Writing, Photography, and the Art of Thinking Visually

As some of my recent posts suggest, I’m a big fan of adding visual elements to written content, whether with infographics, illustrations, or photos. For the last few weeks, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not putting too much stress on visual media. The graphic arts are brilliant tools for communication, yes, but words are every bit their match.Camera with "words" in lens

What started me worrying about this matter was a casual comment by Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis. In his opening for an article on the quite different subject of photography’s potential to mislead, he made a “painful” admission.  There are times, he wrote, “when photos can tell more of a story than words could ever express.”

Sometimes the urge for a good lead makes you say things you don’t quite mean. But even if Ellis believes his claim, I’m not buying it. Writing can tell a story just as powerfully as a photo. But that’s only true if the writer learns to see and write in a visual way.

One of the reasons a photograph can seem so powerful is that it captures details of an event that many news or business writers might not think pertinent  or appropriate—a facial expression, the relation of people to their surroundings, the sense of place. But writers can see those same details. They just have to recognize their value and put them in their writing.

One writer who does so brilliantly is Steve Coll. Here is his opening paragraph from “The Casbah Coalition” in the April 4th issue of The New Yorker:

The office of the Prime Minister of Tunisia is situated in a three-story white-washed building with an arched Moorish entry. It faces north onto the Casbah, a plaza in the old quarter of Tunis. The view from the Prime Minister’s window is normally serene, taking in a tiled fountain and pruned ficus trees, but, by the afternoon of a day in late February, thousands of citizens had transformed the Casbah into what looked like a squatters’ camp. They had organized a round-the-clock sit-in to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi, and they were joined each weekend by large numbers of like-minded protesters. The fountain was completely covered by tents; ropes hoisted tarps from the trees.

This is visual writing, but it is not simply a snapshot of what the reporter saw. It sandwiches two views together—the ordinary serene picture of the Casbah with an extraordinary chaotic one. It shows the collision of stasis and change, a process of transformation unfolding before our eyes.

I’m not suggesting that writers don’t need or shouldn’t use photographs or other illustrations in their work. Rather, I’m arguing against two dangerous temptations for writers.

First, the simple availability of visual media should not constrain the visual element in our writing. It’s a false choice anyway: I suspect that if you can’t write visually, you won’t be very good at choosing graphics either.

Second, one medium is not inherently superior to the other. They are not categorically different, but lie along a continuum of representational media.

In the end, the key is learning to think with your eyes. The more you do, the better both your writing and the graphics you choose will be.

Social Media and the Perils of Monetization

Are profits and social media compatible? Does making money from a friendship make it less social? The path to monetization is full of perils, and inevitably changes your relationship with your audience. For B2B professionals, mixing social media and business requires a delicate balance of giving and selling, sharing and monetizing. Too much giving and you’re out of business; too much selling and you’re out of friends.

I was reminded of how tricky this balance can be last Friday when I logged onto my RSS reader. There I learned about a new experiment with monetization being tried by one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Schaefer. As I’ll explain in a moment, the way I learned about it was vaguely, if misleadingly, disappointing.

As he says in his post, Schaefer’s monetization experiment involves a couple of small but notable changes. Fed up with many shady web sites stealing his copy and, presumably, making money on it, he wants to make his own direct money from the site. For that reason, he’s now including “a modest amount” of advertising in his sidebar. In addition, he’s vowed to share any revenue from the site with four frequent guest bloggers.

To my mind, neither of these changes has any effect on the social aspects of his blog. There is one unmentioned change, though, which does: As I discovered last Friday, his RSS feeds are now short summaries instead of the full text of each post.

For those many people to whom RSS is still a mystery, the change is meaningless (if you’re one of these people and are curious, you can read about it on Wikipedia).

But for anyone who reads many blogs each day, as I do, a good RSS reader is essential, and a full-text feed of each post is vastly more efficient than a summary. With the full text in my reader, I can immediately read the entire story. I’ll often click through to the full blog if I want to make or see comments or view the original layout and graphics. But clicking through is optional.

