Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It takes six years to become a doctor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery... or to read this blog

Six years ago today I launched this blog.
My initial reaction to reaching this milestone is that I should say something about how quickly the time has slipped away. I feel I should say something like "it doesn't seem possible that six years have passed."
But that feels like a lie.

The truth is that when I look back over the past six years, it seems the time has dragged on forever. I want to scream "Six years! It feels like 600 years!"

Back when all this started, B2B journalism seemed so extraordinarily exciting. Time was flying. There was an urgency about things. Less than a year after starting this blog I had a sense that large numbers of journalists in B2B were making themselves unemployable by refusing to keep up with the pace of change. I wanted to do something to help. I felt invigorated and enthusiastic.
Now hundreds of those people are gone. But hundreds more remain. And as a result of the lingering malingerers, much of traditional B2B publishing turned into a technological and journalistic backwater.

But one man's stumble is another man's opportunity.
Thus the most amazing change from six years ago is how much of the B2B editorial world (both people and dollars) has moved into content marketing -- a term (and arguably an industry) that didn't even exist when I launched this blog.

A few hours ago, Junta 42 released its Content Marketing & Social Media Predictions for 2011 from 100 of the content-marketing industry's "thought leaders." (Disclosure: My predictions are included.)
I was excited to see the predictions. But before I even started reading them I was haunted by the question: Could anyone put together a credible list today of 100 thought leaders in B2B editorial that are NOT in content marketing?

For that in a nutshell is what has changed since this blog launched. At the start it seemed that each day introduced me to another remarkable, fascinating, ambitious person who believed that a new era of B2B journalism was emerging. Many of those folks were quite young. All of them were thought leaders. Getting to know them was the most extraordinary experience of my career. Those people were excited about B2B. And they kept me excited.

Now many of them are gone -- drifting off to law school, MBA programs and the like.

Many others, of course, are still in the business of B2B editorial. Perhaps half of those have moved into content marketing. Some others are still struggling to turn their traditional publications into something more suitable for the present era.

And so today, at the six-year mark, I feel I should say something to the folks who have been here since the very beginning:

Here we are. Six years later. And I'd like to thank you. Every comment, every email and every tweet from you has been great. More importantly, those all-too-rare meetings in the real world have been remarkable. You folks have been wonderful.
I'll be back with more posts in 2011. And you are all welcome to come visit. But I feel obliged to tell you something.
If you had enrolled in dental school on the day I launched this blog, you would now be an expert in pulling out other people's teeth. And certainly that has to be better than reading a blog that feels like having your own teeth pulled.
So think about that before you spend another six years here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The excellence craze

(Editor's Note: A custom publisher interviewed me last week for its company blog. As it turns out, at least one executive at the company wasn't crazy about my thoughts on the state of publishing. So the company opted not to publish the interview. I, on the other hand, am crazy about my thoughts on the state of publishing. So I'm posting the interview here.)

Question: Content marketing: Integrating print forms, such as a magazine published by a brand, with digital platforms. What kinds of trends are you seeing?

Paul Conley: I don't see much interesting in terms of integration. It seems to me that electronic content has surpassed print in most respects ... particularly quality. There are exceptions (long-form narrative, for instance, still works best in print.) But very little of the print world is making a successful expansion into digital content. Rather, it seems to me that most brands have digital products that are becoming much better than their print products.
Here's why:
Traditional, print-based custom publishing is primarily a way to serve an existing, captive audience. Whether it's an airline magazine stuck in the slot in front of your plane seat, or the four-color magazine that you get every quarter when you join a trade association, the print product is designed to serve an existing audience. A custom-published magazine is a perk that an association gives to members, it's a reward that a company gives to customers.
That made sense given the traditional tools that custom publishers had: print magazines, mailing lists, distribution systems run by clients, etc.
In addition, traditional, print-based custom publications existed for years as part of a very small media universe. This is particularly true in B2B, where an industry might have had one or two trade publications and one or two custom publications serving the entire marketplace.
But with the rise of the content-marketing or brand-journalism movement, suddenly everyone could be a publisher. Companies that would never have spent the money needed to produce a custom-published print magazine, began leaping into online publishing at an extraordinary rate. I saw a study recently that said 26% of B2B marketing budgets in the U.S. are now tied to content marketing. I doubt that print-based custom publications every got more than 1% of the total B2B marketing spend in this country.
Obviously, brands are not dedicating that level of their marketing budget to reach existing customers. Instead, brands have learned rapidly that they can use content as a lead-generation tool. Instead of putting an article in a magazine and sending it their customers, they distribute it online, in social media, through content-aggregation services and syndication networks. They track who has read it, who passed it on, who signed up for more information, etc.
At first, this worked quite well and rather easily. It wasn't expensive. It was certainly cheaper than traditional advertising or custom publishing. But as the early adopters found success, everyone jumped in.
This has led to what I think of as "the 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.
There's only one way to compete in that environment -- to be extraordinarily good. The only way I can ensure that my voice is heard is if my content is fantastic. That's completely new for B2B, where both trade publishers and custom publishers have seldom felt the need to be great. In a market with only three of four voices, only a crazy person would spend the money to become great. It was good enough to not be the worst.
I'm seeing money spent on content that is vastly more engaging than what was available just a few years ago. The other day I reviewed a bunch of material that UPS created to win customers in the pharmaceutical-logistics world. There were white papers and videos and loads of other items. And they were all great. Now UPS has an extraordinarily large budget. You would expect them to be able to spend the money to be great. But I see similar levels of greatness at loads of small businesses, consulting companies, etc.
All this is a roundabout way of saying this: brands that have put X amount of effort into producing print products are learning that they have to put 10 times that effort into producing electronic content if they want to compete.
Thus the electronic products (Websites, microsites, videos, podcasts, social-media campaigns, white papers, blogs, etc.) are of much higher quality than the print products that share the same brand name.

