first of a four-part series on some of the cultural barriers that workers face in the new world of B2B content marketing. In this piece, I'll be making some suggestions about how folks with a journalism background can get past one of those barriers -- working with the sales staff. I'm hopeful that other folks will offer their suggestions as well. The second and third posts in this series will look at other cultural barriers. In the fourth and final part of the series I'll address how B2B journalists can preserve traditional ideas of journalism ethics in this new piece of the media world.)

Journalists don't like salespeople very much.
As a general rule, journalists don't like anyone. But journalists don't like salespeople even more than they don't like other people.
I'm a journalist. I've been one for decades now. And I assure you this is true. (Note: if you're a salesperson who is reading this, please understand that I don't mean you. I'm crazy about you. I'm talking about other salespeople. You're wonderful. And I love what you're wearing today. That's a very flattering color on you.)
I don't know if salespeople like journalists.
They probably don't. Most people tend not to like journalists.
And yet these two professions have managed to work together at publishing companies since the invention of the printing press.
And the key to their success was this: they didn't really talk to each other.
On the contrary, the publishing industry built an entire cultural infrastructure (separate offices, differing chains of command, ethics codes, etc.) to ensure that journalists and salespeople didn't talk to each other.
And that was fine in traditional publishing, where the value of the product required that sales not influence editorial.

But in content marketing, things are slightly different.
In this new world, content creators are judged (to a degree) on whether or not editorial influences sales.

Write ledes; Generate leads
As the content-marketing industry has grown in the past few years, B2B journalists have moved along a path that looks like this:
a.  working as creators of pure editorial supported by traditional ads, then changing to
b. creators of pure editorial supported by lead-gen ads, and then changing to
c. creators of pure editorial that is, in and of itself, a lead-gen tool.
(Note: becoming a creator of something less than pure editorial is a distinctly different path. That's marketing communications or public relations, and should not be confused with content marketing.)
B2B journalists who move into content marketing find they no longer have a sales team that supports editorial. Instead, journalists find themselves creating editorial that acts as part of the sales funnel.
And salespeople have no idea how jarring this is for us.

Life at the Movies
If you've been in the B2B publishing game for awhile, then consider the following questions:
Have you ever known a salesperson who decided to stop selling ads for his magazine and start writing articles instead?
Have you ever known a journalist who gave up his byline and decided he'd rather call prospects than call sources?
Me neither.
Part of the reason for this is that the skills between the two professions don't transfer well (although I often tell young journalists that they need to develop some sales-type skills, i.e., the ability to handle rejection, a willingness to accept a pay-for-performance compensation structure, etc.)
But the core reason that journalists and salespeople don't exchange jobs is that the the two professions attract extraordinarily different types of people. They are as different as night and day. They don't mix well. They see the world in fundamentally different ways.
Here's what I mean:
Have you seen "Glengarry Glen Ross," the movie with the breathtaking, pitch-perfect dialog written by David Mamet? If so, then you know the famous "Coffee's for closers" monologue performed by Alec Baldwin.
The salespeople I know admire the Baldwin character. Sometimes it's an open admiration. Sometimes it's a grudging admiration. But most often it's a sort of joking, off-hand admiration that manifests with frequent quotes from the monologue itself. (This is similar to the way some of my friends from Wall Street frequently and jokingly repeat the "greed is good" quote by the Gordon Gekko character from the movie "Wall Street.")
But journalists don't like the Baldwin character.
We admire Mamet's writing. Hell, we adore Mamet's writing.
But we see Baldwin's character as repulsive.
And in our heart of hearts, we fear he's representative of the world of business.
And, more importantly, as we move from being journalists to being content marketers, we sort of worry that we're becoming just a little bit like him.

Getting to know you
So as I said earlier, we can assume salespeople don't like journalists. But what do salespeople think of journalists who become content marketers?
Let's return again to "Glengarry Glen Ross." Key to the tension between Baldwin's character and the sales staff are the nature of the leads. The salesmen aren't performing. Baldwin threatens them and their jobs. Shelley Levene, played by Jack Lemmon, complains that "The leads are weak."

