What Next? Chop Wood and Carry Water

The Candidate: What do we do now?

Yup, just like me.

After taking a day off from blogging yesterday—which seemed wrong, so very wrong—I felt the need to make a statement of some kind about my blogging plans. I just wasn’t sure what they were.

The feeling reminds me of one of my favorite movie moments, from the end of The Candidate. Having won election to the U. S. Senate, against all odds and only by contravening his most deeply held principles, Robert Redford looks at his campaign advisor in bewilderment and asks, “What do we do now?”

Less dramatically, and, I hope, in an ethically unblemished context, I found myself yesterday asking a similar question: What next?

In an idle moment, I considered several possible new objectives:

  1. Try to work a reference to fellow 1970’s-movies-alluder Rex Hammock into every post I write, thereby ensuring it gets at least one reader beyond my family members—assuming he meant what he said.
  2. Impress everyone with my keen insights into the state of new media today by secretly rewriting old blog posts by Paul Conley, substituting trendy terms for outdated ones, such as Twitter for AIM and Tumblr for MySpace. (But then I realized that I sort of already do that.)
  3. See if I can once again piss off Brian Clark with a mild, well-intentioned criticism of his excellent blog.

But while mulling over these tempting possibilities, I remembered something I was taught long ago by an English instructor at USC, Ken Hasegawa. To explain in whatever we were reading the surprisingly unexciting effects of a momentous epiphany on a character, he told us a Zen story: A student asks his master, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. What do I do after?” The master replies, “Chop wood and carry water.”

Although I haven’t achieved enlightenment by simply writing blog posts for 30 consecutive days, I think the advice applies. I’ll keep doing what I’ve done all along on this blog: covering with an analytical eye the intersection of new media with B2B publishing and communications.

The only difference, I hope, is that I’ll be chopping a lot more wood and carrying the water a lot farther.

Want to Twitter Better? Diversify Your Pronouns

One of my favorite Joe Pulizzi sayings is “it’s not about you.” For the most part, he’s talking to marketers, trying to get them to focus on the information their customers need rather than what the marketers most want to talk about: themselves. Journalists generally don’t see this as their own problem. After all, their role is to point towards other people. But as a new study suggests, the story is different on Twitter.  There, they mostly point to themselves. It’s a pronoun problem: too much “I” and not enough “you” and “they.”

Pew study found few mainstream media outlets retweet Back in August, I did an informal study of one B2B publisher’s editorial use of Twitter, and found that most tweets tended to be promotional (linking to in-house sources) rather than curatorial (linking elsewhere) or conversational (engaging with users). Now a Pew Research Center study of 13 mainstream media outlets finds an even more dramatic excess of promotion. The organizations studied included The New York Times, NPR, ABC News, The Huffington Post, and Fox News. More than 90% of their tweets with links were to their own sources.  While only 7% of their tweets linked to outside sources, even fewer were conversational in nature: just 2% asked readers for input, and only 1% were retweets.

The causes and implications of these findings have been well covered by Megan Garber, Mathew Ingram, and Ethan Klapper, among others (if I missed other good ones, why not note them in the comments below?).

I’ll just add this suggestion: when you tweet, try to balance your pronouns. Make sure you match your I—links to your own stories—with equal measures of they—what others, including your competitors, have said—and you—reacting to and soliciting information from your readers and followers.

Is the Distinction Between Consumer and B2B Media Still Meaningful?

Writing this week in Folio:, Matt Kinsman asks “Why Do Consumer Stars So Often Fail to Shine in B-to-B?” It’s no criticism of Kinsman, whose work I admire, that after reading this piece I could only ask in return, “who cares anymore?”

In his article he reflects on the departures of Richard Beckman and Michael Wolff from trade publisher Prometheus Global Media. Their effort to use their consumer publication experience to add luster to business-to-business books like Adweek and The Hollywood Reporter failed, he writes, because “useful trumps sexy.”

Fair enough. But was their failure really the result of a culture clash, or something more like arrogance and stupidity? Was the problem that you can’t mix consumer and B2B models, or the probability that both approaches are doomed? Are the differences between B2B and consumer media even relevant any longer?

