Infographics: Not Dead Yet

As the one or two dedicated readers of this blog can attest, my affection for infographics waxes and wanes on a regular basis.

Of late, I’ve been rather down on this graphic approach to conveying complex information. Too often, what information value is contained in the graphic is overwhelmed by cuteness, triteness, or both.

So when one Allison Morris inquired via my contact page (rarely, alas, a reliable source of useful interaction) about promoting an infographic she’d worked on, I was skeptical.  (It was a good sign, though, that she had in fact read at least one post on this blog.)

My fears, happily, were unjustified. I don’t know anything about, but I do like their  flowchart for young jobseekers about what to post or not on their social media accounts. Well done, Allison et al!

Rethinking the Role of “Advertisers”

Quartz websiteWriting last week for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Ken Doctor analyzed “The newsonomics of the Quartz business launch.” It should be required reading for every B2B journalist and publisher.

In identifying the key aspects and implications of the business news startup from Atlantic Media, Doctor touched on a number of key points for any business-oriented publication. One in particular stood out for me:

Call it underwriting, sponsorship, or share of voice, Quartz is leaping over the littered landscape of impression-based display advertising and selling sponsorships. It will start with four sponsors, who are paying based on their association with The New. In a twist we’ll see more of — another reason Quartz is worth watching — these advertisers are creating their own content for Quartz readers, through something called “Quartz Bulletin.”

Atlantic Media seems to have accepted what Lewis DVorkin keeps telling us (most recently last Thursday): Content is content, whether it comes from an editor or an advertiser. As company president Justin Smith told Adweek, “We believe branded content is going to be an essential part of the site itself.”

Like Forbes, with its AdVoice product, Quartz recognizes that the old advertising model—limited to hermetically sealed ad units dropped beside editorial content—must change. Though the process is fraught with danger, publishers will have to start breaking down the wall that separates editorial from advertising and find a new model for sharing their media with their “advertisers”—a name that may likewise need to change.

Forbes and Atlantic Media may not have found the right model yet. But unlike too many other legacy publishers, they have at least recognized that the old one is broken and will never be mended.

Beware the Witch-Hunting Impulse

My experience today reading Joe Konrath’s “Writers Code of Ethics” was probably exactly what he intended. From points one through three—never write or pay for reviews of your own work—I was in complete agreement. From points four through six—don’t ask friends or fans to review your work—I was thinking, “wow, that’s pretty strict.”  By point nine—”I will never allow anyone to send out copies of my books to be reviewed”— I was suspicious. Long before I got to his twenty-third and final point of ethics, I realized he had veered into satire.

What spurred Konrath’s gradual escalation into ethical absurdity was a manifesto of sorts by a group of authors condemning other authors behind a recent rash of “sock-puppet,” or faked, and purchased book reviews. His aim, I take it, was not to defend dishonest marketing, but to warn us against mob instincts:

“All of you pointing your fingers and proclaiming your piety? Get back to working on your books, not judging your peers.”

In the recent uproar over the apparent multiple plagiarisms and fabrications by Jonah Lehrer and one instance of plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria, I’ve sensed a disquieting rush to judgment. In each case, the acts are indefensible. But for those of us striving to be ethical, unreservedly condemning them, as Barry Eisler puts it, is a dead end. That lack of reserve leads all too readily to overreactions and unfair accusations.

Viewing ethical mistakes in black and white makes life simple. But we can learn more, and become better people and better writers, by trying to understand the complex intentions and motivations behind those errors.

Lewis DVorkin: Content Marketing or Advertorial?

Photo of Lewis Dvorkin

Is Lewis DVorkin a visionary or a sell-out? I can never quite make up my mind. That’s never more true than when he writes about content marketing, as he did last Monday.

As Chief Product Officer for Forbes Media he’s done some impressive things to advance the publication’s online and social-media presence, and his “Copy Box” column is essential new-media reading. But whenever he explains AdVoice, the Forbes approach to mixing editorial contributions from advertisers with more traditional editorial, I start feeling queasy.

DVorkin describes AdVoice as an outlet for content marketing, which he defines as “brands using the tools of digital media and social sharing to behave like original-content publishers.” As he goes on to say, the “idea that a company—as a brand and marketer—can be an expert content creator and reach an audience by disintermediating reporters is confusing, threatening and scary to an entire profession that had its way for a century.”

True enough. But content marketing itself doesn’t worry me. As long-time readers of this blog know, I generally like the idea of content marketing.

Where I get uneasy with content marketing, though, is when it starts to look more like advertising.

I think of content marketing as owned media rather than paid media, as published by the originating brand itself, that is, rather than by and under another brand. So when DVorkin talks about integrating his advertisers’ content-marketing efforts into the Forbes brand, I worry that he’s really talking about advertorial.

His first line of defense against that charge is full disclosure. AdVoice, he says, is “a fully transparent way for marketers to publish and curate content on and in our magazine.”

But is transparency an adequate defense? When a publication buys content (from staff writers or contributors), that clearly counts as editorial. But when the publication is paid to publish it (by advertisers), is it still editorial?

For a traditional publisher, the answer would be no. In buying content, a publication is essentially saying that it is good, that it will serve the readers well. When the publication is paid to publish it, though, all bets are off. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter: it’s an ad, not editorial.

But, radically, DVorkin argues against such differentiation between an advertiser’s content and, say, Forbes’s own editorial: “content is content, and transparency makes it possible for many different credible sources to provide useful information.” To a traditionalist, that sounds plain wrong, if not evil.

But of course Forbes is in DVorkin’s view anything but a traditional publication. It is, rather, “a brand-building platform for journalists and expert voices.” In his model, the publisher does not differentiate and ordain content, but simply hosts it without prejudice:

For FORBES, everything we do cascades from a belief that there are five vital constituencies in the media business, each with a different agenda. FORBES certainly has a voice. So does the journalist, the consumer, the social community and the marketer. . . . AdVoice is organic to our experience, not an add on. Our marketing partners use the same tools to post and engage with readers that I do. AdVoice content appears on our home page; it breaks into the Most Popular module when rising page views push it there; it appears dynamically in our real-time stream and channel streams.

In other words, the publisher is no longer a gatekeeper for content, but just one of several equally privileged voices. The publisher’s role now is to provide and share a common platform for community voices.

I’m old enough to find this vision troublesome, and radical enough to see its potential. So I guess I still can’t answer my opening question. What do you think?

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.