Bulldog Reporter’s Faux Pas Shows Why Not to Take Research at Face Value

This lead from a recent Bulldog Reporter case study on business blogging certainly caught my attention:

“Recent research reveals that 64% of American companies will launch their own corporate blogs in 2014, and the average budget for corporate blogging will increase by nearly one-sixth. What’s more, 12% of American companies plan to hire a full-time blogger in 2014.”

Holy cow! Blogging is one of the oldest forms of social media and is not generally considered a high-growth field. In fact, statistically valid research conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth over the past several years has documented that about only about one-third of the Fortune 500 and fewer than half of the Inc. 500 have public blogs, and those numbers aren’t growing very fast.  What new research now predicts this kind of mind-blowing growth?

It turns out to be research that’s not very good. A little background checking revealed that the numbers cited by Bulldog Reporter came from a study conducted by a company called DeskAlerts, which makes messaging software for use inside organizations. In a press release, the company summarized its methodology this way: “DeskAlerts asked businesses around the US a single question: what would inspire you to create a corporate blog?”

That’s all. Nothing about how the survey was conducted, who the respondents were or how many people responded. This is kind of critical information to know if you’re going to cite the results in a responsible publication.

From Russia With Love

Rise of corporate bloggingI tried to reach the contact listed on the press release, whose name is Natasha Chudnova. I e-mailed Ms. Chudnova via PRWeb but got no response. I couldn’t find a direct e-mail address for her on the company website or anywhere else. Her LinkedIn profile says she’s in the Russian Federation, which isn’t surprising given that DeskAlerts’ website says that’s where its development is done. The headquarters are listed as being in Alexandria, Va., but when I tried to call the company using the phone number listed on the website, I got a recording saying only that I had reached a voicemail box. The recording didn’t even identify the name of the company.

So I’m having my doubts about the quality of this research. But you don’t have to do any detective work to figure out that these numbers are suspicious. The most obvious question is how DeskAlerts derived so much data from a question that didn’t ask for any? There is simply no way that response to a single verbatim question could be interpreted to reach these stunning conclusions.

That’s assuming the question is valid, which it isn’t. A professional researcher would never use a word like “inspire” in a survey because it creates bias. It’s like asking, “What would cause you to take on the drudgery of creating a corporate blog?” The term “you” is also indefinite. Does it refer to the person or the person’s company? Even if the research was conducted over a statistically valid sample, the results would be meaningless if the question was asked that way.

But the most damning evidence that the research is flawed is the data itself. If we accept the UMass research as a baseline, then DeskAlerts is telling us that 100% of American companies will be blogging by the end of this year. Um, no, they won’t. Then there’s the statistic that 12% of companies will hire a full-time blogger in 2014. Given that there are about six million employers in the U.S., this would represent the addition of more than 700,000 skilled jobs to the workforce. If that were true, the President would be holding a press conference to declare victory over unemployment.

Despite all these problems, I don’t blame DeskAlerts for releasing bogus research into the wild or for producing the obligatory infographic above. Bad data is only a problem if people believe it. The real problem is when respected brands like Bulldog Reporter put the badge of legitimacy on information that is so clearly wrong. Publishers owe it to their readers to at least run a basic reality check before validating third-party research, particularly when it’s from an unknown party. Bulldog Reporter publishes a lot of good information, but it dropped the ball on this one.

Stop Talking! I’m Trying to Listen!

Three years ago I routinely advised clients to spread their content around liberally through multiple channels as a way to reach the largest possible audience. I recommended setting up multiple Twitter accounts for different functions like customer service and marketing. And I advised linking generously to influential bloggers as a way of generating reciprocal links that build search visibility.

Today I would recommend none of those things. As social networks have grown, so has the amount of noise they generate. Spammers have corrupted the value of outbound links to much that some bloggers no longer even use them. The factors that once made social media so appealing – accessibility and openness – have become a liability.

What to Stop doing in Social Media_coverLast week David Spark launched an ebook that provides important updates on the social media practices that many of us have long taken for granted – but perhaps shouldn’t any more. Hazardous to Your Social Media Health (free with minimal registration) contains advice from Spark and 56 other veteran practitioners about 50 online behaviors that used to be cool but aren’t any more. One of my comments is included in the book, but that isn’t why I recommend it. I just think it serves a timely and valuable purpose.