When I have only a sentence or two from a post in my reader, however, I have to decide whether to click through to read the full story on the blog. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t—but it takes a few seconds to make the choice. For one blog, it’s a minor inconvenience; for many, it would be a disaster.

The logic behind using summary feeds is clear, if debatable. It requires readers to visit your site (and see the ads) and makes it harder for disreputable site owners to scrape your site’s content onto theirs. But for dedicated readers like me, it feels, well, ungenerous.

My first thought was that Schaefer’s switch to summary feeds was part of his monetization plan. But when I asked him about it over Twitter, he expressed surprise at the change and emphasized that it was not intentional. I’m glad to know that (although several days later, the feed is still partial-text only).

You only have to read the extensive comments on his post and his replies to see how complex monetization of social media can be, and how sensitive Schaefer is to its perils. His concern is not new. In a blog post almost exactly a year ago, “The End of the Trust Agent,” Schaefer noted how Chris Brogan had shifted his social-media approach from giving content away to taking making money from it:

Around the time of his book release last year, Chris flipped this philosophy upside down and took steps to aggressively monetize his audience.  He explained this change by saying that he had been giving stuff away for a long time and that it was time to make money.

Although Brogan thought otherwise, Schaefer’s post struck me as a thoughtful analysis rather than an attack. (A year later, though, he seems to have given up on Brogan.)

As Schaefer noted last year, the more the emphasis is on business, the harder it is to maintain the social nature of social media. Each of us has to come up with the right balance and hope that it works for both us and our followers. As Schaefer himself says, he’s experimenting with that balance now. I hope his results—or my pleas—will persuade him to err on the side of sociability and resume full RSS feeds.

UPDATE: Happily, the full-text feeds have been restored. Thank you Mr. Schaefer!

The Yin and Yang of Content Economics

Tweet from Bob ScheierIt has the look of two trends hurtling toward a head-on collision. Content is getting ever cheaper, but to be effective, content has to get ever better. Sooner or later, one of these trends is bound to falter–but which will it be?

That was the implicit question in a plaintive tweet last week from Bob Scheier: After a look at HubSpot’s Writers Network, he asked: “Why are rates so low ($50/blog post)? Was hoping to eat in 2011.”

The skeptical might reply that HubSpot’s network is too new to be representative, that the writers set their own rates (some much higher than $50), and that those with established clients probably earn much more.  But the overall effect of such outlets, in which writers bid against one another, is undeniably to lower writing fees.

We may not like it, but behind this trend is the force of economic law. In a time when everyone is becoming a journalist, Neil Thackray says, “that must mean there is an oversupply of content. And that means the price falls.  Try writing for Demand Media and you will quickly learn the harsh economics of content oversupply.”

On its face, this trend would appear to be great news for marketers. As Josh Gordon pointed out last week, one of the primary attractions of social media is its low cost. Cheap content fits right into that equation. The only problem is this: Cheap content is crappy content.

Gordon puts it this way: “As anyone reading this blog should know by now, good content is not cheap and a social media program is only as good as its content.” As he points out, though, many marketers, at least for now, “see this differently.” It’s no wonder, he says, that they also think social media is one of their least effective marketing tools.

Fortunately, every yin has its yang. While an abundance of content creators leads to oversupply, the scarcity of attention among overwhelmed audiences increases the value of good content. As Paul Conley has argued, the result is an “excellence craze”:

“In B2B, where I make my living, it seems like every company in every tiny niche of every industry has become a content creator. There are a thousand voices competing for very small audiences. . . . The only way I can ensure that my voice is heard is if my content is fantastic.”

This is alien thinking for traditional B2B content producers, notes Conley: “Both trade publishers and custom publishers have seldom felt the need to be great. In a market with only three or four voices, only a crazy person would spend the money to become great.”  But in a market oversaturated with content, spending money for content that stands out from the rest is not just sane, but essential to success.