Question: That surprises me. I would have expected you to predict that the demand for higher quality electronic content would be coming soon, but you’re saying it’s already here. So how are these companies achieving higher quality in content? Especially the smaller businesses that may not have big budgets?

Paul Conley: There's really only one way to get higher quality content. You have to pay for it. What seems to be happening is that the giant brands (UPS, IBM, etc.) are pouring considerable resources into creating high-end material to use for content marketing. Often that involves hiring a content staff. For example, Intel recently launched a news service and hired a number of well-known journalists to run it. Folks like that are following the Symantec model. Symantec is a big player in tech-security news.
But not every company, even the large ones, are bringing content creators in house. Rather, they seem to be spending money on middle men. Sometimes those are well-established players in the advertising and public relations space like Interbrand. (Interbrand, by the way, runs one of the best content-marketing sites I know. Check out BrandChannel.) Sometimes these middle men are newer players ... boutique agencies that specialize in a vertical or a particular medium. LaunchSquad and SocialTract are among the companies in that space.
The smallest brands seem to be the ones that are most likely to do direct hiring. They're recruiting "social media experts" and such to create content. If you look through the ads in places like MediaBistro you'll find lots of gigs like that ... decent jobs for folks with little to no experience. These gigs don't pay a lot. Maybe they pay around $50,000 a year fully loaded. But most brands in B2B can take that money from their ad or marketing budget and move into content marketing in a big way. Maybe they drop the print ads they've been running in a trade magazine to pay for it. But what they get is constant, all-day interaction with their target audience through digital platforms.
The end result of all this is that there's a battle for folks with content-creation skills in digital media. A newspaper reporter with 25 years experience in print is nearly unemployable today. But someone who can write, record audio and video, and has worked with Twitter and Facebook for even a year can pick and choose among lots of opportunities. They can go to work for big brands, middle men or small firms.

Question: Do you expect this trend to higher quality will continue for the next five years?

Paul Conley: I do. The only alternative is to go with the low-cost models offered by the content farms. Those companies (DemandMedia, Seed, etc.) are likely to move into B2B just like they have made tremendous inroads in B2C. But those companies are volume plays. Their material is cheap ... but not very good. It's perfectly appropriate for search-driven content. But you can't engage an audience with it.

Question: Also, what kinds of devices are audiences viewing this type of content on? Are you seeing more content being created for specific devices, such as mobile or iPad? Are they getting any traction?

Paul Conley: I think it's too early to say. You may remember that I wrote on my blog for a long time that I expected we would soon see "an iPod of reading," a device that would change the way we consumed text, just like the iPod changed how we consumed audio. Well that day is clearly upon us. The iPad and the upcoming competitors will change how we read. They are already doing so. Most importantly, they are changing how we find content. I'm fascinated by Chris Anderson's idea that the Web era has ended. Apps may spell the end of search, serendipity, and the possibility of a nobody becoming a major content creator overnight. The Web gave us all that. But apps may take it away.
But as much as these new devices may change things, we can't say yet just how they will change things. It's sort of like those very early days of the Web browser. Anyone paying attention then knew that something remarkable was about to happen. But most of what did happen turned out to be different from what we expected.
But the smart players today aren't waiting around to see how things will turn out. Smart brands are already creating interesting app-based content. I still read and interact with a ton of content on my laptop at work and home. But when I'm not sitting at a desk, I read news (NYTimes and Bloomberg), shop (FreshDirect), plan meals (Jamie Oliver), exercise (RoundTimer), and play games (SmartGo) through branded apps.
But those apps probably don't represent what the market will look like in just a few years.
That's why one of my pet peeves is when executives talk about "needing a strategy" before they do something with apps or with Twitter. That's the same sort of thing that media folks said for years about the Web. But apps and social media will leave you behind, just like the Web did.You don't need a strategy. You need to get excited about possibility. If you wait until some platform has traction, you'll find that the way it gained traction was by spinning its wheels for awhile on top of your carcass.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Coffee's for closers

(Editor's note: As the world of B2B content marketing grows, ever-increasing numbers of journalists are moving into the field. In addition, a large crop of new grads are coming into the business ... often with little to no understanding of how content marketing works or what role journalism plays in it. This is the first of a four-part series on some of the cultural barriers that workers face in the new world of B2B content marketing. In this piece, I'll be making some suggestions about how folks with a journalism background can get past one of those barriers -- working with the sales staff. I'm hopeful that other folks will offer their suggestions as well. The second and third posts in this series will look at other cultural barriers. In the fourth and final part of the series I'll address how B2B journalists can preserve traditional ideas of journalism ethics in this new piece of the media world.)

