Time to Surf the Wave of the Personal Brand

Politico’s version of the negotiations describes how NYT executive editor Jill Abramson and Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt fought hard to keep Silver at the paper because they saw his “brand within a brand as a wave of the future,”

Mathew Ingram’s recounting today of blogger Nate Silver’s leap from the New York Times into the welcoming arms of ESPN underscores a trend B2B journalists and editors ignore at their peril.

For the moment at least, editorial personal brands are growing more powerful primarily—or most obviously—in big media.

My sense is that most B2B journos are largely unaware of the trend, or largely unwilling to hop onto it. Sooner or later that will change, but whether most of the journalists who have the experience to take advantage of the trend will actually do so is an open question. Being an expert in your field is a requirement for a robust personal brand, but not the only one. If you don’t consciously cultivate your brand, it won’t take root in the new media age.

That means blogging, using social media, and—you may shudder to think of it—promoting your brand. And need I add, you must do this with enthusiasm?

And lest I seem to be piling it onto editors unduly, I should note that B2B media brands need to be as cognizant of this trend as individuals. As Jeff Jarvis said in a tweet Ingram quoted, they need to be thinking of themselves as platforms for building individual brands—something I see few B2B publishing companies doing.

Time is running out. The wave of individual branding will overtake B2B media soon, and the only question is whether you’re going to be surfing the wave or struggling in the wake.

Hear a Buzzword? Demand a Definition

Content marketing. Native advertising. Engagement.

These, my friends, are the buzzwords du jour. And there seem to be as many definitions OF them as there are letters IN them. Every publisher, every social network defines them in the context of their offer, their platform — what they are able to deliver to the advertiser.

Susan Getgood raises an important point today on her Marketing Roadmaps blog when she calls attention to the multitude of conflicting definitions for terms like content marketing and native advertising.

Though she hasn’t yet narrowed them down to my satisfaction, that’s all right. The real value lies in being reminded that we should always demand a definition when a colleague advises us to do more in content marketing or to take on native advertising. More often that not, these vogue words mask either fuzzy thinking or unethical intentions–or sometimes both.

So the next time someone uses the term in conversation with you, don’t let it pass unremarked. Ask for a definition. If it puts an end to the conversation, that’s probably for the best.

Back from the Dead: The Challenge of Digital First

Resurrection of Lazarus by Gustave Doré

“‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’”
—T.S. Eliot

If you’re wondering why it’s been deathly silent on this blog for the last six months, there’s a good reason: Last fall, I crossed over into the penumbral land of print, on a mission to lead lost souls into the light of new media.

Or to put it more plainly, I took a job with a legacy publisher to help it go digital-first.

What I’ve learned should not have surprised me, but it did: Digital-first theory is vastly easier than digital-first practice.

How the transition plays out will vary with the circumstances of each company, of course, but the main hurdle is the same for all legacy publishers—the all-consuming demands of the print process.

Let me try to explain.

One writer with a solo blog is easily, readily digital first, if not digital only. The case is quite different for one print editor with a blog who must also manage a monthly print cycle, sending copy in multiple passes through copy editors; coordinating proofreaders, authors, and art departments; following detailed production schedules; and struggling to fulfill over-specified and stultifying year-long editorial calendars.

(It’s difficult for me to describe this challenge in a way that I, at least, find convincing. That no doubt explains why I so profoundly underestimated it, as so many others have done.)

For editors imbued with the print habit of mind, it is easy to misunderstand the digital-first concept. Their first thought, typically, is that the phrase simply means “do everything the way you always have, but publish your content online before you do so in print.”

If only it were so simple. Digital first is not about where you publish first, but about adopting a completely different outlook, a different process, and a different time scale. It’s not just about publishing digitally, but doing everything digitally.

It may take a while for print editors to understand and accept this concept, but the concept in itself is not the challenge. The problem, again, is not the theory, but the practice. No matter how profoundly you understand and believe in the digital-first outlook, acting on those beliefs is highly challenging when the structures you work in are founded on the principles of print.

To make the transition, you must break the print pattern, demolish the structures. Perhaps you can do so gradually, like slowly bending a willow branch, but, regardless, at some point you must reach and accept a breaking point—after which almost everything is profoundly different.

To prosper in the digital future, in other words, legacy publishers will simply have to break with their print pasts. Whether than means abandoning print altogether I don’t yet know. It is a question I will be thinking and writing about in coming days here on B2B Memes.

Though many of its inhabitants don’t yet know it, print is indeed the land of the dead. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t, like Lazarus, rise up from it. I, for one, am trying.

Content Marketing & Journalism: Theory vs. Practice

Paul Conley has written another one of his all-too-rare blog posts, and as usually happens, he has motivated me to get off my own long-dormant blogging butt. It only adds to my motivation that he mentions my year-old interview with him here on B2B Memes.

