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.

The Loneliness of the Digital Content Creator: Validating Your Work

Lonely MitchIt’s undoubtedly true that the digital revolution has made us more sociable as people. But its subtle and ironic effect on us as writers, it seems, has been to make us more lonely.

I’ve been thinking about this off and on since last February, when I read a surprisingly (to me, at least) self-deprecating blog post by Mitch Joel. In it, he confessed to humiliation as an author:

I’ve spent many evenings tapping away at the keyboard, as the ideas flowed in a fast and furious pace. I’ve hit the “publish” button thinking to myself, “this could well be my best Blog post to date,” only to find out a short while later that nobody cared. The post wasn’t picked up, tweeted about on Twitter, shared, liked on Facebook and only generated a few (if any) comments.

In the analog era, says Joel, writers didn’t have this problem. In fact, they didn’t really need readers at all to feel rewarded. Validation came not from readers as much as from “publishers, editors and fellow content creators . . . agreeing to publish our work in the first place.”

The Naked Blogger

Not so in the blogging era. Gone is the protective framework of traditional publications, the assumption of vetting and approval that published writers once received by virtue of being published. Even for writers who work for well-staffed brands, the likelihood is that their work now gets published with little oversight or feedback from other staff. It’s all down to the readers to respond.

And all too often, they don’t.

Joel’s take on this is that “content creation can be a humiliating process.” But what strikes me in his description is not the humiliation, but the loneliness. In the social media era, isn’t writing supposed to be more collaborative, more interactive, more, well, sociable?

In many ways, it is—especially when readers respond. But now, as a self-published writer, you are often on the stage alone. It’s just you up there, no other actors, no props, no curtains to hide behind. And what’s more, the theater is dark. Though you can’t see them, you are face-to-face with your audience. The readers are there, but unless they laugh or applaud, you don’t know what they think. Even in the intimate environs of social media, writing remains a sometimes thrilling, sometimes frightening, and essentially lonely activity.

So in the absence of publishers and the frequent silence of readers, the quest for validation is now less assured, and more brutal: “In a world where the half-life of a Blog post can be less than twelve hours,” writes Joel, “you can tell if your work resonates … or if it’s digital tumbleweeds.”

Joel advises us to accept the fact that some content just won’t resonate. Don’t seek validation from the response to individual posts, he suggests, but from the collective responses to the entire body of your work.

I don’t disagree. But I also think it’s a mistake to leave the validation of your work entirely up to readers who happen to stop by your blog in search of something you have no intention of offering. As some of the commenters on Joel’s post suggest, there are a number of alternative ways of finding validation for your online efforts. Here’s another that might work for you.

Combatting the Loneliness

First of all, measure your work in the context of your own goals. If your aim with your content is to generate a certain number of page views or comments, your degree of success will be easy to gauge. But if you are creating your content for some other reason—to clarify your thoughts, to play with language, or to improve your skills—you don’t need your readers to validate it. You hope for reader reaction as well, of course (why else publish it?) but you don’t need it.

However: be your own best reader. If you don’t like what you wrote, it didn’t succeed. But don’t leap to this conclusion too quickly. Give yourself time and distance before judging your own work. When in the throes of writing, we’re terrible readers, prone to all kinds of rash and erroneous reactions. Take another look at your creation a day, a week, or a month later. It may be much better than you initially believed.

If in your best, dispassionate judgment, your content works for you, then you should make an effort to expose it to other readers like yourself. When your post is greeted with silence, don’t assume it didn’t work. Perhaps it just didn’t reach the readers it was meant for. It’s astonishing to me how often the people you think will see a post in fact miss it. Don’t just tweet about it once and give up. Promote it several times in each of your networks. Send any people you mentioned a link to the story. Your voice can’t be heard in a vacuum. Give it the air it needs to resonate.

Finally, keep in mind what validation means here. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your views are correct or your writing is brilliant. Rather, it means knowing that you had something worth saying, and that, as importantly, someone else thinks so too.

It’s not a cure for loneliness. But it helps.


Three Common Failures in Online News: Are You At Fault?