Journalists don't like salespeople very much.
As a general rule, journalists don't like anyone. But journalists don't like salespeople even more than they don't like other people.
I'm a journalist. I've been one for decades now. And I assure you this is true. (Note: if you're a salesperson who is reading this, please understand that I don't mean you. I'm crazy about you. I'm talking about other salespeople. You're wonderful. And I love what you're wearing today. That's a very flattering color on you.)
I don't know if salespeople like journalists.
They probably don't. Most people tend not to like journalists.
And yet these two professions have managed to work together at publishing companies since the invention of the printing press.
And the key to their success was this: they didn't really talk to each other.
On the contrary, the publishing industry built an entire cultural infrastructure (separate offices, differing chains of command, ethics codes, etc.) to ensure that journalists and salespeople didn't talk to each other.
And that was fine in traditional publishing, where the value of the product required that sales not influence editorial.

But in content marketing, things are slightly different.
In this new world, content creators are judged (to a degree) on whether or not editorial influences sales.

Write ledes; Generate leads
As the content-marketing industry has grown in the past few years, B2B journalists have moved along a path that looks like this:
a.  working as creators of pure editorial supported by traditional ads, then changing to
b. creators of pure editorial supported by lead-gen ads, and then changing to
c. creators of pure editorial that is, in and of itself, a lead-gen tool.
(Note: becoming a creator of something less than pure editorial is a distinctly different path. That's marketing communications or public relations, and should not be confused with content marketing.)
B2B journalists who move into content marketing find they no longer have a sales team that supports editorial. Instead, journalists find themselves creating editorial that acts as part of the sales funnel.
And salespeople have no idea how jarring this is for us.

Life at the Movies
If you've been in the B2B publishing game for awhile, then consider the following questions:
Have you ever known a salesperson who decided to stop selling ads for his magazine and start writing articles instead?
Have you ever known a journalist who gave up his byline and decided he'd rather call prospects than call sources?
Me neither.
Part of the reason for this is that the skills between the two professions don't transfer well (although I often tell young journalists that they need to develop some sales-type skills, i.e., the ability to handle rejection, a willingness to accept a pay-for-performance compensation structure, etc.)
But the core reason that journalists and salespeople don't exchange jobs is that the the two professions attract extraordinarily different types of people. They are as different as night and day. They don't mix well. They see the world in fundamentally different ways.
Here's what I mean:
Have you seen "Glengarry Glen Ross," the movie with the breathtaking, pitch-perfect dialog written by David Mamet? If so, then you know the famous "Coffee's for closers" monologue performed by Alec Baldwin.
The salespeople I know admire the Baldwin character. Sometimes it's an open admiration. Sometimes it's a grudging admiration. But most often it's a sort of joking, off-hand admiration that manifests with frequent quotes from the monologue itself. (This is similar to the way some of my friends from Wall Street frequently and jokingly repeat the "greed is good" quote by the Gordon Gekko character from the movie "Wall Street.")
But journalists don't like the Baldwin character.
We admire Mamet's writing. Hell, we adore Mamet's writing.
But we see Baldwin's character as repulsive.
And in our heart of hearts, we fear he's representative of the world of business.
And, more importantly, as we move from being journalists to being content marketers, we sort of worry that we're becoming just a little bit like him.

Getting to know you
So as I said earlier, we can assume salespeople don't like journalists. But what do salespeople think of journalists who become content marketers?
Let's return again to "Glengarry Glen Ross." Key to the tension between Baldwin's character and the sales staff are the nature of the leads. The salesmen aren't performing. Baldwin threatens them and their jobs. Shelley Levene, played by Jack Lemmon, complains that "The leads are weak."

To a salesperson, content marketing can seem an ill-defined and unfocused effort that delivers weak leads. And this is largely, I suspect, because salespeople are perplexed by content marketers' goals.
That shouldn't be surprising. Content marketing is growing like crazy in B2B companies that have no experience with editorial operations of any kind. Even the most experienced salespeople are novices at working with content marketers.
And in a sense, the salespeople are right. Content marketing often doesn't deliver leads that are easily closed. Content marketing is more about about creating an environment that can lead to sales. It's as much about though leadership as it is about lead-gen. It's as much about conversing with existing clients as it is about attracting new ones.
But content marketers do this because it's what works today. Business has changed. Buyers have changed. Content marketing is just part of a broad, systemic shift in how B2B industries buy and sell.
And we journalists/content marketers have no idea how jarring this is for salespeople.

