6 min read

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.