At the moment, low-cost commodity content is attracting all the attention. But its very prevalence  should ensure that well-written and thoughtful content with a unique point of view will be valued at its true worth.

Journalists, Content Marketing, and Tough Questions

If not yet a B2B meme, recommending the use of journalists for content marketing is at the very least a growing trend. Well-known influencers like  David Meerman Scott, Valeria Maltoni, and Joe Pulizzi have all made the case that journalistic skills like telling stories, doing research, and understanding audiences are critical to effective content creation. But one journalistic skill rarely mentioned is the ability both to ask and to answer tough questions.

Not all journalists can claim that talent, but the best can, and it’s what makes journalism shine. But are B2B brands ready for tough questions?  As I’ve worried before, maybe not. But if that’s the case, they aren’t ready for marketing in the social media world either.

By tough, I don’t mean adversarial or unfriendly. Rather, I mean any relevant question that might make someone uncomfortable, whether the person posing the question, the person answering it, or both.  Asking tough questions is the journalistic equivalent of due diligence in business. Both are critical to getting the facts right and avoiding disaster.

I’m not suggesting that content marketers undertake investigative reporting. But they can benefit from an ability to know when the easy answer is not the right answer, and when they need to probe more deeply to, in the words of Jesse Noyes, “create content that will challenge long-held assumptions.” The trick, of course, is to challenge your brand and your audience in a positive and constructive way—as good journalists have learned to do.

In the old days of mass media and mass marketing, tough questions could be avoided. But markets are now conversations among equals. As companies like Nestle and Dell have learned, educated buyers empowered by social media will ask tough questions. Educated content marketers will answer them. Better yet, they’ll ask themselves those questions before anyone else does, and share the answers. It’s a role good journalists are made for.

A word of caution to marketers, though: as I’ve suggested, not all journalists can pass the toughness test. So before you hire a journalist to ask tough questions, make sure he or she answers yours first.

Content Marketers: Think “Editorial”

One of the most exciting areas today in the realm of what we used to call publishing is content marketing. As befits a rapidly evolving discipline, there is no single, satisfactory definition for this new activity.  A few days ago, Joe Pulizzi itemized some of the different ways to describe content marketing, then added, “there are another 30 names for this including branded content, customer media, custom publishing and the list goes on.”  But one word that rarely shows up in such lists is editorial. That’s a pity.

Not that I object to content. It’s a useful word that covers the variety of media that marketers can use, while editorial is narrower, mostly limited to writing. That is, all editorial is content, but not all content is editorial.

But as a word, content has its downside. To my ear, at least, it suggests an undifferentiated mass extruded by machinery.  Editorial, by contrast, suggests active involvement in content, a filtering of it through a careful act of judgment. Where there’s editorial, there must be an editor. Where there’s content, there must be . . . who knows?

Then why is editorial such a rare word in blogs about content marketing? Perhaps because the field is, so far, being driven largely by people with marketing backgrounds. That’s not to say they don’t appreciate the qualities the word connotes, but that by training, it doesn’t come immediately to mind to describe what they do.

That may be why the one place you’ll see the word in content marketing blogs is in discussions of editorial calendars. As every editor knows, that’s a marketing tool as much as, if not more than, an editorial one. But when it is not conjoined with calendar, the word editorial rarely appears.

Resistance to other uses of the word may be due to the traditional separation of powers between editorial and marketing. In the old media world, marketers didn’t do editorial, and editors didn’t do marketing.

All that, of course, has changed. Marketers absolutely do editorial now–they just don’t use the word. But as more editors enter the content marketing fray (the hiring of Jesse Noyes by Eloqua is but the latest example), that old habit may die off.

Why is one word so important? Because unlike contenteditorial isn’t a neutral term. There can be good editorial and bad editorial, but buried not so deeply in the word is the intent to get the facts straight, state them effectively, and serve the reader well. It may just be my bias as an editor, but to me, the word reminds us that the greatest success of content marketing will come from adopting not just editorial tools, but editorial values as well.