Shelley's daughter
If B2B journalists are going to succeed as content marketers, we're going to have to find some common ground with salespeople. We have to get them to understand what we do, how we do it, and why it's valuable.
Traditional marketers have faced similar challenges for years. But for content-markers -- many of whom were traditional journalists or college students just the other day -- this is all new.

The good news is that people much smarter than I are working on these issues. For example, it's worth your time to read Jennifer Watson's recent piece for the Content Marketing Institute on how to communicate our value to the sales staff.
But allow me to make a few suggestions of my own.
First, become a salesperson. Spend some time every month selling your services outside your job. Make a little money on the side. Learn to prospect. Learn to move potential clients through your own sales funnel. Learn to close.
Second, ignore Baldwin. Years ago I watched "Glengarry Glen Ross" with a bunch of journalists. And I wasn't surprised to see that there was universal sympathy in the group for Jack Lemmon's character, Shelley "The Machine" Levene.
If you've seen the film (or the original play), you'll remember that Shelley is in desperate need of money to provide medical care for a sick daughter. Shelley behaves badly as a result. He commits a crime. He falls into sin, if you'll excuse the religious phrasing. He behaves immorally ... drifting toward becoming more like the clearly immoral figures played by Baldwin and Al Pacino.(Pacino's speech on morality is another high point of  Glengarry Glen Ross: "There's an absolute morality? Maybe. And then what? If you think there is, go ahead, be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don't think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won't live in it. That's me.")
Levene also operates at a distinct disadvantage to the other salesmen -- he's from another time. As the Wikipedia entry on the movie puts it, "Levene's decline is due to the old-fashioned nature of his methods: his presentation as a grinning, successful, confident salesman with a casual swagger immediately telegraphs to modern clients his identity as a smooth-talking shyster looking to disarm them with reassurance; Levene has been unable to replace his obsolete tactics with new ones and suffers financially as a result."
Journalists, who have seen our own share of woes as our traditional employers have collapsed and our long-practiced skills have diminished in value, have a soft spot for Levene. We understand him, maybe even relate to him. He's the sort of person we're drawn toward -- complex, contradictory, troubled. In short, he's a story.
So here's my idea:
If you've made the move from traditional journalism to content marketing, it's time to stop seeing Alec Baldwin every time you see a salesperson. Learn, instead, to see Jack Lemmon.
Learn to see your coworkers as what they are -- regular people with sick children,  financial pressures and moral quandaries.
Just like me and you.
Third, become Baldwin.
If the first two approaches don't work, try a little Baldwin yourself. Never admit that content marketing offers anything less than the perfect, easily closed lead. Wave a stack of index cards in front of the sales team and say, "These are the new leads. These are the Glengarry leads. And to you they're gold, and you don't get them. Why? Because to give them to you is just throwing them away. They're for closers."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The seasons, they go round and round

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned.
It's been more than three months since my last blog post.

I didn't actually intend to take the summer off from blogging. But it seems I did.
At least part of that can be attributed to the ennui that I've come to associate with Web 2.0. In fact, it was a year ago this month that I expressed my sense that the revolution in journalism was ending ...that a new, more workaday era had begun.
And the truth is that it's just a lot easier to blog in the midst of a revolution than in the middle of another working day.
But part of this summer's blogging hiatus is also attributable to my long-standing attraction to the academic calendar. I just feel like I should be doing less in the summer. So sometimes I do.

But as long-time readers of this blog know, my obsession with the academic calendar means that September is the month when everything changes for me. (You can read earlier September posts here, here or here.) And this year is no different.

So let me fill you in on a few of the things that have changed for me. For perhaps they will point to things that are changing for others in B2B publishing as well.

1. My working life is now completely consumed by content marketing. As recently as December, most of my income derived from traditional publishers practicing traditional B2B journalism (although mostly on the Web, rather than print.) That is no longer true.

2. My working life is now completely consuming. My time is booked at well above 100 percent. Although my business did quite well during the financial crisis, I can't pretend that everything was perfect. There were a few weeks in 2009 and early in 2010 when I wasn't billing anyone for anything. That is no longer true.

None of this should come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog. Rather, my career track seems fairly predictable. I'm neither a prophet nor a visionary. I don't predict the weather. But I can feel it when the wind shifts.
And the wind is blowing hard, albeit from a different direction, and it's bringing lots of work for B2B types who can make the transition to content marketing. 

Or, as I said at the beginning of this year, "the old days are over. We're in the midst of a fundamental shift in how people consume information and how the cost of producing that information can be covered...(and all of us in the industry need to make changes so that) prosperity is possible and suffering is minimized."

In the weeks to come I'll write more about what this new world -- all content marketing, all the time -- means for me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Buying a blog. Validating a concept

There's news this week about a very interesting little deal in the B2B world.
Canon Communications has purchased Pharmalot, the extraordinary little blog that has proven an inspiration to numerous standalone journalists. Ed Silverman, founder of Pharmalot, will join Canon as editor at large in the Pharmaceutical Media Group and will continue as Pharmalot’s editor. He's also being asked to "spearhead further development of Canon’s digital assets, including webcasts and podcasts" and contribute to Canon's existing brands in the pharma space.
Details about the purchase can be found here.

