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.
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I see the problems, but to me they are opportunities for marketers and publishers with the vision and courage to do content marketing the right way. Adobe has sufficient confidence in its brand to allow CMO.com to operate as a journalistic enterprise with no attempt to influence what gets published. Conversion consultancy FutureNow offers up copious, applicable expertise in their Grokdotcom blog, as do many other tech and marketing services firms. The inability of most brands to generate authentic content marketing simply provides a great backdrop for the few who are smart enough to move beyond the marcomm mindset.
B2B publishers are in a similar situation. The scenario Paul describes is precisely what happens when decisions are driven by publishers (or salespeople) clawing to make their monthly or quarterly quotas with little or no regard for building a sustainable marketing services offering. It’s no different than the publisher who, on finding out how much personally identifiable information is sitting in their ESP’s email analytics, has the bright idea of immediately selling that data directly to advertisers. Short term win with dire long-term implications for audience trust and engagement. Publishers with the vision (and executive support) to educate advertisers about the superior ROI of real vs. whored content will win. If cashflow is so tight that they aren’t making payroll unless they whore their editors out, they’ve already lost.
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