Back then, he surprised me with a pessimistic assessment of the state of content marketing as a home for journalists. Companies whose main business is not publishing, he said, are simply unwilling to take on serious journalism.

A year later, he’s reversed course. The time is ripe, he nows argues, for companies to jump into true, investigative reporting. Brand journalism, dead a year ago, is now ready to be reborn.

Conley’s money quote from last year’s interview laid out a compelling-sounding reason that content marketing and journalism can’t mix: lack of courage.

The overwhelming majority of . . . 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.

Now he sees things differently. More companies are now willing to court controversy, he says, and he boldly predicts that in 2013 at least one non-publishing brand will do “solid, hardcore, investigative” journalism.

It’s not often that I can feel safe disagreeing with Conley. But here I have the perfect opportunity. Clearly, the Paul Conley of 2011 and the Paul Conley of 2012 can’t both be right. But which Conley shall I contradict?

I want to agree with 2012 Conley. The spread of journalism beyond its narrow, professionalized confines is to my mind a good thing. One version of this expansion, citizen journalism, is for all its imperfections a democratizing, humanizing, and liberating trend. Brand journalism should be as well.

But so far, brand journalism that is worthy of the name is just theory. Until there is some evidence of it in practice, Conley and I may postulate all we please and it will mean nothing.

A year ago, I might have been satisfied with theory. But my recent re-entry into the real-world practice of journalism (more on that in another post to come) has made me more sensitive to things like facts and proof.

There is nothing to say that 2012 Conley’s vision for content marketing as fertile ground for journalism won’t come to pass. I hope it does. But until this year’s Conley can point to evidence that proves the theory, I’m inclined to side with last year’s model.

What B2B Publishers Can Learn About Content from Circa

Screenshot of Circa AppIn Sarah Lacy’s recent review of Circa, a new iPhone news app, she identifies and critiques three innovations in the way it presents news information. Its content is atomized, aggregated, and personalized.

Though Lacy thinks Circa’s founders have overstated their case for these innovations, she says they have identified issues critical to the future of news media. I would add that these issues are particularly important for business-to-business journalism.

Circa reflects the thinking of its most prominent cofounder, Ben Huh (yes, that Ben Huh).  As Lacy notes, for Huh, the article is no longer the defining “atomic unit” of journalism. In Circa it is replaced by the much shorter “flash card,” a short statement making a single point about a news event. Each news story is made up of one or more of these flash cards.

Huh also argues that there is too much overlap and repetition in most news stories. While he obviously values analysis and original reporting, he says there’s too much of it. Circa dispenses with it entirely. Its news content, all sourced to the original, is entirely aggregated from elsewhere.

The third key goal for Circa’s treatment of news is to make it responsive both to its consumer and to its format. By remembering what flash-card units of news you’ve read before, Circa may omit them in future stories, since you already know the information. And just as importantly, Circa tries to match the form of content to its container. On an iPhone, the reasoning goes (though Lacy rightly questions it), a few screensful of content constitute the ideal form of presentation. In other formats and contexts, the approach might well include longer forms.

While she likes the approach, Lacy is critical of the excessive claims of saving journalism that the Circa founders make. Nor does she agree with their assertion that the article is outmoded. Nonetheless, she suggests that if their rhetoric is extreme, their strategies are not.

Though B2B publishers will not simply want to copy those strategies, they should pay them close attention. Here’s why.

First, B2B publications today still rely far too heavily on articles. Articles suit perfectly brands like The New Yorker, where subscribers seek out the pleasures of extended reading and reflection. That’s not what the readers of the trade press are looking for. But it’s still what too many B2B editors and journalists want to give them.

Similarly, trade publishers put too much emphasis on original analysis and reporting. This sounds like sacrilege, I know. But let’s face it. In practice, trade reportage often doesn’t match audience needs, often favors advertisers, and often, to be honest, just plain sucks.

Analysis and reporting are still important, but are best practiced selectively. In any case, even with the best writers, one publication cannot come close to meeting the information needs of its readers. So aggregation—sharing the best and most relevant content from other sources than your own—should therefore be part of any trade publication’s mission.

Finally, B2B publishers need to do a much better job of suiting content and format to the reader and the medium. Every publisher has to find the right mix not just for each type of reader, but for each individual reader.  In other words, content must be personalized. And content must also be sensitive to each form of media. In tablets, for instance, articles may still flourish, while in mobile, short-form aggregation may dominate.

There is no single right approach. The lesson to draw from Circa is not that aggregation is the future of journalism. The lesson, rather, should be that the tools and techniques we use as journalists will change constantly, depending on the medium and the audience. The future of journalism, that is, will be multiform.