To a salesperson, content marketing can seem an ill-defined and unfocused effort that delivers weak leads. And this is largely, I suspect, because salespeople are perplexed by content marketers' goals.
That shouldn't be surprising. Content marketing is growing like crazy in B2B companies that have no experience with editorial operations of any kind. Even the most experienced salespeople are novices at working with content marketers.
And in a sense, the salespeople are right. Content marketing often doesn't deliver leads that are easily closed. Content marketing is more about about creating an environment that can lead to sales. It's as much about though leadership as it is about lead-gen. It's as much about conversing with existing clients as it is about attracting new ones.
But content marketers do this because it's what works today. Business has changed. Buyers have changed. Content marketing is just part of a broad, systemic shift in how B2B industries buy and sell.
And we journalists/content marketers have no idea how jarring this is for salespeople.

Shelley's daughter
If B2B journalists are going to succeed as content marketers, we're going to have to find some common ground with salespeople. We have to get them to understand what we do, how we do it, and why it's valuable.
Traditional marketers have faced similar challenges for years. But for content-markers -- many of whom were traditional journalists or college students just the other day -- this is all new.

The good news is that people much smarter than I are working on these issues. For example, it's worth your time to read Jennifer Watson's recent piece for the Content Marketing Institute on how to communicate our value to the sales staff.
But allow me to make a few suggestions of my own.
First, become a salesperson. Spend some time every month selling your services outside your job. Make a little money on the side. Learn to prospect. Learn to move potential clients through your own sales funnel. Learn to close.
Second, ignore Baldwin. Years ago I watched "Glengarry Glen Ross" with a bunch of journalists. And I wasn't surprised to see that there was universal sympathy in the group for Jack Lemmon's character, Shelley "The Machine" Levene.
If you've seen the film (or the original play), you'll remember that Shelley is in desperate need of money to provide medical care for a sick daughter. Shelley behaves badly as a result. He commits a crime. He falls into sin, if you'll excuse the religious phrasing. He behaves immorally ... drifting toward becoming more like the clearly immoral figures played by Baldwin and Al Pacino.(Pacino's speech on morality is another high point of  Glengarry Glen Ross: "There's an absolute morality? Maybe. And then what? If you think there is, go ahead, be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don't think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won't live in it. That's me.")
Levene also operates at a distinct disadvantage to the other salesmen -- he's from another time. As the Wikipedia entry on the movie puts it, "Levene's decline is due to the old-fashioned nature of his methods: his presentation as a grinning, successful, confident salesman with a casual swagger immediately telegraphs to modern clients his identity as a smooth-talking shyster looking to disarm them with reassurance; Levene has been unable to replace his obsolete tactics with new ones and suffers financially as a result."
Journalists, who have seen our own share of woes as our traditional employers have collapsed and our long-practiced skills have diminished in value, have a soft spot for Levene. We understand him, maybe even relate to him. He's the sort of person we're drawn toward -- complex, contradictory, troubled. In short, he's a story.
So here's my idea:
If you've made the move from traditional journalism to content marketing, it's time to stop seeing Alec Baldwin every time you see a salesperson. Learn, instead, to see Jack Lemmon.
Learn to see your coworkers as what they are -- regular people with sick children,  financial pressures and moral quandaries.
Just like me and you.
Third, become Baldwin.
If the first two approaches don't work, try a little Baldwin yourself. Never admit that content marketing offers anything less than the perfect, easily closed lead. Wave a stack of index cards in front of the sales team and say, "These are the new leads. These are the Glengarry leads. And to you they're gold, and you don't get them. Why? Because to give them to you is just throwing them away. They're for closers."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The seasons, they go round and round

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned.
It's been more than three months since my last blog post.

