Thursday, December 22, 2011

Scratching the seven-year itch

What were you doing seven years ago tonight?
Odds are it was more fun than what I was doing -- which was sitting at my desk and launching this blog.

I don't have a very clear memory of  that night -- and that seems strange to me now, given how important this blog became to my career. Rather, I have a hazy recollection of coming home and feeling sort of fed up. It seemed clear to me that the entire world of B2B journalism was entering an extraordinarily exciting and important era of rapid change. But my working life was filled with people who didn't share that belief. I really just wanted someone to talk to about this stuff. But my family, friends and coworkers weren't interested.

So I came home, turned on the computer, and started talking to ... whomever happened to be out there in the newly born blogsphere.

If you don't know what happened next, feel free to take a look at this post from September of this year. In it I tried to spell out how wonderful and important this blog became to me, but how I had lost my taste for it.

But if there's anything that has changed more than my relationship to this blog, it's the world that I wrote about here. B2B media is dramatically different from what it was in 2004. I'd like to think I played a small part in that change. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Reviewing the past

Early this morning I received an email from someone who described himself as a "longtime fan" of my work. He wanted to share a link to a piece he'd read on FINS, the career site owned by Dow Jones. The article, titled "We're All Media Companies Now and We're Hiring," is about the extraordinary surge in hiring of traditional journalists to create content for non-publishers.

The writer of that email was kind enough to point out that the article "sounds like what you've been preaching for a long time." And there's no doubt that is true. This new world of content marketing (or, if you prefer, brand journalism) has excited me tremendously.

But I've also developed some concerns about this new world. If you're one of the hundreds of B2B journalists who has made (or is considering) a move into content marketing, I urge you to read my recent conversations with John Bethune. You can find them here and here. You should also read John's interview with Jesse Noyes, one of the better-known and more talented players in the brand-journalism world. (Note that Jesse draws an interesting distinction, calling himself a brand reporter rather than a brand journalist.)

Predicting the future

I didn't intend  to write anything about tonight's anniversary. But that email from a longtime reader left me feeling like I should say something.

Then, in the late afternoon, the Content Marketing Institute and Junta42 published their annual list of predictions for the upcoming year in Social Media and Content Marketing. Joe Pulizzi, the boss at Junta42 and CMI, had asked more than 80 people to share their predictions. But his favorite, according to his blog post today, was mine.

And I realized that I couldn't think of a better birthday gift for me and this blog than this:
Joe, as you probably know, is the father of the content-marketing craze. And I, at least for today, am his favorite child.

So as we enter 2012, as new challenges arise in B2B, and as this blog begins its eighth year, check out my predictions and those of some of the smartest folks in the content-marketing world.

(If you're interested, check out what I said on the six-year anniversary of this blog here.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

An interview with me on the woes of content marketing

As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don't intend to blog here at the rate I once did.
But as I promised in that not-quite-a-farewell post, "I won't abandon this site, nor will I stop writing entirely about the news and business of business news."

Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that I won't stop talking entirely about the news and business of business news. Because I still do a lot of that.

So if you're interested in such conversations, you might want to read John Bethune's interview with me about what's going wrong in B2B content marketing.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Always do what you are afraid to do

I don't want to be a blogger anymore. And that works out just fine, since I'm clearly not a blogger anymore. Or at least not in the way I was back in the early days of social media.
I launched this blog late in 2004. But things took off the following year. It seems remarkable to me now, but I published 272 blog posts in 2005.
But that volume dropped steadily as more and more people entered the game and as the game grew less interesting to me. Last year I posted just 12 times. The piece you're reading now is just my fourth of 2011.
I've never been one to insist upon a clear standard of what is, and isn't blogging. But it seems clear to me that whatever it is I'm doing on this site, it's no longer blogging.
I may be using blogging software. The search engines may still classify this site as a blog. But I'm not a blogger anymore.