Howard RauchFor most B2B publishers, electronically delivered news content is becoming an increasingly important part of their output. The potential rewards are substantial. In theory, any B2B e-news package consistently delivering relevant, high-enterprise, fast-paced, exclusive content should dominate its competitive space. But the evidence suggests that few if any e-news staffs are up to this challenge.

I’ve come to this conclusion over the past two years as a result of two studies I’ve conducted of 100 sites and more than 1,000 e-news articles. The studies focused on B2B e-news from well-known trade publishers and included totally staff-written content as well as mixes of aggregated and staff-written material.  Early results from my third 50-site study of e-news delivery confirm that high quality remains in short supply.

What accounts for this poor showing? Of the eight common factors I’ve identified, three in particular stand out:

1. Lack of enterprise.  Most industry bloggers insist that content generated should be exclusive—information unavailable elsewhere.  This distinction, which should seem obvious, is a key to way to score points in marketing presentations involving competitive match-ups. But in the 1,000 articles I reviewed, 65% of them showed no evidence of enterprise. That is, I found no indication in the article that an actual telephone or e-mail exchange occurred between editor and source.

2. Longwinded sentences. A key to readability, especially online, is to keep sentences short and to the point. But in many stories I’ve reviewed, the authors show a fondness for verbose and wandering sentences. In too many cases, parades of 35- and 40-word specimens were the rule rather than the exception.

3. Insufficient links. The internet is by its nature an interactive medium. That makes it all the more perplexing how rarely B2B e-news includes embedded links. The typical usage when links do appear is on the short side—three to five words.  Higher-scoring sites in my studies use longer links—sometimes full sentences—to reflect a value that encourages visitors to click through.

If you’re responsible for e-news, how does your site rate in these areas? And, perhaps more importantly, how does it compare with that of your competitors?

For a better-informed handle on whether your content is best of show, try a “Like-Item Analysis.” This exercise involves a comparison of articles posted by you and the opposition that cover the same or similar events. In many cases, the results may reveal that neither you nor your competitors can claim bragging rights.

You may not be pleased with this outcome. But an honest assessment of how your e-news ranks is the first step to improving it.

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions, Inc., a consulting firm serving B2B publishers.  He recently completed Get Serious About Competitive Editorial Analysis, a 50-page manual.  It offers a detailed, quantitative system for assessing the competitiveness of editorial content. Three hours of consulting are included in the purchase price. For more details, e-mail or call (201) 569-7714.

The Key to Understanding New Media Is Attitude, Not Technology

Gina Trapani

Gina Tapani

Anytime you write in depth about  a new technology, you are at risk of falling into what might be called the Trapani Trap. A couple of years ago, Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker and a cohost of This Week in Google, wrote and self-published the Complete Guide to Google Wave, which she described as “an experiment in iterative publishing.” As Google’s innovative technology evolved and its uses expanded, she would continue updating her book.  We all know how that worked out.

For my own experiment in iterative publishing, the New-Media Survival Guide, I wanted to avoid the Trapani Trap by putting less emphasis on the technologies behind the new-media revolution and more on the attitudes and ethos that are driving it.

In fact, the core message of my book is that to thrive in a new-media environment, you don’t have to be a technological wizard or one of those annoying early adopters. Social media platforms will come and go, sometimes with bewildering speed. You don’t need to master each one to be a good new-media citizen. But you do need to be open to them, and to have some level of curiosity about what they are trying to achieve.

The latest case in point is Pinterest. As I wrote yesterday, Pinterest is not for everybody and is not trying to be the next Facebook. But if you’re serious about your new-media career, you’ll read up on it. The list of resources in my article, which will probably work its way into the next edition of the guide, is a good place to start.

Jesse Noyes: Brand Journalist or Brand Reporter?

Jesse Noyes

Jesse Noyes

For the past week or so, in the wake of Paul Conley’s skeptical assessment, I’ve been mulling over the future of brand journalism, aka content marketing. His doubts were not, as some readers thought, about the benefits to non-publishing companies of treating content more journalistically. Rather, he was questioning whether most companies were really prepared to be more journalistic, to accept journalistic values.