Shhhhhh!

An overarching theme of the ebook is to shut up. The din of auto-posts and pointless comments about nothing in particular is drowning out valuable messages and undermining social media’s value, say several of the contributors. Democratic media is great, but when everyone is shouting at once you can’t hear anything.

David Spark

“This giant land grab of users was actually valuable when we weren’t so overwhelmed by social messaging,” Spark writes. “Now the influx is so overwhelming that we’re reliant on filters to manage the noise.”

For example, Leo Laporte (@leolaporte), who has nearly a half million Twitter followers, says he doesn’t even read his home Twitter feed anymore because it’s so clogged with useless messages. He now relies upon filtering and aggregation services like Flipboard and Nuzzle to sort through the noise.

The victim of too much noise is meaningful conversation. The opportunity to talk with constituents was the reason many brands went online in the first place, but it’s getting harder and harder to converse with an audience that’s overwhelmed with information.

Beyond Social Media

So maybe it’s time for the media to evolve beyond collaboration. Giovanni Rodriguez (@giorodriguez), CEO of SocialxDesign, suggests that the next evolution of social media will “enable people to do more, not just talk more.”

He’s referring to the emerging so-called collaborative economy, which uses social constructs to create value. Services like AirBNB and Uber either enable us to do things we couldn’t do before or make it faster/cheaper/easier to accomplish tasks. The collaborative economy is an exciting development. A couple of years ago we thought it was cool to consult our social network for advice on where to book a hotel. Now the members of our network have become the hotel.

Spark and his collaborators are particularly harsh on practices that contribute to the noise level without adding value or that have selfish objectives like raising the sender’s profile at someone else’s expense. Sections like, “Stop Blogging About Everything” and “Stop Lifecasting” drive home this point. In “Stop Sharing Without Consumption,” he scolds Guy Kawasaki by name for openly advocating the practice of sharing headlines without actually reading the content. He also tweaks the practice of content curation if it’s done simply to build one’s social profile on the back of others’ work. Much as I love Kawasaki’s Twitter style, I agree completely with Spark’s criticisms.

I don’t agree everything in Hazardous to Your Social Media Health, of course, including Stowe Boyd’s advice to stop using RSS readers and Charlene Li’s admonitions against personal blogging. Some of the listed behaviors are also duplicative or appear to have been added to stretch the list to 50, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a useful, timely and practical how-to manual for the next stage of social media development. I guarantee that in five years much of it will be out of date, but it’s sure a useful document to read right now.

I’ve Been Writing A Lot Lately, Just Not Here

I only update this blog occasionally because most of my writing these days appears on other people’s websites. But my blog is still my home base. Here’s a round up of what I’ve been scribbling about elsewhere of later.

Social is the Future of Search (Profitecture Blog)

BuzzFeed HQ

(Photo credit: Scott Beale)

What could possibly unseat Google as the king of the Web? The answer might be incubating in fast-growing media operations like BuzzFeed (right) and Upworthy. These publishers eschew search optimization in favor of creating content that people want to share. From an SEO perspective, they do a lot of things wrong. And they’re killing it online at the moment.

Marketing’s big miss (BtoB magazine)

A new McKinsey & Co. report reveals a startling disconnect between B2B companies and their customers that should give every marketer pause to reflect on his or her priorities. The research shows that the themes that B2B companies emphasize in their marketing messages are wildly inconsistent with the factors that B2B buyers care about most.

Short on content? Repackage (BtoB magazine)

A lot of marketers are frustrated by the perceived need to turn out a lot of content, but the problem is much more manageable if you reuse and repackage creatively. Here are some ideas for how to get more mileage out of the stuff you already have.

Rewarding Bad Behavior (Godfrey Blog)

Marketing and sales organizations at most B2B companies have a relationship that can be politely described as strained. Sales complains that marketing gives them lousy leads while marketers charge that sales wouldn’t know a good lead is it bit them on the nose.

Both sides are correct. That’s because many organizations reward their sales and marketing people for the wrong things. Improve lead quality and a lot of the bad karma disappears.

Altimeter’s Brian Solis: ‘It’s the Customer Experience, Stupid’ (Huffington Post)

Brian Solis at Upload Lisboa, Portugal.

