Beats vs. Obsessions: More Lessons for B2B from Quartz

Gideon Lichfield

Gideon Lichfield

Last month, I wrote about how Atlantic Media’s new online publication, Quartz, offers business-to-business publishers a new advertising model to consider. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about another new model Quartz embodies, this time involving its content. Instead of the traditional editorial beats, its coverage reflects what it calls obsessions.

Though this looks at first like a slightly precious and possibly meaningless distinction, on closer inspection, it isn’t. In fact, for the B2B world in particular, it is a crucial concept.

The idea is best understood by reading Quartz news editor Gideon Lichfield’s slightly nerdy but persuasive rationale for abandoning the beat.  As he explains, “Today almost every news outlet is organized around fixed beats: ‘financial markets,’ ‘real estate,’ ‘technology’, and so on.”

For Lichfield, the fatal flaw of the beat is that it is driven by the print model:

“Yet the beats aren’t so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient management tool, devised for an old technology. When news came in a sheaf of pages it made sense to divide them into sections—domestic, foreign, business, and so on—with an editor and a team of writers for each one, and make each writer responsible for a slice of that section: a beat.”

Lichfield’s post has provoked a range of reactions. C.W. Anderson worries that giving up on beats means abandoning the “monitorial” role of the press. Others, like Joshua Benton and Paul Raeburn, don’t think the distinction between beats and obsessions is very clear.

Benton does, however, underscore a key aspect of the concept: flexibility. “What I do like about the obsessions model,” he writes, “is that obsessions are destined to be temporary and responsive to reality.” This is clearly central to Lichfield. He repeatedly refers to beats as “fixed,” and contrasts them with his definition of obsessions as an “ever-evolving collection of phenomena.”

The other key concept Lichfield addresses is that of crossing traditional boundaries. Covering such phenomena through a traditional beat structure, he writes, “is difficult: they often cut across beat boundaries, taking in politics, economics, technology, and other issues. Our journalists have to be, to some extent, all-rounders, who aren’t afraid to get outside their usual expertise and track the topic they’re following wherever it leads.”

Lichfield adds that online, “when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality.” I would go a bit farther. That act of reframing is not simply an option, but an obligation, a key to survival.

The arbitrary distinctions and categories that characterize traditional B2B publishing—think yearly editorial calendars, ad/edit ratios, “controlled circulation”—make such reframing impossible. The niche still matters, but it is in constant flux, and to pursue it, you have to change with it.

In almost every way, the B2B print model is poorly suited to this pursuit. It commits publishers to a relatively fixed way of presenting information on a rigid production-driven schedule to an arbitrarily defined audience that may or may not want that information.

Thinking about B2B media from this perspective has been an interesting exercise. I’ve drawn, so far, three conclusions.

First, the way publishers cover information should not be driven by the needs of the print model. The insight is easy; acting on it, alas, is hard. Unlike the online-only Quartz, most B2B publishers want to protect substantial, if steadily declining, print revenues. One way or another, though, they will have to make the digital-first transition if they want to survive.

Second, publishers have to rethink their idea of their audience. It’s not 20,000 subscribers assigned to one of six demographic categories (and it never was). It is now a constantly shifting group of people that changes with every new article and every new keyword. You can’t write to them all (and you never could). So who are you trying to reach, and why?

Third, to succeed as an online publisher, you have to know when and how to change. When you substitute an evolving obsession for a fixed beat, you have to dig deeper and harder for things to write about. And when you write for an ever-changing group of readers, you have to be constantly assessing who they are.

The way you do it is through data. Most B2B publishers talk a lot about data, but mostly to ask, “Gee, how can we sell our data to companies and make a lot of money?” But the real value isn’t in the data set itself, but in how that data can help publishers strengthen their relationships with their audiences. If you aren’t actively mining and analyzing the data you have on your readers and their obsessions, you won’t keep up with them.

These are not particularly new or original observations. But they underscore for me something less obvious: to survive online, you have to abandon not just the mechanisms of print, but the very thought processes.

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.

Journalists as Buzzword Killers

A post today from Josh Gordon on words to avoid in content marketing gets to the heart of what content marketers must do: think like journalists.

In his post,  he reports on an effort by PR strategist Adam Sherk to enumerate the frequency of 98 marketing buzzwords in current press releases.  As Sherk acknowledges, he is building upon a list David Meerman Scott compiled last year of “top gobbledygook phrases used in 2008.”

Here are the top 12 offenders:

  1. leader
  2. leading
  3. best
  4. top
  5. unique
  6. great
  7. solution
  8. largest
  9. innovative
  10. innovator
  11. award winning
  12. exclusive

Now as Gordon notes, such words are bad enough when they appear in press releases. But in content marketing, they are disastrous. As he says, “when content marketing looks like a product promotion it gets ignored like a product promotion.”