Most people familiar with pharma, blogging, journalism or some combination thereof will applaud this deal. It's a nice fit. It unites one of the smartest writers in the space with one of the smartest companies in the industry. Canon gets both a property and a personality (making the deal something more than what my friend Rex calls an "acqhire"), while Silverman gets money, support and validation for his years of work.

But my love of this deal -- and I do love it -- is based in something more personal.
Regular readers of this blog know I first wrote about Pharmalot two years ago when Silverman and the blog were still tied to the Newark Star-Ledger.
In that post I suggested that Pharmalot offered newspaper publishers a model for expanding into a more lucrative area by competing head-to-head with B2B publishers.
But anyone who has witnessed the ceaselessly poor decisions that have come out of the newspaper industry in recent years will not be surprised to find that the Star-Ledger, rather than backing Silverman, wound up cutting him and the blog loose.
And no newspaper that I am aware of has since attempted to duplicate the model.

But what regular readers of this blog don't know -- because I haven't written about it before -- is that several months after Silverman went out on his own, I tried to convince a client of mine to hire him and buy Pharmalot.
That client had asked me for help in moving into the healthcare-data space. But my suggestion that they move slowly and start by buying Pharmalot, led to some bad blood. The client thought my plan was neither big nor bold enough. I, on the other hand, didn't think the client had the skills or resources to tackle something larger.
In the end, the client and I parted ways.
And Pharmalot continued on as a standalone product.

But life is a circle. Things have a way of resolving themselves. And over time I've learned that my initial reactions to a situation are often proven right ... over time.
As of today that former client has yet to find a way to get into the healthcare space. But now Silverman and Pharmalot are exactly where they should be: helping drive the digital efforts of a B2B publisher.
And the only thing that could make me happier is if I could come up with a convincing argument about why someone should pay me a commission on the deal.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I want my, I want my, I want my B2B TV

I'm always on the lookout for interesting products and new developments in B2B editorial. And as regular readers of this blog know, I've found the pickings pretty slim of late.
But the news today about Reuters Insider reminded me that I did come across something awhile back that I found encouraging.

First, the background:
For anyone who hasn't seen the announcement, Thomson Reuters said today it was adding a video service to its subscription-based desktop products. The new service, dubbed Reuters Insider, offers business-news programming across industry verticals. Rather than try to compete on broad business news with the likes of CNBC, the new Reuters Insider is more like a slew of B2B niche TV newscasts.
Reuters Insider is set up to allow outside contributors to post videos to the service. Some fast-moving companies have already signed up, including Beet.TV.

So what does this mean for the average B2B publisher and editor?
More than you might think.

Consider, if you will, the typical B2B company's experience with video. I think we can all safely agree that much of the video produced by B2B brands in recent years has been poor. Some has been downright abysmal.
In fact, if the recent ASBPE/Northwestern University poll of B2B editors showed nothing else, it showed that our industry is not at the fore of visual journalism (more than half of B2B editors surveyed had never done any online audio/video work ... probably because editors in the survey ranked "recording, shooting, or editing audio and/or video" as the second-least important skill for achieving success in their jobs ... trailing only "mining online databases.")

B2B editors' lack of experience and interest in video -- as well as a shortage of talent (what video-savvy journalist would consider working at a B2B publisher?) and training (the median amount of training that a B2B editor received in 2009 was less than a half-day, according to the ASBPE survey) -- leaves the typical B2B brand with just a few options.
They are:
1. "Encourage" video skills. Through a combination of compensation changes, rewording of job descriptions, etc., it's possible to force editors to develop an interest in video.
Of course, being forced to learn video doesn't mean that you're forced to do it well. Which brings us to ...
2. Invest in training. But if there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's this: there ain't much money in B2B these days for training. Besides, if you could get the folks who offer newsroom training to be honest about results, you'd find that turning talented writers into talented video journalists remains a largely impossible task. Which brings us to ...
3. Look elsewhere. Whether it's focusing your recruiting efforts on one or two of the best multimedia-journalism schools or contracting with an outside provider, it seems that B2B publishers are most likely to get good video by heading outside their own newsrooms.

Which brings me to a little company called WorkerBeeTV.
First, for the suspicious among you, let me assure you that I have no business relationship with WorkerBee. I just like the company. One of my clients uses their services. And I've found those services to be pretty impressive.
Take a look at WorkerBee's site here.
Or, even better, check out some of their newscasts. Here's one in the fruit and vegetable industry. Here's one in the hairdressing industry.
What you'll see is that WorkerBee has created a simple, branded product that can let even the smallest B2B publisher move into video production.
It's really pretty simple. Existing staffers work with WorkerBee's team to rewrite news stories into news scripts. WorkerBee does everything else -- shooting, editing, producing, etc. WorkerBee staffers act as the hosts of the shows. If a B2B brand already has video (either news footage from in-house editorial or "B-roll" from advertisers), it can be added to the show. If not, no problem.