Brian Solis (right) is one of the most consistently provocative and perceptive analysts in the world of new media and social business. I caught up with him shortly before his Pivot conference in October to find out what’s on his mind. He believes few CEOs know how dramatically their businesses will change as a result of customer empowerment. And he thinks any business can enchant its customers. Even one that makes hammers.

Five Important Differences Between Paid and Earned Media (Profitecture Blog)

Many marketers treat social or “earned” media the same way they treat advertising and direct mail, but the two forms of media are very different. Earned media is more valuable because people volunteer to share your information. This benefits small and patient companies disproportionately. If you talk at customers in earned the channels the way you do in paid channels, your results will probably disappoint you.

 

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Not Dead Yet: Blogging’s Popularity Surges Among F500

There’s no fluff in the press release, so I’ll just excerpt it word for word. Nora Ganim Barnes and her team at the Charlton College of Business Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth continue to produce some of the most consistent, rigorous and comprehensive research on social media adoption by both small and large businesses. And they’ve been doing it every year since 2008, which makes the trending data particularly useful.

It’s no great surprise that this year’s report shows a broad-based increase in adoption of all types of social media. What is surprising is the sudden popularity of corporate blogs. After stagnating at just above 20% for three years, use of corporate blogs has shot up to 34% of the Fortune 500 in the last two years. That’s nearly a 50% increase.

This comes just as many of the digerati are writing off blogs as yesterday’s news. Maybe the technology isn’t very sexy, but the utility sure is. Blogs are search engine magnets and search is still the killer app for people researching purchases. It will be for a long time. Be careful of dismissing mature technology just because it isn’t cool any more. Did you know that e-mail still has a significantly higher conversion rate than any other B2B Web traffic source?

Read more and download the full report at “2013 Fortune 500 Are Bullish on Social Media.”

In the past year, the Fortune 500 have increased their adoption of blogging by 6%, their use of Twitter for corporate communications by 4% and their use of Facebook pages by 4%. Sixty-nine percent of the 2013 Fortune 500 use YouTube, an increase of 7% from 2012. These was among the key findings of the latest benchmarking study conducted by Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Felow and Research Co-Chair of the Society for New Communications Research and Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The new report is the outcome of a statistically sound study of the 2013 Fortune 500 list. The study examined these institutions to quantify their adoption of social media tools and technologies. This is the seventh year that Barnes has tracked social media usage by this sector, and it is the only statistically sound longitudinal study of its kind with every company in the Fortune 500 included. Key findings of this study include:

• In 2013, 171 companies (34%) had corporate blogs showing the largest increase in use of this tool since the 2008 study of the Fortune 500.

• Companies that blog include two of the top five corporations (WalMart and Exxon), leaving the other three (Chevron, Phillips 66 and Berkshire Hathaway) without a public-facing blog.

• Three hundred eighty-seven (77%) of the Fortune 500 have corporate Twitter accounts with a tweet in the past thirty days. This represents a 4% increase since 2012.

• Facebook, new to the Fortune 500 list, has the highest number of followers on Twitter, followed by Google, Starbucks, Whole Foods Market, Walt Disney, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines.

• Three hundred forty-eight (70%) of the Fortune 500 are now on Facebook. This represents a 4% increase since 2012.

• In 2012 one hundred fifteen companies (23%) had neither a Twitter account nor a Facebook account. This year that number has dropped to eighty-four companies (17%).

• Approximately 40 companies of the Fortune 500 are now using Instagram, Pinterest and/or Foursquare.

Charts

Fortune 500 Corporations  With Public-Facing Blogs Slide1

Book Review: Tales From a Veteran Blogger

I’ve been a reader of Ed Brill’s blog for several years, not because of any particular  interest in the IBM/Lotus products that he long championed, but because he’s just so good at blogging.

Opting In by Ed BrillBrill was a longtime product manager for IBM’s Social Business products, where he fought an uphill and often public battle against Microsoft. Brill’s barbs were notable because IBM’s buttoned-down culture had historically discouraged direct public engagement. How did a product manager get away with poking a stick in the eye of a major competitor?

The fact that he did get away with it is one of the sub themes of Opting In, Brill’s new book about social product management. “Only twice did someone ask for me to be fired at the chairman’s level,” he jokes. That seems funny today, but at the time it was a bold test of new management principles that challenged IBM’s 100-year-old prohibitions against individual expression.