A few days after Conley’s interview, my friend and ASBPE colleague Robin Sherman had this to say on LinkedIn about the concept of brand journalism: “Whatever it is, it is not journalism. It might use some techniques that journalists use, but the goals of brand journalists and real journalists are different. If a journalist becomes a brand journalist, that person is no longer a journalist.”

For journalists, who face ever-diminishing opportunities with traditional publishers, does working for a brand mean they must give up their identities as journalists? Is there really no place for journalistic values in most companies?

These questions came to mind yesterday when I read about the one-year anniversary of the hiring of journalist Jesse Noyes by Eloqua, a marketing automation company. Eloqua is clearly not a traditional outlet for journalism.  But with a background at the Boston Herald and the Boston Business Journal, Noyes clearly is—or was—a journalist. After a year on the job, what, I wondered, would he make of Sherman’s and Conley’s concerns?

In an e-mail, he told me that he actually agrees with many of their points:

Let me tackle this from my personal point of view. “Brand journalism” is a kind of catch-all neologism; it’s used to describe a fairly new, relatively unexplored and broadly defined practice. Typically, when speaking to people in person, I refer to myself as a “brand reporter” rather than a brand journalist.

I think there’s a valid point in saying the goal of journalists and brand journalists are not precisely aligned. When I was hired it was clear I wasn’t recruited with the purpose of exposing the next Enron. For me, the goal of the journalist (traditionally defined) is to provide the public with the facts and context they need to make informed decisions—political, business, consumer and personal decisions—without regard for what “sells”.

But as he then points out, even most journalists in publishing companies don’t meet this definition:

Now, that being said, I would say this makes up the minority of what passes for journalism today. Many traditional journalistic enterprises are very concerned with doing content that sells copies and catches eyeballs for advertisers than truly informing the public, which is part of the pain I think Paul describes so well. (Jay Rosen, who I do not always agree with, makes some particularly salient points on this very issue.)

But I’m not here to defend or argue the points of journalism. The reason I call myself a reporter is because what I bring to my employer are the skills I picked up from my years working for traditional journalistic enterprises. These would include investigative skills, knowing where and how to look for data, how to discover trends, how to pursue and interview various people, how to frame all of the above into a cohesive narrative that informs or entertains or does both. Marketers are trying to learn how to speak to people in a human way. Reporters (or journalists) know how to do this, and that’s why Eloqua came to me.

In the end, he suggested, the important question is not whether you lose your identity as a journalist by working for a brand. Rather, the question is whether you can bring your skills and values as a journalist to helping a company become a better, more credible, and more open communicator.

The goal of a company that hires a journalist is not to win a Pulitzer. It’s to draw people in, to provide some form of value that will establish a level of credibility and intelligence that will create a stronger relationship with the brand’s customers and potential customers. Ideally, reporters should become the employees who do more than research and write articles. They should take their natural curiosity and investigative skills to uncover the needs, desires and pain points of the market the brand serves and report that back to the company. They should also be hell-bent on providing stories and articles that help their readers or viewers do their job better, rather than sell them some product or service at every turn. And, finally, they should teach their colleagues how to do this as well. If this is what happens, I see it as both beneficial for the brand and the brand’s customers.

To the points Paul made, I can see how this frustration arises. I’ve always said that if the brand wants to hire a reporter to essentially write copy for them, it’s not going to work. Journalists are curious people who want to meet people, explore new ideas and tell stories—not sell widgets. If the brand isn’t ready to give a long leash, the experiment will fail. Honestly, I’m not surprised to hear it has.

In the years I was a reporter in the newsroom, I encountered fuzzy areas almost every month where I felt a conflict could arise. In my time at Eloqua, I have never felt conflicted or uncomfortable. My company respects boundaries and doesn’t want to ruin the trust we’ve established with our readers. Any brand thinking about hiring a reporter should understand they’re not hiring a traditional marketer. And journalists considering working for a brand should know they aren’t going to work for a traditional newsroom.

It’s clear that Noyes has given this issue a lot of thought. In fact, he will be participating in a panel on “Brand Journalism in the Real World” at South by Southwest next March 12, along with Twitter editorial director Karen Wickre, Mashable contributor and content marketer Erica Swallow, and Ann Handley of MarketingProfs.