I didn't actually intend to take the summer off from blogging. But it seems I did.
At least part of that can be attributed to the ennui that I've come to associate with Web 2.0. In fact, it was a year ago this month that I expressed my sense that the revolution in journalism was ending ...that a new, more workaday era had begun.
And the truth is that it's just a lot easier to blog in the midst of a revolution than in the middle of another working day.
But part of this summer's blogging hiatus is also attributable to my long-standing attraction to the academic calendar. I just feel like I should be doing less in the summer. So sometimes I do.

But as long-time readers of this blog know, my obsession with the academic calendar means that September is the month when everything changes for me. (You can read earlier September posts here, here or here.) And this year is no different.

So let me fill you in on a few of the things that have changed for me. For perhaps they will point to things that are changing for others in B2B publishing as well.

1. My working life is now completely consumed by content marketing. As recently as December, most of my income derived from traditional publishers practicing traditional B2B journalism (although mostly on the Web, rather than print.) That is no longer true.

2. My working life is now completely consuming. My time is booked at well above 100 percent. Although my business did quite well during the financial crisis, I can't pretend that everything was perfect. There were a few weeks in 2009 and early in 2010 when I wasn't billing anyone for anything. That is no longer true.

None of this should come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog. Rather, my career track seems fairly predictable. I'm neither a prophet nor a visionary. I don't predict the weather. But I can feel it when the wind shifts.
And the wind is blowing hard, albeit from a different direction, and it's bringing lots of work for B2B types who can make the transition to content marketing. 

Or, as I said at the beginning of this year, "the old days are over. We're in the midst of a fundamental shift in how people consume information and how the cost of producing that information can be covered...(and all of us in the industry need to make changes so that) prosperity is possible and suffering is minimized."

In the weeks to come I'll write more about what this new world -- all content marketing, all the time -- means for me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Buying a blog. Validating a concept

There's news this week about a very interesting little deal in the B2B world.
Canon Communications has purchased Pharmalot, the extraordinary little blog that has proven an inspiration to numerous standalone journalists. Ed Silverman, founder of Pharmalot, will join Canon as editor at large in the Pharmaceutical Media Group and will continue as Pharmalot’s editor. He's also being asked to "spearhead further development of Canon’s digital assets, including webcasts and podcasts" and contribute to Canon's existing brands in the pharma space.
Details about the purchase can be found here.

Most people familiar with pharma, blogging, journalism or some combination thereof will applaud this deal. It's a nice fit. It unites one of the smartest writers in the space with one of the smartest companies in the industry. Canon gets both a property and a personality (making the deal something more than what my friend Rex calls an "acqhire"), while Silverman gets money, support and validation for his years of work.

But my love of this deal -- and I do love it -- is based in something more personal.
Regular readers of this blog know I first wrote about Pharmalot two years ago when Silverman and the blog were still tied to the Newark Star-Ledger.
In that post I suggested that Pharmalot offered newspaper publishers a model for expanding into a more lucrative area by competing head-to-head with B2B publishers.
But anyone who has witnessed the ceaselessly poor decisions that have come out of the newspaper industry in recent years will not be surprised to find that the Star-Ledger, rather than backing Silverman, wound up cutting him and the blog loose.
And no newspaper that I am aware of has since attempted to duplicate the model.

But what regular readers of this blog don't know -- because I haven't written about it before -- is that several months after Silverman went out on his own, I tried to convince a client of mine to hire him and buy Pharmalot.
That client had asked me for help in moving into the healthcare-data space. But my suggestion that they move slowly and start by buying Pharmalot, led to some bad blood. The client thought my plan was neither big nor bold enough. I, on the other hand, didn't think the client had the skills or resources to tackle something larger.
In the end, the client and I parted ways.
And Pharmalot continued on as a standalone product.

But life is a circle. Things have a way of resolving themselves. And over time I've learned that my initial reactions to a situation are often proven right ... over time.
As of today that former client has yet to find a way to get into the healthcare space. But now Silverman and Pharmalot are exactly where they should be: helping drive the digital efforts of a B2B publisher.
And the only thing that could make me happier is if I could come up with a convincing argument about why someone should pay me a commission on the deal.