Brill’s engaging and readable book is aimed at product managers, those corporate jacks of all trades who fret about everything from market research to customer support. Product managers are the ones who ultimately take the credit or blame for a product’s performance in the marketplace, and Brill sees social media as their ally at almost every level. Opting In covers everything from Google Alerts to Pinterest, and Brill not only outlines the unique utility of each of these tools but usually provide stories to support his points.

Telling Stories

For me, the benchmark of an enjoyable business book is storytelling, and Opting In has stories aplenty. They include detailed accounts of some of his more notable confrontations, such as a 2004 dustup with the influential Radicati Group and a 2010 challenge to a controversial Gartner report. Conventional wisdom holds that you don’t pick fights with these influencers, but Brill went to war and lived to tell about it. The explanations of his reasoning behind these actions are valuable competitive intelligence for any product manager.

Ed_Brill

Ed Brill

Most of the tales in Opting In are more upbeat. For example, Brill tells how a single tweet on a trip to Sydney led to a meeting with a local follower and fellow foodie and a friendship that has lasted for years. Social media is about more than business, he emphasizes. Those glimpses into your experiences, hobbies and interests create touch points that lead to meaningful relationships.

Product managers will learn much from scrutinizing Brill’s insight on topics common to the profession. He introduces the concept of “progressive disclosure” as an alternative to the traditional Big Bang product announcement, with the idea being to use social media to build awareness and buzz leading up to the communication of the news.

He describes how Lotus has increasingly moved toward open product development as a way to integrate user feedback into the process and even shares a story about how his group handled an unforeseen customer backlash to some changes that everyone expected to be a hit. Fellow product managers will relate to all of this.

Opening Up

The hero of the book is IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines, which get a full appendix entry of their own. Brill frequently praises these rules, which are often cited as a model of social media policy, for giving him the courage to take on some of his more notable battles and to continually give voice to his opinions.

The guidelines, which were first drafted in 2005, have changed IBM fundamentally. To dramatize the scope of that change, Brill recalls how he was slapped down by corporate communications in 2003 for identifying an employee in a blog post because, “we don’t have celebrities at IBM.” Less than a decade later, IBM was running ads celebrating individual employees.

“The guidelines…signaled to employees, clients and the market that IBM would stand behind its [people],” he writes. In a day when corporate loyalty seems almost a quaint historical curiosity, the kind of faith must be pretty empowering.

Full disclosure: I have a consulting relationship with an IBM subcontractor.

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Marketers See Value But Remain Wary About Social Media

This article originally appeared in BtoB magazine.

For the past year, business professionals have connected to each other online as never before. Now marketers are trying to figure out a way to monetize these new networks.

The MySpace effect finally seeped into the business world, triggering explosive growth for the new darlings of social networking: Facebook and LinkedIn. Both networks had breakout years, with Facebook breaching the 60 million-member mark. LinkedIn, with 20 million members, broke from the pack to become the place where business people make contacts, find jobs and develop professional relationships.

Social networks are proving to have the kind of stickiness that marketers have long dreamed of. People give up all kinds of details willingly in the name of furthering friendships. Facebook’s early 2007 decision to open its platform to developers has created a gusher of 16,000 new applications. While few have gained much traction, marketers are pushing ahead in hopes of inventing a megahit like Scrabulous.

The battle for supremacy in the broad social network market is effectively over. MySpace and Facebook together account for 88% of all visits to social network sites, according to HitWise (LinkedIn wasn’t included in those totals). Although MySpace holds a three-to-one advantage in total visitors, users actually spend more time on Facebook, according to comScore Inc. Emory University surveyed its incoming freshmen last fall and learned that 97% had Facebook accounts.

YOUTUBE A BIG WINNER

Another big social networking winner is YouTube, with 66 million videos. Although widely perceived as a playground for backyard videographers, YouTube has had some notable b2b successes. IBM’s tongue-in-cheek “Mainframe: Art of the Sale” videos have grown traffic to its associated blog tenfold. JetBlue Airways CEO David Neeleman took to YouTube to explain the February 2007 crisis that left thousands of travelers stranded.

Social networks are now springing up in vertical professional communities. Sermo claims to have 50,000 members in its online physicians network. Big winners overseas are virtually unknown here. They include Orkut.com (Brazil), Cyworld.com (Korea), Mixi (Japan) and Grono (Poland), to name a few.

Now the vexing question is how to market to these groups.

