Paul Conley: Has the Content Marketing Dream Become a Nightmare?

Paul Conley

Paul Conley

In the trade magazine business, not generally known for early adoption of new-media developments, Paul Conley is something of an anomaly. He is, as he puts it, “hypersensitive to how new technology opens up opportunities in old worlds.” He was among the first in the trade press to recognize the significance of social media. And though he is now beginning to question its potential, he was an early advocate for content marketing as a promising new career path for journalists.

As early as 1996, not long after the birth of the World Wide Web, he founded a business-to-business internet news service. Though that effort failed, it provided the foundation for a subsequent career in new media, beginning with CNN’s web unit, CNNfn, and then key roles with Primedia, Bloomberg, and About.com. Conley is best known, however, for his subsequent work, starting in 2004, as a consultant and blogger. Throughout the last decade, his blog was required reading for anyone concerned about the future of trade publishing, and has made him, as he puts it, “weirdly famous in some cool media niches.”

In 2008, Conley’s focus began to shift from traditional trade journalism to content marketing, which at one point he described as “the most exciting part of the B2B world today.” By last year, he said, his working life was “consumed” by content marketing.

In a recent interview, however, Conley told me that he has begun to worry about the viability of content marketing. While “the biggest opportunities in B2B media are clearly in content marketing,” challenges to its potential as a new outlet for journalism are growing rapidly:

Much of my business in the past few years has involved helping non-publishers enter content marketing. And 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.

Journalists by the hundreds—both newcomers and legacy—are being recruited for these jobs. But once they get there, they find that their skills and their mindset are not appreciated.

Though he once hoped that content marketing “could be a new form of journalism,” and that it would both employ journalists and serve readers well, he’s less sanguine now. With a few exceptions, such as CMO.com, he says, “content marketing has turned out to be nothing more than a slightly cooler, slightly hipper form of marcomm and advertising.”

It doesn’t help, Conley adds, that traditional publishers are also entering into content marketing.

What they’re selling in the market is the ability to co-opt their journalists! Legacy publishers are telling advertisers that journalists will create content marketing for them. And the journalists who balk at this find themselves facing an enormous amount of hostility from their bosses.

This situation is rapidly turning into a nightmare in B2B. Marketers claim to be journalists. Journalists are hired as marketers. Publishers sell the use of their editorial staff to the same companies that buy advertising. Readers can’t tell if they reading editorial content or vendor content or vendor content that’s written by editors and then published by a magazine brand or editorial content written by editors but published by vendors or vendor content written by vendors but edited by editors and then published by a magazine brand as a column. There are some verticals in B2B now that are completely polluted by this crap.

Conley does not seem to have given up all hope for content marketing as a robust alternative to traditional journalism. But, he says, “finding a way to navigate this new world will be the biggest challenge for B2B journalists and readers for the foreseeable future.”


Paul Conley is one of eight new-media thought leaders profiled in the forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. More of my interview with him, in which he describes the ethical challenges facing B2B publishing, will be has been published soon on the ASBPE National Blog.

How Can I Make You Pay for This Post?

In an article earlier this week explaining why she won’t be self-publishing anytime soon, Edan Lepucki paused to enumerate the hurdles facing traditional publishers. The last in her list was “how to make people actually pay for content.” The phrase suggested to me one more challenge she might have added: “How to stop thinking of your customers as peons and thieves.”

It’s troublesome enough that media should be so concerned with how to make people pay. But the phrase implies something worse: that if people aren’t paying for content, they must be stealing it.

I have no issue with paying for content, nor do I think content should always be free. But I’d rather think of the challenge this way: how to create content so good, and a distribution mechanism so simple, that people want to pay for it.

The content market is no longer about control, but collaboration, about equal exchange. The longer traditional media thinks in terms of how they can make their customers do things, the closer they are to extinction.

“Content Is Power”: Q & A with Mark W. Schaefer

Mark W. Schaefer

Mark W. Schaefer

A couple of years ago when I started B2B Memes it was my plan to focus exclusively on trade publishing. But as I looked around the blogosphere/Twitterverse, it didn’t take long to realize that the most enthusiastic and informed discussions about B2B communications involved not publishing, but marketing.

For me, a journalist, this came as a jolt.

In more than 20 years as a B2B editor, I worked frequently with both public relations and marketing people. Though I liked and respected most of them, the alliance was always uneasy. Our goals were fundamentally different. To put it hyperbolically, I was looking for truth, they were looking for sales.

As I familiarized myself with B2B marketing blogs, though, I realized that while these goals may never fully align, in the social-media era they are coming closer together. For me, no one better epitomizes this trend than Mark Schaefer.

The reasons why might not be immediately obvious. Though he majored in journalism in college, he has built his career around marketing, and that remains his focus. But on Twitter and his blog he ranges far more widely than what we usually think of as marketing.

Even when he wasn’t yet the expert on social media that he is now (see his excellent primer, The Tao of Twitter, for example), his dispassionate looks at new-media platorms and personalities were both entertaining and informative. He sees his subjects with a wonderfully journalistic eye.

I don’t buy everything he says—such as his position on ghost-written blogs—but I always admire the way he argues his case and the respectful and constructive way he engages those who disagree with him. Journalists and marketers alike have much to learn from him.

For that reason, I’m including a profile of him my forthcoming ebook, the New-Media Survival Guide: For Journalists and Other Print-Era Refugees.  In preparing the profile, I recently conducted the following email interview with him. I offer it here with his permission.

What’s the most important message you have for people regarding social media?