The contrast used to matter a lot, at least to those of us affixed to one side or other of the divide. Most of us in journalism first fell in love with the consumer side, because that’s what we saw at home or on the news stand. Only later, when we tried to break into the business did we find out about the trades, and realize there was an entire world of media we’d known nothing about. If you were lucky or unlucky—take your pick—you ended up on the trade side, fretting over an inferiority complex but making a good living and doing good work.

So in times gone by, Kinsman’s article, like its predecessor last June (“Six Things B-to-B Editors, Designers Can Learn From Consumer Magazines”) would have seemed vital. Now it seems merely quaint.

What happened in the meantime was the birth of that great leveler, the Internet. It hasn’t so much erased the differences as smudged them. Just as it has muddled the distinction between professional and personal, and between home life and work life, just as it has confusingly merged the roles of reader, advertiser, and publisher, so it has blurred the traditional line between trade and consumer publishing.

What once made trades so distinctively different from the consumer side was, as Jim Edwards writes of Adweek, obscurity and scarcity: “It churns out enough detailed information about the ad biz to require ad execs to buy subscriptions to it and to require marketing services companies to buy advertising in order to reach those executives.” What gave a trade magazine value, he says, was “the fact that this information is badly chronicled elsewhere.”

Now, of course, such information is easily found, which is why readers are less willing to pay for subscriptions and marketers less willing to pay for advertising.

My point isn’t that B2B and consumer markets are one and the same. The functional, practical differences between them will always exist. But I suspect that the cultural and emotional differences are disappearing.

The question for B2B and consumer media may no longer be how each business model can inform the other, but what entirely new model both need to adopt.

5 Keys to Effective B2B Content


Photo by Brenda Starr

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a project that involves reading a bunch of feature articles from a wide range of B2B publishers. It’s been, surprisingly, an inspiring experience.

Why the surprise? I guess because there’s so much gloom and doom surrounding the future of B2B publishing. The grim outlook makes it easy to forget just how much superb work is still being done by B2B journalists.

If content marketers hope to pick up the mantle of the writers and editors behind these endangered magazines, they will need to study the best and brightest of them (or better yet, hire them). Though there are probably more to be mined, I’ve found five key principles behind the best of the articles I read. By applying them to their own writing, content marketers can keep the B2B publishing flame burning brightly.

1. Prefer expert writers over experts who write. In the articles I reviewed, the authors were either professional writers (staff or freelance) or experts from industry. The best articles came from the professional writers, not the industry experts. Note that I am not arguing against using industry experts as writers. There are certain topics and contexts that demand it. But when you can, use expert writers instead.

2. If you write about your own product, it will sound like an ad. In a few cases, articles I read were written by people with a commercial interest in their topic. Their expertise was clear, but so was their bias.

No matter how objective you are, when you talk about your own product or service you will reveal your bias. That’s not a problem in itself. Passion is good (see point 5). If you believe in your product, you should show it, whether in your PR or your traditional marketing. But such bias runs counter to the spirit of B2B publishing that the best content marketing aspires to.

3. Give opposing points of view fair consideration. To be effective, a story needs to have some kind of conflict or tension. You can’t generate that with a straw man. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lead your reader to prefer your point of view to the alternative, but you can’t do that if you don’t give the alternative its due. While the outstanding stories I read generally had a clear point of view, they made the most of the conflict they covered. You should do the same.

4. Share your purpose and be true to it. The best articles make it clear up front what they are aiming to tell you and why, and they stick fiercely to their aim throughout the whole story. The headlines, graphics, pull quotes, and other story elements all support that aim. Weaker articles don’t know what they’re about, or worse, try to hide it from the reader.

5. Show your passion. What really distinguishes the best B2B writers is their love of the topic. It’s not that the subject matter is central to their lives. It usually isn’t. Rather, it’s that they have an ability to dive into their assigned subject and adopt it with enthusiasm. True experts may have an enduring passion for their topic, but they often don’t know how to build off that passion and share it with the reader. And if you can’t share it with your readers, you won’t make a real impact on them.

As my reading reminded me, there are plenty of B2B publications that could learn a few things from the best of their breed. Those that don’t may not survive much longer. Worse yet, even the best B2B publishers may find that their excellence is not enough to save them. But if the benchmarks they set can inspire content marketers to achieve similar heights of content, they will not have excelled in vain.