Social networks have remained stubbornly resistant to promotional campaigns. Many experts believe that’s because the intensely personal interactions between members prohibits traditional interruption marketing. MySpace has made the most progress. Researcher eMarketer expects it to generate $820 million in advertising this year, nearly four times the estimate for Facebook.

But there have been disappointments. Google’s subpar fourth-quarter results were blamed, in part, on MySpace advertising shortfalls. And recent data has indicated that social network traffic is leveling off.

B2b marketers have been wary about social network campaigns. For one thing, the conversation is unpredictable. Reliable metrics still don’t exist and the paucity of success stories has also dampened enthusiasm. Then there was the outcry over Facebook’s social shopping experiment, called Beacon, which let members see each other’s purchasing activity, sometimes without their knowledge. Marketers wrestle with how to engage an audience that shuns messaging.

Social media thus stands at an awkward transition stage: businesses overwhelmingly understand its importance but are unsure of how to take advantage of it. While 78% of respondents to a Coremetrics survey said social media marketing is a way to gain competitive edge, they’re spending less than 8% of their online marketing budgets there.

BLOGS GO MAINSTREAM

They aren’t nearly as curmudgeonly about blogs, however. Corporate activity in the blogosphere has ramped up even as the hype has died down.

Recent entries into the blogosphere include Marriott, Johnson & Johnson, Toyota and Wal-Mart. Even the Transportation Safety Administration has gotten into the act, giving five midlevel employees the green light to blog on behalf of the organization about the practices that befuddle frequent travelers.

There’s a trend here. B2b marketers are finding that employees can be powerful and persuasive advocates of the company message. Microsoft and Sun both claim to have more than 5,000 employee bloggers, and corporate giants like Southwest Airlines and Kodak have structured their blogging initiatives around ordinary employees and even customers.

The surprise social media winner has been podcasting. Those downloadable radio programs have turned out to be a hit with time-challenged business people.

Emarketer estimates that the U.S. podcast audience grew 285% in 2007 to 18.5 million people and will hit 65 million people in 2012. More importantly for b2b marketers, Arbitron reported that 72% of podcast listeners are older than 25 and 48% are older than 35. General Motors, Purina, HP, IBM, Kodak, Wells Fargo and many others are using them to reach business influencers.

It all adds up to a chaotic scene, although there are signs that consolidation is setting in and the flood of new services is slowing.

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Small Firms Again Trump Enterprises in Social Media Use, UMass Study Reveals

The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is out with its latest survey of the Inc. 500’s use of social media, and once again small companies outpace large ones. Ninety-two percent of the Inc. 500 use at least one of the tools studied, which include blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest and Foursquare.

Blog use by Inc. 500 and Fortune 500 companiesInterestingly, the use of blogs jumped among the Inc. 500 after four years of little or no groth. Forty-four percent of the 2012 Inc. 500 are blogging, compared to just 23% of the Fortune 500. The figure is a jump from the 37% of Inc. 500 companies that were blogging in 2011. Researchers Nora Ganim Barnes and Ava Lescault found that 63% of Inc. 500 CEOs contribute to blog content.

Also notable is the surge of interest in LinkedIn, which is being used by 81% of companies compared to 67% for Facebook and Twitter. Facebook was the big loser in this survey. Its usage dropped 7% from last year.  Up-and-comers are Foursquare (28%) and Pinterest (18%).

Growth in social media investment showed signs of slowing in this survey. Only 44% of respondents says they’re looking to spend more on social media, down from 71% in the 2011 survey. Forty-one percent say their level of investment will remain, up from 25% last year.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said social media is “very necessary or “somewhat necessary” to the growth of their company. This is the sixth year The Center for Marketing Research at UMass Dartmouth has conducted the study.

There’s lots more on the summary page, including links to downloads of the full results.

 

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Mail Bag

I get comments from readers all the time, and while I usually let these remarks speak for themselves, I thought I’d take advantage of a little extra time at the holidays to show my appreciation by responding to a few recent contributors. Thanks for showing that you care!


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Recent Writings: Negativity, Social Gaffes and Farewell to Case Studies

I haven’t had a chance to blog here lately because most of my writing is been on assignment for other publishers. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been talking about.