Use your head. For a company, it should not be about “the conversation” or the hype. At the end of the day, it’s about the money, about creating shareholder value, as all marketing and customer efforts should be. Don’t act on an emotion of fear of being left behind. Learn enough about this new channel to ask the hard questions and integrate with your strategy as appropriate. Of course there are many uses and strategies for the social web, but at least with the businesses I work with, that is the biggest piece of advice I can give them.

What was the key pivot point, the moment of revelation for you, in your understanding of social media?

I was trying to figure out Twitter several years ago and noticed a trending topic of “new name for swine flu.” When I clicked, I saw a stream of hilarious ideas from around the world like “hamthrax and “the aporkalypse.” It was funny, but I also realized I was witnessing a real-time, global brain-storming session. Wow. That could not have happened just a few years ago. Think of the implications!

What’s the key issue motivating you now, the thing you most want to do or change?

I am in a fortunate position where I have had a foot in both marketing worlds, traditional and digital. Through my classes (I teach at Rutgers) and speeches, I help people connect the dots and that is very rewarding.

You were a journalism major. After graduation, did you go into journalism first, or directly into marketing? Why did you end up in marketing?

Journalism is my first love but I was increasingly interested in business. So I got into PR for awhile and then migrated to sales and then marketing. Marketing is the front line of value-creation. I love that!

In the minds of most people, journalism and marketing were once diametrically opposed. Has that changed in the social media era?

That is a complicated question, and an excellent one! Ultimately, journalism is the quest for truth. Marketing is the quest for “my truth” or a product’s “truth” that will resonate with consumers. For both areas, content is power on the social web and to the extent we can create it and move it virally through a network, we will be successful. So both fields are absolutely in the content creation business these days. Although the goals are still not the same, I think they are getting closer because for a brand to have integrity and be successful, it can’t be spinning the truth around any more. There are a million watchdogs out there now and they can all expose you. The deer have guns.

I was working with some marketers for a hotel chain and we were discussing negative hotel reviews they had received on a consumer website. “We don’t mind them,” they told me. “It makes us more real.” Interesting. Truth as a marketing strategy.

What do you think of the prospects for young journalists today? Will new media lead to brighter or bleaker career options?

I often speak at universities and journalism schools and I am struck that almost everywhere, enrollment is up!

Where are these folks getting jobs? New media. The hunger for content is nearly insatiable. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but my journalism education was the best possible preparation for new-media marketing.

I’m relieved to say that my questions were intelligent enough to prompt some further thoughts from Mark. You can find them—and much else of value—on his blog, {grow}.

Transparent vs. Opaque: Six New-Media Principles, No. 5

Because one of its foundational ideas is openness, as I described in yesterday’s post, new media encourages and rewards transparency. Traditional media organizations have tended to be opaque, aiming not to reveal much about the people and processes behind their product. But the nature of new media is to reveal everything, to make everything public. If the organizations don’t reveal their own inner workings, the increasing likelihood is that someone else will.

One of the ways new media encourages transparency is ethical, as represented by the popular expression, “transparency is the new objectivity.” One of the more recent considerations of the phrase came from Mathew Ingram last month. Traditional news organizations have wanted individual journalists to hide their subjective feelings and inclinations behind a veil of objectivity. As Ingram argues, this is an increasingly untenable stance in the new-media era. The only ethical strategy for journalists now is to be open about their biases and conflicts of interest, and to let readers judge their reliability as reporters for themselves.

Another mode of transparency is operational. Transparency doesn’t stop with individuals. To be seen as reliable, organizations themselves must practice media transparency in many, if not all, aspects of their operations. By showing how their process works—through methods such as sharing internal policy documents with readers, explaining how news subjects are selected and prioritized, or live-streaming editorial meetings—media producers will give their audience reason to trust them.

To work, transparency must be a committed, conscious choice. But it’s something of a Hobson’s choice. In the new-media era, there’s no long-term alternative to transparency.

Open vs. Closed: Six New-Media Principles, No. 4

One of the key distinctions in the digital world is between closed systems and open ones. One example of a closed system, from the early days of the online experience, would be the original America Online or Prodigy of the 1990s. These “walled garden” systems restricted who could participate, and relied on custom-built, proprietary systems that could be difficult to use and impossible to adapt. The internet, by contrast, is an open system, built on published standards and accommodating a wide range of modifications.

Another example of closed and open digital systems comes from software. Proprietary software programs, like Microsoft Windows, are closed. Their source code is hidden and cannot be legally modified. Open-source software like Linux, by contrast, exposes its source code to the world, and not only allows modification by volunteers, but is built on such voluntary involvement.

From the user’s perspective, closed systems are generally expensive to buy and to implement while open ones are free and can cost less to put in place. In theory, closed, custom-built systems can more directly address the needs of the users who pay for the service. Open systems may be more difficult to adapt to individual use, but allow for interoperability with other systems.

This distinction between open and closed is useful to understanding and participating in new media. In general, old media prefers closed systems, allowing entry to some but excluding others, whether through paid or controlled subscriptions, copyright, or professional restrictions on content creation.

For legacy corporations, acceptance of openness is difficult. But given that, as discussed in yesterday’s post, new media favors the personal, individuals should find the transition easier. In fact, individual journalists stand to gain much more from open systems than do their employers.

Learning an open-source CMS like WordPress or Joomla, for instance, is more likely to benefit individual content creators as they change jobs than would a proprietary or custom-built system. Similarly, while restrictive paywalls may increase revenues for some publications, editors will often find more value to their reputations and careers in having their content accessible to all.

Media businesses may fear open systems, but individual journalists shouldn’t. Openness is their future.