If you're still struggling to get quality video on your brand's site, you could do much worse than to contact WorkerBee.
The video product you get may not be of the same quality as Reuters Insider ... but that's the price you pay for not working at a company with thousands of Nokia-toting, 'mojo" reporters scattered around the globe.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Semantic Web and free time

I don't have to be at an airport for nearly 48 hours.
I don't have a phone call scheduled for another hour.
My daughter is out with her grandmother.
Jeez! This is free time! I remember this. It's really wonderful.

But wait.
I haven't updated the blog in ages.
Damn. I feel guilty.
Quick! Write something quick!

Just wanted to thank Bernard Lunn and the folks at for the interview with me that ran last week.
It was great fun.
If you're interested in what Semantic Web technology means for you B2B company, check it out.

OK. That's done.
I'm going to drink coffee and stare at a wall aimlessly while I have the chance.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Meanwhile, at that other trade show ...

I spent much of last week chatting with student journalists at the College Media Advisers convention here in New York.
And since I was at the CMA conference, I could not be at the South by Southwest conferences -- the uber-events revolving around music, movies and emerging tech.
And that's fine. I'm really more the New York businessman type than I am tech enthusiast. And I much prefer chatting with college kids to networking with entertainment execs.
In fact, although it's a decidedly unhip thing to admit, I've never been to SXSW.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest that SXSW isn't important to me -- at least on the tech side. I need to know what folks at SXSW think is cool. Because, as we've seen with applications like Twitter, an item dubbed cool at SXSW often becomes crucial to the media industry.

So imagine my surprise and delight to find that the breakout application at this year's SXSW is apparently the QR code -- an application I've been promoting for ages and that I've written about here. I love the potential of QR codes, and I'm proud to say that one of my clients has had remarkable success using QR code to drive print readers to Web sites.
So I'm feeling positively hip and ahead of the curve.

Note: The news that the coolest app at SXSW is sort of old may mean that my sense "the media revolution is ending" is right. On the other hand, one student at the CMA convention suggested to me that the next "game changer" is the Sixth Sense device, from MIT.
I'd seen the demo of Sixth Sense from TED last year. But after reading about QR code at SXSW and talking to that student, I went back and looked at the video again.
I think you'll agree that device is pretty interesting, even amazing ... but since it doesn't really exist yet, it's premature to call it a "game changer."
However, it's worth noting that the device will exist some day soon. And one of the things the device could benefit from is a world where QR codes are more common.
So now maybe someone will modify one of my older (and maybe better) ideas and use QR codes as an editorial tool by adopting the concept of spatial annotation.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Psst. Hey Kid. You want a job?

Ahh March.
You're my favorite month of the year. It's within your few brief weeks that I celebrate my birthday, watch as winter turns to spring, as Lent leads to Easter and as the clocks spring forward.
It's a month of beginnings and youth.
And, as longtime readers of this blog know, March is the month when my earnings take a tumble as I trade billable days for time spent with college kids.

Every year at about this time I find myself visiting campuses, attending college media conventions, etc. It's become a tradition for me. And, like many traditions, I find it both comforting and frustrating.
That's because as much as I love meeting journalism students, the majority of them turn out to be remarkably unprepared for the working world. So by the time April rolls around and I've met a whole new crop of rookies, I tend to be a bit worried about the future of the business.

I'll start my annual trek through academia at the College Media Advisers convention here in New York, where I'll join Dan Blank, director of content strategy and development for Reed Business Information, to co-host a session on "Surviving in a New Media World."
And I'll be using my time at CMA to try to fill at least four entry-level jobs for clients.
So if you're looking for work, get there early while I'm still feeling optimistic.

(If you're new to this blog, you may want to look at my post about last year's academic tour. Or read my four-part series from 2008. If you're wondering what I look for in a journalism recruit, read this post from 2007 called Three Job Tips for Students. )

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Penton goes under

Penton is bankrupt.
The B2B publishing giant announced today that it is filing Chapter 11.
And as near as I can tell, the entire industry responded with a great, big yawn.
Because no one who pays any attention to B2B publishing could possibly have been surprised by the news.

Penton's announcement comes nearly a year to the day after I wrote that "I have no faith that a company that has a debt load the size of Penton's and is dependent on a troubled business model for cash flow, can ride out the economic downturn."
Well, now it appears that -- despite some desperate measures taken by Penton last year -- my lack of faith was justified.