Love Your Critics

Angry ManThe CMO Site likes to stir things up, so my posts there tend to be on the controversial side. In Why Brands Should Love Public Complaints, I make the case that your critics can be your strongest allies. Why? Because a little negativity reinforces the validity of the positive comments you publish.

The whole concept of enabling negativity to appear on your own website rubs a lot of marketers the wrong way, but I’d argue that it’s great for building integrity. The article notes that Epson reported that revenue per visitor nearly doubled after it started including customer reviews on its site. The fact that one out of 10 customers may displeased with product can be looked at another way: 90% are happy.

The right approach is not to deny that you have unhappy customers; everyone’s got a few. They’re going to vent their frustrations anyway, so encourage them to do it in a place where you can respond and juxtapose their opinions with the vast majority who are satisfied.

Read more and comment on The CMO Site.

Good Riddance to the Corporate Case Study

In this post I rant just a bit about corporate case studies, those pervasive and largely useless vessels of happy talk that no one really believes. Corporate case studies used to have a purpose in the days when customers couldn’t find each other, but today all it takes is a few searches or LinkedIn queries to identify experienced buyers.

It’s not the concept of the case study I don’t like; it’s the format. Once the legal department gets involved in approvals, most meaningful content gets sucked out of the article. Case studies also don’t answer the questions prospective buyers really have. That’s why prospects have always viewed case studies with suspicion. Today, they mainly ignore them.

So rather than investing time and dollars in paying writers for stories that no one believes, why not focus on greasing the skids between your happy customers and your prospects? Make it easy for the two parties to connect and then get out of the way.

Read more and comment on The CMO Site.

The Futility Of Whisper Campaigns

PR practitioners who undertake influencer relations programs often discover an odd disconnect between them and traditional media relations: Bloggers don’t operate by the same rules as reporters.

Whisper of the Muse (1865)The recent example of this disparity ended up embarrassing a prominent PR firm, and I analyzed the story in BtoB magazine.

In case you missed it, early last month a pair of new employees at Burson Marsteller, both of them veteran journalists, contacted a security blogger and offered to help him write and place an op-ed piece that exposed “sweeping violations of user privacy” by Google.

It turns out the blogger was more interested in the motivations of the PR firm than in Google’s allegedly intrusive behavior. After he posted the e-mail exchange online, some USA Today reporters dug up the fact that Facebook was behind the whisper campaign.

Burson, which claims to be social media-savvy, did exactly the opposite of what it would counsel its crisis communications clients to do: It clammed up. The incident was a huge black eye for the agency and a lesson in how not to pitch a blogger.

Read more and comment on BtoBOnline.

Do You Need A Social Media Specialist? Yup.

My latest column in B2B was actually sparked by a conversation I overheard on a plane. A guy in the seat behind me was railing to his companion about the idiocy of hiring social media specialists. In his opinion, everyone in a company should learn to use the tools. Expertise shouldn’t be concentrated in one person or department.

I agree with his second point but I couldn’t endorse his overall premise. Nearly every company I’ve encountered that is succeeding in social media has a center of excellence. They are delegating social interactions to one person, but they’re shortcutting the learning process by hiring people who can train others. In this column, I explain why a social media expert can save you time, money and embarrassment (see Burson above).

What’s your approach? Read more and comment on BtoBOnline.

How Much Should You Pay For Content?

Underwood keyboardMarketers often ask how they can train engineers and technical people to blog, podcast and otherwise engage in deep online conversations with customers. My advice: don’t bother. You’re better off investing in professional communicators and teaching them what they need to know about your business.

The ability to communicate well in any media demands a certain amount of innate ability and it’s a difficult skill to teach. The technology trade media learned this long ago, and that’s why they have hired professional journalists to fill their pages for the past 75 years. It’s a lot harder and costlier to train  technology experts to write than it is to teach writers what they need to know to about technology.

So if you’re going to create your own blogs, white papers, e-books and such, you should probably use professional communicators to help you do it. What’s that going to cost you? Like most things in life, it depends.

Media Dividend

The rapid decline of mainstream media (more than 45,000 journalists have been laid off in the last five years in the US) has put a lot of good communicators out of work, and many can be had today for pennies on the dollar compared to what they made a few years ago. I recently noticed a bylined article by a veteran Wall Street Journal reporter on a Cisco promotional website. And I’ll bet he was happy to have the work.

