What B2B Can Learn from Jeff Jarvis

A Review of What Would Google Do?

What Would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis. HarperBusiness, 2009.

The world of business-to-business publishing is falling to pieces. Ad pages and revenue are plummeting, staffs are being decimated, and magazines are being shut down or cut back at a dramatic pace. And no, it’s not just the recession, which has merely accelerated a long-term and irreversible trend. So the question for B2B professionals is, What are we to do?

Jeff Jarvis suggests that’s not quite the right way to phrase the question. Rather, we should ask, What would Google do?

Why Google? Because, Jarvis says, there is simply no better example to help us understand “how to survive and prosper in the Internet age.”

I confess to having a love-hate relationship with What Would Google Do? as a title. It’s cutesy, simplistic, and misleading. Having taken it as his title, Jarvis has to partially disown it in his preface, warning his reader “not to get hung up on trying to be Google, on mimicking what Google does.” As he goes on to say, this “isn’t a book about Google. It’s about you. It is about your world, how it is changing for you, and what you can gain from that.”

On the other hand, the title just works. We all know Google, and no matter what our line of business, we all suspect we have a lot to learn from the company. And indeed, Jarvis applies the lessons of Google very broadly, across a wide variety of industries and professions. This review, however, will address only the lessons most applicable to B2B publishing. That’s made relatively easy, I should note, by the fact of Jarvis’s background as a reporter, editor, publisher, and blogger.

Perhaps it’s just my bias, but I actually think the book is most persuasive and valuable in relation to the world of media—print in particular. Although Jarvis’s experience is entirely on the mass-market, consumer side of publishing—I’ve found little evidence that the trade press is much on his mind—there are plenty of relevant insights for B2B people in his book.  So in this review, I’ll cover what I think are the four most important lessons for B2B in WWGD:

  1. Put the reader in charge
  2. Open up your business to links
  3. Accept the new ethos of journalism as a process
  4. Get small and act big

I’ll address the first lesson here, and leave the remainder for subsequent posts.

Put the Reader in Charge

The B2B worldview always oscillates between two poles: readers and advertisers. Needless to say, the result is an ongoing tension over whom to serve. For most B2B publishers, the advertising pole has the stronger attraction. Readers are carefully selected, sorted into demographic piles, and delivered to the advertisers. Publishers need to be in control of the reader—they don’t call it “controlled circulation” for nothing.

So for B2B professionals, Jarvis’s first and most important observation—what he calls his “first law”—represents the toughest switch in the B2B worldview: “Give people control and we will use it. Don’t, and you will lose us.”

Pre-Internet, readers willingly gave up control to publishers. Information was scarce, and publishers played a key role in finding the information, sorting it, and distributing it. But the Internet has changed everything. Information is now largely a commodity, and advertisers and readers don’t need publishers anymore to reach each other. So the role of publishers now isn’t to control information, but to offer ways to help people use, understand, and contextualize that information.

Accordingly, publishers now, Jarvis says, need to “think distributed.” People now want and expect content (whether music, video, or print) when, where, and how they want it. Publishers have to abandon the idea that readers must come to their websites, or that readers have to wait for the print version before they can read the online version. “Don’t make readers come to you,” Jarvis urges. And don’t fight having your content aggregated (as AP is currently doing against Google). Rather, you should “beg to be aggregated.”

Giving up control of the reader may be a challenge, but there is a big payoff in doing so, Jarvis says. Quoting David Weinberger, he points out that there is “an inverse relationship between trust and control.” To give up control to readers, you have to trust them. And likewise, we can’t gain their trust unless we give them control. “Too many companies,” he says, “have been built not on trusting people but on making rules and prohibitions, telling customers what they cannot do, and penalizing them for doing wrong.” The most blatant example of this comes from the entertainment industry, which has spent incalculable energy on digital rights management to control how the user listens to music or watches video. But, in a subtler way, it applies just as well to B2B companies, who have, in their passive-aggressive way, told readers that print is good for them and online is not, or that they can have their information if they check box A but not if they check box Z. This is changing, of course, but too late for many.

Next: Part 2, The Transformative Power of Links