But if I'm no longer a blogger, then what am I?
It was blogging that transformed my career. When I launched this site I was largely unknown in the world of journalism. I had launched one of the first B2B news sites in existence. I was an online producer at the early CNN property that later became CNNMoney. I was an executive in the early days at I had been given the good luck to be around in the early days of digital journalism, but no one knew me. I was just a guy with a moderately good resume, a substantially large ego and a firmly held belief that I had something important to say to the B2B publishing industry.
That was the perfect recipe for blogging. And it worked for me.
By 2006 I had morphed into "Paul Conley, the blogger." I was weirdly famous in some cool media niches. I hosted sessions at the Folio:Show, the College Media Advisors convention, the ASBPE national convention and ABM's Digital Velocity conference. By 2008, I had become "THE Paul Conley, the controversial blogger." I was the keynote speaker at both the ASBPE national convention and the Southeast Journalism Conference for student journalists.
Then something happened.
Two years ago this month I wrote a piece suggesting that the media revolution had ended. The previous decade, I said, had been one of "ceaseless change and challenge ...a madcap series of never-ending developments (that had been) glorious and exciting." But the heady days of the revolution, I said, had given way to a less interesting era of incremental change.
After that, the number of posts I made on this blog began to plummet.

Last night I took a look at a blog post by my friend John Bethune, who runs the B2BMemes site. It was, as always, a wonderful and insightful bit of writing.
As I reached the conclusion of his piece, I saw that at the bottom of the page he has a small list of sites that he calls Brilliant Blogs -- and my blog was on the list.
And I thought, "that's so nice."
Then my hand moved and my mouse drifted over the link to my blog and a little descriptor popped up that said "occasional comments on trends in B2B media."
And I thought, "that's so ... accurate."
I've gone from being "Paul Conley the blogger" to being "Paul Conley, occasional commenter."

A few months ago I came across a piece on Clientonomy, the wonderful site from Alistair MacPherson about the consulting industry. Mac asked the question I've heard asked a thousand times -- "How Often Should You Blog." His answer was the same that any sensible person would give you, "there are no hard-and-fast rules."
But it was the opening paragraphs of his piece that resonated with me.
"But let me ask you something," he wrote. "How many songs should a composer write? How many movies should a film director shoot? How many dances should a choreographer create?"

When I was Paul Conley the Blogger, things were simpler. (How many blog posts should a blogger write? Lots of them.)
But now that I don't think of myself as a blogger, now that no one thinks of me that way any longer, I need a different answer.
How many posts should an occasional commenter make?
How often should a consultant blog?
Or --- and this is the question that seems somehow right to me -- how many essays should an essayist write?

A mind that startled us
I had a little bit of free time this summer, and I spent much of it wondering what it was I should do with free time. Obviously, I didn't spend it blogging. Although I did spend some considerable hours thinking that I should do exactly that.
Nor did I get in shape, volunteer for a worthy cause, visit a museum or mount a protest against one of the world's many outrages. Although I did make plans to do all of those.
But I did accomplish one worthy goal -- I began to re-read Emerson.
When I was a young man in Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a bit of a hero to me. I know now that I misunderstood much of what he wrote. That was inevitable. I was a cynical teenager, educated by rationalists. The work of the great Transcendentalist must remain elusive to such a child.
But something about Emerson stuck with me.
First and foremost, I wanted to be Emerson. I envied his intellect. I longed to think big thoughts, to understand nature and God and man. I envied, too, his lifestyle. There was no appeal to me in the solitude of Thoreau's cabin. I wanted Emerson's life: to write, to travel the country on speaking tours, to mingle with great minds and then return to a home in New England when the weather suited me.
I wanted to be a public intellectual.
I wanted, more than anything else in the world, to be an essayist.