The cost variable is the level of technical skill you need. If you’re in a consumer industry where the necessary level of technical knowledge is quite low, decent freelancers can be hired for as little as 25 cents/word, although the norm is between 50 and 80 cents. Demand Media, whose formulaic, keyword-driven approach to topic selection enrages many journalists, is rumored to pay as little as $.10 per word.


A word on words: Freelancers are usually paid by the published word. It seems an odd metric, but it’s the one that’s been used for decades and will probably persist until somebody comes along with a better one. Payment is based upon the published word, not the number of words the writer submits. You should always specify an upper limit.


Many journalists who were making $60,000 to $80,000 salaries working for newspapers a few years ago are happy to work for $35,000-$40,000 today. Any journalism pro should be able to produce 2,500 words/week for you. Do the math to figure out if it makes more sense to hire or freelance, remembering that a full-time employee carries less administrative overhead – but more overhead cost – than a loose staff of contractors. If you’re negotiating for basic, off-the-shelf freelance help, start with a 30 cents/word offer and work from there.

The higher the level of technical expertise you need, the more it’s going to cost you. In the computer industry, which is what I know best, $1 to $1.50 is the going per-word rate for marketing-commissioned pieces these days. I imagine that in a highly technical field, like bio-engineering, the rate is even higher. The fewer options you have, the more you’re going to pay.

Where Writers Hang Out

“I once commissioned a story from a freelancer who had an impressive portfolio of published work, but who apparently had also worked with some outstanding editors. The piece she turned in was such a disaster that I almost cried.”If you’re looking to hire professional journalists, sites like JournalismJobs, WritersWrite and MediaBistro are good places where writers hang out and look for assignments. There are several large groups of freelancers on LinkedIn, including The Freelance Writers Connection with 5,600 members. Search for others.

If you’re more of a risk taker, sites like e-lance, Guru.com, Freelancer.com and iFreelance are places to fish for talent. Try posting your needs and what you’ll pay and see who responds. Be sure to ask any prospective writer for samples of his or her work in your field of expertise. You do not want to pay a freelancer to learn your business on the job.

Hiring freelance help blind is a risky affair. Published samples won’t do you any good. I once commissioned a story from a freelancer who had an impressive portfolio of published work, but who apparently had also worked with some outstanding editors. The piece she turned in was such a disaster that I almost cried. I spent more than four hours trying to turn it into something that was at least publishable, hoping that nobody would actually read it. Moral of the story: ask for raw copy, not clips.

Going the Full-Time Route

Ginny Skalski

Cree Lighting blogger and former newspaper reporter Ginny Skalski

If you can afford to hire a full-timer, I highly recommend it. Journalists are quick learners by nature and their time to productivity is short. Staffers turn out more content per dollar than contractors, and you don’t have the overhead of legal documents, busted deadlines and flaky freelancers who simply disappear in the middle of the night

If you choose to hire a journalist as a corporate blogger, you’re in good company. Among the brands I know that do so are IBM, HubSpot, Eloqua, JetBlue, Cree Lighting and Sybase. I’m sure there are many more. Every single journalist-turned-corporate blogger I have met is happy to be out of the burning building that is mainstream media and into something with a manageable lifestyle and a boss who isn’t a screaming maniac.

If you prefer to go the freelance route, stick with a small group of reliable freelancers rather than playing the field. They’ll learn your business and require less hand-holding the longer you use them. They’ll also go the extra mile for you when you need them. Freelancers treasure steady work more than high pay. Most would rather work for a handful of reliable clients then constantly bid for the highest dollar. Paying within two weeks, rather than the corporate-mandated 60 days, will make you their best friend.

Final Note: Be Reasonable

I’ve been writing for BtoB magazine for nearly six years, some of it paid and some not. Like many media organizations, they pay less than any of my commercial clients, but I always put BtoB at the front of my priority list. Why? They’re just such damned reasonable people to work with.

Freelancers know that $2/word is no bargain if they need to produce 8,000 words and four rewrites over three months in order to get approved and paid. BtoB and I work so well together at this point that there is very little waste in our interaction. I actually make more money per hour working with them than I do with some corporate clients who pay considerably more.

The moral: The easier you are to deal with as a client, the better deals and favors freelancers will cut with you. This doesn’t mean dropping your standards, but the next time you’re ready to ship a draft back to the writer for a fourth revision in order to move two paragraphs around, you might consider just making the change yourself.