So what does this mean for the folks who work at Penton?
Probably not much.
The company has squeezed just about everything that is squeezable, shrunk whatever could be shrunk, sold whatever could be sold, and shuttered the rest.
As a result, I don't expect that today's news will bring more layoffs or closures.
But in a sense, that's bad news.
Here's why:
If anything good was to come from the collapse of companies like Penton, Cygnus, RBI, Nielsen, Ziff et al it would be that those companies actually disappeared after they collapsed.
But what's happening instead is that these print-legacy, bond-selling dinosaurs get back on their feet and just lumber on ... holding on to valuable properties that could actually grow if they were owned by people with more vision and less debt.
It's a pity.
Penton, like many of its peers, employs some talented people who produce some valuable material. There's money to be made in that equation.
But unlike the days of old, there are not obscene levels of money to be made.
And as long as B2B's giant publishers hold obscene amounts of debt, then good people doing good work and producing moderate returns will always lead back to bankruptcy court.
Do you doubt it?
Consider this:
According to Folio magazine, the deal Penton has reached with its creditors as part of a pre-packaged bankruptcy deal would cut Penton's debt by some $270 million.
That's wonderful. It truly is.
But that leaves the company with some three-quarters of a billion dollars in debt. And adding insult to injury, Penton remains in the hands of the same people who borrowed too much, misunderstood the rise of the Web and then collected millions in management fees in exchange for their wisdom.

In other words, Penton and its peers may be dead ... but they're not quite dead enough that they won't continue to do harm.

(DISCLOSURE: Once upon a time I held the longest and most redundant title in B2B. I was the vice president for online content and editorial for Primedia Business Magazines and Media. That company later became Prism, which purchased Penton in 2006.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beware of geeks bearing gifts

Don't expect the geeks in your office to get much work done tomorrow.
Because Wednesday, Jan. 27, will be something akin to Christmas for geeks. For it is on that day that Apple will unveil their long-awaited, much-rumored ... something.
Most of the tech world expects the product Apple will unveil to be some sort of tablet-style computer, i.e., something sort-of, kind-of like a Kindle.
But better.
And cooler.
And as excited as I, a bit of a geek myself, may be about the arrival of the iSomething, I'm a little bit concerned about what it may mean for B2B publishing.

To understand why, let's look back at a bit of history.
In April 2007 I wrote a post in which I attempted to share my concerns about a pervasive and troublesome issue in B2B -- our industry's inability to respond to change.
In that post I said that " I expect someone will soon build an "iPod of reading" -- a new, portable device that changes how we read in the same revolutionary fashion that the iPod changed how we listen."
And I wrote that whatever the next big thing in media might turn out to be, in B2B "our next big problem is going to be our inability to respond to the next big thing."
Nearly two years earlier, in November 2005, I wrote a piece asking "How will we create/consume content in the future?"
In that post I wrote about my love of the Bloomberg terminal and my yearning for a user interface of the future that would ease both the consumption and the creation of journalism.

Now, it appears, the future is here.
It's possible, of course, that the iSomething will turn out to be iNothing. Or maybe the iJustaLittleDisappointing.
But given Apple's history with portable devices for consuming, communicating and creating, I'm expecting the iSomething could turn out to be the iChangesEverything.

But if you look around your newsroom today can you honestly say the people there are ready for something that changes everything?
Heck, how many of them are ready today for the stuff that changed everything a few years ago (mobile content, database reporting, multimedia production, Twitter, etc.)?

In other words, if the iSomething turns out to offer a better way to communicate and/or to create, I worry that only a tiny percentage of B2B editors have the skills to capitalize on that or have the mindset to find it exciting.
More troubling -- at least to me -- is that the iSomething may very well turn out to be nothing more (and nothing less) than a better way of consuming print-like material. That, in essence, is what the Kindle is. It takes print, with all of its limitations, and distributes it in a new, arguably superior, platform.
And there's nothing that worries me more than the illusion that the answer to B2B's many woes can be found by slapping print content on to a screen.
Even if it's the coolest screen ever.

Or, as Rich Maggiotto, chief executive officer of Zinio, said, "It’s one thing to shovel print content onto a screen. It’s another thing to think about how to reinvent your content for that medium. That’s the publisher’s responsibility."
And can you honestly say that your newsroom has the enthusiasm, the will, the interest or the budget for that in 2010?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Predictions old and new

(Editor's note: As many of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook already know, my mother passed away on Dec. 30. Since then I've been overwhelmed by the kindness I've received from friends and acquaintances in both the real and virtual worlds. Thank you all.
As my Ma took a turn for the worse in mid-December, much of my working life had to be put on hold. So I wound up running late on many things ... including a long-promised follow-up to my predictions about 2009. But as Ma taught me, there's "a time to die ... a time to mourn" and a time to get back to work. So with no further ado, let's look back at 2009 and make some guesses about 2010. )

I hate to say I told you so, but ....
As 2008 turned into 2009, I wrote a a lengthy piece in which I argued that "the B2B industry as we know it is about to collapse."
If you've never read that piece, I'd ask you to do so now. If you have read it, then you know I was predicting a systemwide failure in B2B. The problem, it seemed to me, was clear: Too many people had been borrowing too much money and making too many preposterous assumptions about the industry. Complicating matters was that far too many B2B journalists -- who are the core of the business -- had failed to keep up with the changes in editorial.
Furthermore, I said that I'd grown remarkably disappointed in the majority of Web-only publishers who had emerged in B2B. Simply put, although such companies had mastered things like content aggregation, most of them had failed to move to the next level.