At some point in adulthood, I drifted into an easier version of that dream. I wrote, although not of things of great importance. I found bright and articulate people for conversation, but maintained a working-class suspicion of well educated intellectuals. I moved often -- changing apartments and cities, but returned nearly every autumn to Massachusetts.
Then, I started blogging.
And what was my blogging life in 2006-08 if not some third-class version of Emerson's? Writing, travel, acclaim -- my work was hardly Emersonian, but I became a sort of Emerson lite, a semi-intellectual for B2B media, discussing meta tags rather than metaphysics.
And I loved every minute of it.

But that was then.
Now the blogosphere that once seemed so full of fresh ideas feels like an echo chamber. Once there was a revolution, and I yelled through the entire thing because Emerson taught me that "sometimes a scream is better than a thesis." Now the revolution is over. Where once I could not shut up about the media industry, now there seems little reason to talk, let alone to screech.
So I don't want to be a blogger any longer.
I want instead to be the man I wanted to be when I was child.

But even I -- as pretentious a man and writer as you are likely to ever meet -- has doubts that I can be anything more than what I have already been -- a blogger, a businessman, a consultant and journalist and executive.
And yet ...
Emerson, of course, found the answer more than a century before I asked the question:
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till ... We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope."

Every artist was first an amateur
When I look back over recent posts on this blog (or, more importantly, when I look over the unfinished pieces that sit on my computer,) it seems clear that I've been trying to change the how of my writing. Whatever blogging might be, there has been less of it here than there once was. I've not put my heart into blogging for a long time. And it shows. The muse befriends me no more.
Instead, I'm yearning to write pieces that are longer, less frequent and more thoughtful. I yearn, too, to stretch beyond journalism, media and business. I want to write of the world, not its niches.
Whatever an essay may be (and brighter minds than mine disagree over their structure and tone), essays are what I want to write. That is the plot of ground I was given all those years ago. That is the soil I must till.

I'm not leaving B2B media. Nor am I closing my consulting business. There are mouths to be fed. Besides, I like working with the people of B2B.
I won't abandon this site, nor will I stop writing entirely about the news and business of business news.
But I will also write about other things -- things less timely and more timeless. Some of those things I'll publish here. Others will go elsewhere.

Because I'm no longer a blogger. Nor am I an occasional commenter.
I'm an occasional essayist with blogging software.

(Editor's Note: If you're interested in learning more about the craft and history of the essay, you should check out the work of my friend Dan Conley [no relation.] Dan has a website, a blog and soon a book about Montaigne, the French writer who invented the essay.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

A suggestion for my obituary

I've spent a considerable amount of time in the past decade or so trying to convince journalists (and their employers) of the value of the agnostic link. -- a link that points to a competitor or rival. My argument is that journalists have an obligation as journalists to point to information of value no matter where they find it. Thus if a competing brand publishes something that your readers should see, you should link to it.
I understand how difficult this can be for journalists. We are often, by our nature, fiercely competitive. I understand too how hard this can be for publishers -- particularly in B2B. They are often tasked with making money in very small niches where success depends on how much advertising money you can attract away from rivals.
But for me (and for others like me) the use of the agnostic link is a no-brainer. Journalism's purpose is to inform, amuse and educate. So when someone publishes something that is informative, amusing or educational, I should make sure my readers see it.

Recently I've been involved in a project that requires talking with a large number of journalists and publishers about agnostic links. What's been particularly interesting about this project is that there has not been much disagreement about the value of such links. It seems that much, if not most, of the industry has accepted the value of content aggregation, content curation and social media. And those three subsets of the publishing world are built upon agnostic links.
In fact, for every journalist in this project who wanted to argue about the value of agnostic links, there have been three or four who were far more interested in talking about how people once hated such links. These journalists wanted to know who were the first journalists to use agnostic links. They wanted to know when the major journalism brands started using them. And they wanted to know who came up with the phrase "agnostic link.'
As it turns out, the answers to those questions are, as near as I can tell,:
  • Early bloggers created the idea of the agnostic link (although clipping services and the B2B newsletters that mimicked them engaged in a similar practice for decades.)
  • As I mentioned in this earlier blog post, the big names in journalism embraced agnostic links in mid 2006.
  • It might have been me. At any rate, I'm going to take credit for it.
Paul Conley, the journalist who coined the term "agnostic link," died today at the age of 135

