At first glance, the idea behind content marketing is straightforward and appealing: by publishing great content, you can win friends, influence people, and achieve your marketing goals. But like all great ideas, it’s not as simple or as sunny as it first appears.
The problem is this: To make great content, you sometimes have to be a wee bit obnoxious.
If you’ve worked much with journalists and editors, you understand. The trait is not genetic, but occupational. They are as nice as anyone else, but if they do their jobs right, they will often rub people the wrong way. In my days overseeing a large editorial group for a B2B publisher, my counterpart in sales was fond of telling me that advertisers found our editors arrogant. They weren’t, and he knew it. But they were scrupulously insistent on getting their facts right, being open to all points of view, and serving the readers. This sometimes made them look like jerks. It’s a perception that most editors learn to accept as the price of doing their jobs well.
Within a publishing company, there is high tolerance for irksome editors. But in a content-marketing setting, staff and stakeholders new to the publishing ethos may be less understanding.
Don’t let that stop you. If you want to produce great content, you must risk irritating people in one or more of the following three ways.
1. Care about details. In my experience, the most annoying of all editorial specialists are proofreaders. Why? Because they care deeply about details. Their role is to find mistakes and point them out to you.
This doesn’t make them many friends, and leaves them vulnerable to ax-wielding executives who declare, as one has in my presence, that there’s no value in paying someone to rearrange commas.
But commas and other details do matter. Editorial details are to content as fit and finish are to automobiles: they account for the difference between a functional product and a great one, and between humdrum and robust sales. If you don’t believe me, ask Zappos.com. As BoingBoing reports, by having user reviews on its site proofread, Zappos has demonstrably increased its revenues.
Proofreaders as a dedicated job function are well-nigh extinct, but the activity is just as important as ever. And their attention to detail matters not just at the end, when you’re proofing copy, but from the very beginning of the process. If you don’t worry about details when you’re doing the research and writing, no amount of proofreading will fix the resulting problem.
2. Keep asking questions. How do you get all those details right? By asking questions. Or more specifically, by asking annoying questions. The five W’s are just the beginning. You have to ask questions that may make you look skeptical or hostile. And you have to keep asking questions after everyone else is sick of the topic.
What’s more, the questions should not be limited to the people interviewed for stories. Everyone involved should be asking questions like why you’re covering this event and not that one, or how this story fits your mission, or what outcome or action you’re looking for, or one or more of Bob Steele’s 10 ethical questions.
If your goal is just to generate copy, you’ll never need to ask any irritating questions. But if you want to bring your reader as close as you can to an accurate and complete understanding of the topic, your questions will sometimes have to be probing and even disruptive.
3. Insist on finishing. As with any other product, obsessing over details and searching for and correcting flaws won’t do any good if you never ship. The practiced editor’s equally annoying solution here is a firm insistence on meeting deadlines.
As the deadline looms, people will inevitably beg for an extra hour to review copy, check a fact, or polish their phrasing. You must disappoint them. Others will want to get home in time for supper. You must resolutely point them to the vending machine down the hall.
Enforcing deadlines will not make you popular. But increasingly in the social media era, timely publication is a critical component of great content.
In listing these three editorial imperatives my point isn’t that deliberately unfriendly behavior is good for content. That’s not a strategy for long-term editorial success. Rather, it’s this: if you aren’t willing to ruffle some feathers now and then, your content will never soar.
May 14, 2011
Terrific blog. In our follow-up telephone call, you reminded me that a built-in rule concerning content marketing is that a strong focus on one’s own products and services should be avoided.
I wonder how many content marketers will manage to adhere to that rule?
Further, on the matter of the need to pose tough questions to sources interviewed for content marketing purposes, it’s likely that those sources will be executives of the sponsoring company. Getting tough with sponsoring types may be a tough proposition for writers.
One more thought — probably more important than the preceding observations:
It appears that B2B publishers will be vying for content marketing business. (Why not? Who is better qualified to provide such service?)
In fact, potential clients for CM already may be advertisers. If so, what will the impact be in a scenario where an existing advertiser gives the content marketing project to Magazine X. Writer Y — whether or not a full-time employee of Magazine X — will be viewed as an X representative.
If conflict arises during development of content marketing material, conceivably that dispute could spill over negatively on Magazine X’s other regularly scheduled advertiser programs, yes???
So it seems that there is much more at stake here for B2B publishers than merely securing content marketing business.
Surely, possible emerging conflicts could create unforeseen ethical unrest. Now that I have raised the possibility, the complications are no longer unforeseen . . . and therefore worth anticipating.
Howard Rauch, President
Editorial Solutions, Inc.
Ethics Committee Chairman, American Society of Business Publication Editors
Who is better qualified than B2B publishers to provide content marketing services? The reporters and editors who work for them.
The big B2B publishers are, for the most part, terminal. The future belongs to free agent journalists.
An interesting perspective on this, by the way, came over the weekend on Mitch Joel’s blog. He asked companies the following question:
He adds, of course, that this will only work if the journalist is an actual journalist, and not a corporate shill.