For anyone trained in B2B journalism, the terms in the above list (and the remaining 86 in Shirk’s list) are obvious no-nos. Many B2B editors cut their teeth rewriting press releases for their publication’s product and services section. Their first lesson was almost always to remove any form of endorsement language. It might not be practical to personally review products, but it was an absolute obligation to remove any promotional overtones and stick to the facts in the release, even in supplier quotes. (Sadly, as advertising has gotten scarcer, editorial standards have gotten laxer, resulting in such over-the-top quotes as—really, I did not make this up—“the outstanding part quality produced is outstanding—just awesome.”)

Though it’s been said here before,  it’s worth repeating: If content marketing is to fulfill its promise, it must adopt a journalistic ethos. That can be done through PR or marketing people learning to think like journalists, or by hiring journalists. But one way or another, it must be done.

This Might Be Big: IDG Enters Content Marketing

As one of the few acknowledged leaders and innovators in B2B publishing, IDG seems always to know when to act on industry trends. The publisher of titles like Computerworld and CIO was a pioneer in China and Web-first publishing. Now the company’s IDG Enterprise unit has announced it will dive into content marketing. The significance of this development will depend on its implementation, but it has the potential to set off a huge shift in the way B2B publishers operate.

In a press release last Tuesday, IDG explained that it’s new project, called “Strategic Content Services,” will “support the growing ‘vendor-as-publisher’ model” (publisher-speak for content marketing). Exactly what IDG’s “content development and content optimization services” will consist of is obscured by the typical press release jargon. But it appears that they will be offering a wide range of content strategy consulting, content creation, and software tools.

What makes this meaningful is the fact that IDG is in essence recognizing the irrelevance of its own media vehicles, at least for some of its potential advertisers.  It’s a big step beyond traditional custom publishing, which is nothing new for IDG. In that old model, the publisher is essentially saying to its customers, “You know nothing about publishing. Let us do it for you.”

But now, IDG is saying something very different: “You can do your own publishing. Here’s how.”

I don’t know whether Joe Pulizzi can be given any credit for IDG’s decision, but it mirrors his advice to publishers two years ago to choose “between trying to grow top line revenue within a business model that used to work well, but will be challenging to grow in the future – or – giving in to the new buyer behavior and help teach traditional businesses how to become their own publishers.”

Sometimes initiatives like IDG’s just fizzle out, other times they spark a revolution. It will be interesting to see which way this one goes.

Content Marketing’s PR Problem

With publishing luminaries like Paul Conley, Joe Pulizzi, and David Meerman Scott urging journalists to turn to content marketing for rewarding career options, you might think there would be a stampede of ink-stained wretches leaping into the field. But though you can find examples of such career shifters, the numbers are small. In part, this may be because the field is still nascent. But it’s also due to a public relations problem. I mean this literally: to many journalists, content marketing is just another term for PR.

Three weeks ago, in my last post on this blog, I asked the question, “Is B2B Ready for Corporate Journalism?“. My silence since then, alas, doesn’t mean I found the answer. (For my lack of production, blame a combination of travel, special projects, and, of course, my lizard brain.) What spurred my reflections was a comment from a journalist who didn’t believe that content marketing could live up to its journalistic ambitions.

That journalist, at least, understood those ambitions. But for every one who does, there must be 10 others who don’t.

Recently, for example, an esteemed B2B journalist I know said that content marketing is not new: “we used to call that PR.” There are two serious problems with this common confusion.

First, it means that journalists don’t recognize the challenge that content marketing poses to their traditional livelihoods. Unlike PR, which relies on third-party publishers to disseminate its message, content marketing simply cuts out those middlemen. Instead, companies that used to be advertisers go to the audience directly, in essence becoming publishers themselves.

But the confusion is also a problem for the discipline of content marketing. To fulfill its potential, it needs journalists. If those journalists think it’s all PR, they won’t bite.

So let’s try to clear it up.

Journalists: Content marketing is not PR, nor is it, in any sense you expect, marketing. In the broadest sense of the term, it’s publishing. It may not always be practiced with traditional journalistic values, but it often is.

Content marketers: Let’s face it, you have an image problem with journalists. If you want them on your team, you’re going to have to talk less about marketing and more about journalism. I agree that neither David Meerman Scott’s favored term, brand journalism, nor its cousin, corporate journalism, quite fits. But unlike content marketing, neither phrase makes journalists want to run for the hills.

Corporate journalism has a bright future. But until content marketers and journalists speak the same language, it will remain stubbornly in the future.