So here's the funny thing. I used to be 100 percent convinced that I had heard and read the term "agnostic link' dozens of times before I started using it. But over time, I've run into more and more people who tell me that the first time they saw the phrase was on my blog. Or that the first time they heard it was at a speech I gave.
Then, just this morning someone asked me for some background on the phrase, so I plugged it into Google and found, as I have numerous times over recent years, that the top return is a piece I wrote in November 2006 called "Getting religion about agnostic links."
And I said to myself -- I give up.

I don't intend to be Bob Greene, the Chicago Tribune writer credited with inventing the term "yuppie." If my memory is correct, Greene spent years insisting he had done no such thing.
Nor, apparently, will I be Joe Pulizzi, who invented the term (and the industy) "content marketing." Content marketing has changed the very nature of the publishing game. "Agnostic links" also changed publishing. But it was the practice of agnostic links that were revolutionary. The term "agnostic link" didn't catch on and instead seemed to fade in popularity as the actual practice grew.
Still, I'll take any footnote I can get in journalism history.
So here's my request. If someday in the distant future, despite my best efforts, I should die, I want Folio magazine to write a brief piece saying that I coined the term "agnostic link." And I want that piece to link to obituaries on eMediaVitals, min, Junta42 and Publishing Executive.
Then I will rest in peace.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Am I big enough for marketing automation?

My career tends to be riddled with serendipity. I seem to find what I need through good fortune, rather than through any organized effort. Whenever I ask “how did I get here,” the answer is usually “because I got lucky.”
Let me tell you a story about what I mean:
I’m a consultant. That means I run a small business. But it’s about as small as a business can be. It’s a one-person operation with nothing to sell other than what’s in my head. If, heaven forbid, I were to get hit by a bus, my business would die with me. By the same token, if I decided to retire, my business would retire with me.
Lately, this has begun to trouble me. I’ve started thinking about ways to expand … looking for ways to turn my tiny consulting business into something that more closely resembles a real business -- with products, and employees and other such things. In other words, I started thinking about how I could convert Paul Conley Consulting into something that could exist without Paul Conley.
So I thought about it. And worried about it.
Then I got lucky.

Luck of the Draw
One day, staring at my Twitter stream, I saw that Jonathan Jordan, the business coach who tweets under the name @MindfullyChange, was offering a free hour of coaching to the first seven folks to respond to his tweet.
I responded … and I won.
A few days later, I spent an hour on the phone with Jonathan. It was eye-opening. I learned a tremendous amount, but one thing stood out: it became clear that I was uncomfortable with the tasks that are required to grow the business. I like to deliver consulting services. But I’m not crazy about selling consulting services. Thus I wasn’t selling.
Fortunately, this reluctance to actively market and sell my services has not been much of a problem. I’m booked solid nearly year-round. Between referrals, repeat business and the use of the Junta42 matching service, I find enough work to fill my time. But after chatting with Jonathan I realized that the only way to expand my business beyond what I can accomplish working alone would be to expand my marketing/sales role, while delegating more of the hands-on work to others.
(No doubt, entrepreneurs who are much smarter than I said something like “no kidding, that’s obvious” when reading that last paragraph.)
Yet with no real sales skills to speak of, I was perplexed about what to do next.
So I thought about my conversation with Jonathan. And I worried about it.
Then I got lucky, again.