That's what I said
So let's review.
I made three specific predictions about 2009. They were:
1. The B2B publishing industry -- which is now dominated by giant print companies and smaller Web-only companies -- is about to collapse.
2. When the dust settles, B2B journalism will still be here -- but many of the companies that make up the industry will be gone.
3. The dominant business models of both the past and present will fail.

As troubling and unlikely as those predictions might have seemed in December 2008, it's safe to say that I was right.
In 2009 there were bankruptcies, shutdowns and creditors-take-control actions (Doubledown, Cygnus, Questex, Milo, Incisive, Advanstar), there were staff reductions (Cygnus, RBI, UBM, IDG, Edgell, Access Intelligence), there were salary freezes and pay cuts (Cygnus, Penton, RBI), there were closures of print products (Ziff, RBI, Penton, Crain, UBM, CMPMedica, Randall-Reilly, Nielsen and just about every other company you can name.)
And I'm sure I've forgotten a few ugly events too. I just don't have the stomach right now to read through this list of the major magazine-industry events of 2009.
And it's not like the tough times are over. Just last week we saw more shutdowns and a the-end-is-near memo from RBI's chief executive as well as more closures from Penton.

Follow the money
In 2009, everything that could go wrong, did.
And that's because, as I predicted, "the dominant business models of both the past and present" have failed.
Consider this:
I began the post with my predictions for 2009 by referring to a study by Outsell that forecast a 4.5% drop in print advertising in 2009. But halfway through the year, the drop in B2B print ads was already more than six times that level!
Online advertising rates -- already low -- also plummeted.
Traditional publishers, who had hoped that online ads could save them, found their optimism was misplaced. The newer, Web-only publishers found that low-cost operations with narrow margins had little room to maneuver when things got ugly.
Whether it was controlled-circulation print, SEO-driven long-tail sites or content-aggregation plays, we saw last year that B2B's center (free, ad-supported content) did not hold.

Retreat and delusions
So what's next?
I expect more closures, more layoffs, more trouble.
For example, it seems clear that RBI's parent company has no intention of staying in the business -- they'll close anything they can't sell. RBI will be gone by mid-year.
Nielsen seems to be taking a similar approach -- rushing to the exits by killing whatever brands they can't unload.
The simple truth is that for dozens of brands in B2B there's no way out. It makes more sense to walk away and take the write-off. So that's what companies will do.
I'm also expecting B2B will soon see an influx of the content mills that have caused so much trouble in B2C. That's going to cause havoc among content aggregators as well as original-content brands that have invested heavily in long-tail strategies.

The blind leading the blind
I'm also expecting a tremendous increase in the level of delusional thinking among B2B executives.
Watch for the same folks who forecast revenue surges in 2008 and a bounce-back in advertising in 2009 to predict that the end of the recession means ad rates will return to 2007 levels.
Watch too for executives and journalists to argue that the free, but generally poor quality content that is pervasive in B2B is suddenly worth paying for. (Note: if you're one of the folks who thinks he can salvage his brand by putting it behind a paywall, you may want to read Outsell's latest report on the challenges of the paid-content market.)

Change is good
My predictions last year were not meant to imply that B2B journalism itself was in any danger of disappearing. I was expecting change and shakeouts. And that's what we got.
I expect more of the same in 2010.
I also predicted that B2B journalism would soon be dominated by five types of companies (content marketing, data and tech, family-owned and other small firms, price-benchmark companies and entrepreneurs' networks.) A quick look around the industry today suggests that I was right about all of those except for the last.
At the same time, it would be misleading to suggest that the shift from the powerhouses of old is complete.
For example, content marketing had an extraordinary year in 2009. A year ago it was safe to assume that half the people in our industry had never even heard the phrase "content marketing." But that has changed. (Anecdotally, I can name a dozen or so top-notch B2B journalists of the top of my head who moved into content marketing last year. )
But there's clearly plenty more room for content marketing to grow.
There are still hundreds of B2B advertisers who haven't begun producing their own content ... yet. And my prediction that "sophisticated corporations (would begin) to purchase established B2B journalism brands and use them as the basis of their content-marketing efforts" has not come true ... yet.

For a detailed look at what I expect in 2010, you may want to read my predictions in Folio and Junta42.
But in summary, let me say this: the old days are over. We're in the midst of a fundamental shift in how people consume information and how the cost of producing that information can be covered.
There's no going back.
Just like in 2009, there will be people who prosper amid the difficulties. And, just like in 2009, there will be people who suffer through no fault of their own.
Your task -- whether you're an editor, a salesperson, a publisher, marketer, c-suite executive, designer, j-student, etc -- is to position yourself where prosperity is possible and suffering is minimized.

In upcoming posts I'll write about the few bright spots I see in B2B as well as outline some of the moves that B2B companies and journalists should make in 2010 so that prosperity, not pain, dominates.
In the meantime, let me say "good luck."
I get the feeling we're all going to need it.