Fortune Smiles
A few days after my chat with the business coach, I received an email from Junta42 saying I had been matched with a potential client. (I won’t go into all the details here, but if you’re a content provider in the B2B content arena, you really should be in Junta42’s vendor/customer matching system. For everyone else, you just need to know that Junta42 vets vendors like me, investigates our experience and then matches us with marketers who need help with content.)
I reached out to the prospect. We traded some emails. I had a few phone conversations with company executives. Then we struck a deal.
As is often the case when I land a new client, I have to rapidly get up to speed on them and their industry. That was true here as well. So I started researching my new client, a company called Whatsnexx, a new competitor in the marketing-automation space.
And several minutes into my research I realized that the answer to how to expand my sales/marketing efforts might be found in the world of marketing automation.
(No doubt, those smarter-than-I entrepreneurs just said “no kidding, that’s obvious” a second time and then hit the BACK button on their browsers. Everyone else may want to read a little further.)

Klaatu Barada Nikto
A few days ago my toddler daughter watched as I tried, and failed, to make a major repair in our home. Her heartfelt advice was “Don’t worry, Daddy. You can buy a robot to do it.”
That’s sort of how I’ve come to think of marketing automation. It’s the robot that does things I cannot do.

If you’re not familiar with marketing automation, I’ll try to explain it. But first, let me offer you a piece of heartfelt advice of my own: Don’t accept anyone’s definition of marketing automation.
In my entire career I’ve never run into an industry that has such a difficult time defining itself. Rather than agree on the parameters (in the way that all grocery chains accept that they are grocery chains or all car makers accept that they are car makers), marketing-automation companies seem to be engaged in an endless pissing match about who is and isn’t a marketing-automation company and what is and isn’t marketing automation.
Reading that stuff will make you nuts. No doubt talking to vendors in the space will do the same. So for now, let’s just use my definition: Marketing automation is a giant robot that can help you market things.
OK, so far?
Good. So let’s look at what’s inside the robot.

Connecting things to connect with your connections
Marketing automation is nothing more, and nothing less, than a system of making connections. Most marketing-automation companies do things that, for example, link your Web site analytics to your email-marketing efforts. Some marketing-automation companies connect CRM systems (like Salesforce) with other databases and communication systems. Some companies do large-scale integration of databases. My client, Whatsnexx, provides its services through a proprietary system that avoids the need for that integration. Almost everyone in the field is engaged in linking things that are not necessarily linked (PPC campaigns, call-center activities, ad placement, social-network marketing, etc.) Everyone in the field is engaged in making it easier for businesses to market and sell.
If you read this blog and are not a member of my immediate family, you probably work in editorial in B2B publishing or B2B content marketing. Odds are you’ve never heard of marketing automation. But odds are that your company is already engaged in it....or is looking at possible vendors.
But as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not a big company. I’m a one-man operation. So the question for me was “Am I big enough for marketing automation?”
The answer is “yes, sort of.”

What's it cost?
Prices for marketing-automation solutions vary widely. But there are a number of players, including Whatsnexx, with prices that start at around $500 a month.
Some of the less-elaborate solutions such as Loopfuse and Genius offer free versions for small businesses.
The problem, however, is that all of these solutions require that you have some sort of marketing systems in place. If you don’t have anything to connect, then you’re not big enough for marketing automation.
I asked Jacques Spilka, the Senior Customer State Marketing Strategist for Whatsnexx, a version of the “Am I big enough for marketing automation” question. He said “All you really need to do MA is a list of contacts. Everything else is marketing to that list.”
But remarkably, for someone who has been running a business all these years, I don’t really have a list. I don’t have much of anything to connect. I run some Google ads. I have some basic Web analytics. Recently I started using the free version of Zoho to keep track of my customers and leads. But my prospect list is nothing more than a subset of my connections on LinkedIn and a handful of people that send me emails.
So before I can honestly say that I am big enough for marketing automation, I’ll need to get more serious about the whole sales and marketing thing and build a proper prospect list.
I guess it’s time for another session with my business coach.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Quantifying quality

I spend a lot of time thinking about content quality and how to measure it.
This won't come as a surprise to anyone who's worked with me in the past. Much of my consulting business involves quantifying-- how many pieces of content created, of what types, with which characteristics, over what time frame, collecting how many pageviews, generating how many leads, etc.

But those are simple metrics of performance and production. There's not much challenge in them.
Measuring content quality, however, is something else entirely.
That's hard. That's complicated, challenging and -- particularly to some journalists -- controversial.
But I like the the difficult and disputatious. Which probably explains why I run in circle-eights and giggle whenever a client asks "how do we know if our content is good?"

New gig
A client asked me a version of that question a few weeks ago. And so, for the next few months I'll be helping a major B2B publisher measure quality.
How? The way I always do it:
I'll work with editors across the company to get consensus on a list of content characteristics that indicate quality and can be measured objectively. (For example, one measurement involves scoring a piece of content against a quality scale, i.e., an enterprise story is worth more than a story based on a press release; a story based on a press release is worth more than an edited press release, an edited press release is worth more than an unedited press release, etc.)
I don't attempt to measure quality indicators that are subjective. For example, I admire a well-crafted sentence as much as the next guy, but I won't count the number of elegant phrases per 1,000 words, because I can't get consensus on what makes for an elegant phrase.

More, better or both?
There can be quality scores for individual writers, brands, departments, etc.
The truly interesting work begins when you analyze those scores along with other metrics.
Suppose, for example, a B2B brand has a below-average quality score, as well as poor Web metrics (low pageviews, uniques, etc.) and below-average output (content/per author/per week) figures. The most common reaction is that the editor should be fired.
But what if the brand served an industry that was contracting and where company research indicated that potential revenue growth is nonexistent.
In such a case does it make sense to hire and train someone new? Or should you stick with the sub-par performer and make plans to shutter the brand in the near future?
Or imagine a brand that makes great money, scores well-above-average on quality and where output per editor is nearly double the company norm. Should you cut the training budget and give those folks raises? Turn the editor-in-chief into the division's content director?
How about a brand with extraordinarily high quality scores, painfully low output numbers and pageviews that are half the size of its competitors? Sounds like senior-writer syndrome, to me. You've got a great journalist producing a small number of wonderful pieces per month. Does the brand have a monthly print product? If so, there may not be a problem. But does the cost/expense ratio suggest a Web-only future for the brand? Then you have a huge problem.

Culture clash
In my experience, measuring the quality of content inevitably leads to a discussion about the quantity of content.
The assumption is that there is an inverse relationship between quality and quantity. Journalists tend to argue that they can do more or they can do better, but they can't do both.
But my experience is that this is untrue.
First, as a general rule, I've found that the worst writers almost always also produce less content than their peers. (There are, however, some talented writers with low productivity, just as there are awful writers who produce an awful lot.)
Second, I've found that even the most talented and prolific people in any content operation often have work habits that hurt quality and lower productivity.

The relationship between quality and quantity was at the center of a recent blog post by the always insightful John Bethune.

Citing a recent ad from ReadWriteWeb seeking an editor "“to produce 5 solid web tech news articles a day, 5 days a week,” John suggests that to traditional, print-based journalists this "new ethos of digital productivity is not just foreign, it’s al-Qaeda foreign. They are publishing terrorists, threatening the placid print way of life."
John goes on to say that although he sympathizes with his fellow print veterans, he wonders if "it just our old print ways, our preconceptions and work habits, that make digital workloads look so extreme? We say that quality will invariably suffer with increased output. But does it?"
Before you answer that question for yourself, I strongly recommend that you read John's entire post.
And pay particular attention to the comments, where my friend Robin Sherman raises his concerns about the quality/quantity relationship, where John responds to those concerns, and where I said:
"As an industry, we’ve sunk into a seemingly endless series of arguments in which we compare apples to oranges. We argue over the quality levels that can be achieved with Twitter versus what is possible in long-form narrative. That’s as ridiculous as comparing the works of Shakespeare to a newspaper headline. The truth is that there are great plays and there are great hedes. There are great stories and there are great tweets. There are epics and sonnets and there is also haiku. There are wonderful stories written on the fly. And there are magnificent works that consume a lifetime."