Bidding Fond Farewell to BtoB Magazine

BtoB_logoI was sad to learn this week that BtoB magazine, which has existed under various brands for nearly 100 years, will be swallowed by Advertising Age at the end of the year. I have worked with BtoB for nearly seven years, publishing about 120 columns and articles during that time. The staff has always been a joy to work with, and BtoB has played a critical role in my own education about the transformation of media. It’s the most important publishing brand I’ve been affiliated with during my eight years as an independent consultant, and I’m truly sorry to see it go.

My association with BtoB began as a happy accident. Shortly after going on my own in late 2005 I encountered the then-editor-in-chief, Ellis Booker. Ellis had worked for me at Computerworld years before and our mutual geekiness had cemented a friendship. At the time I reconnected with Ellis I was becoming fascinated by the changes in the publishing world driven by social media. I pitched him pretty hard on stepping up BtoB‘s focus on that area. Ellis has always been a forward-looking guy, so he began to feed me some assignments, which I tackled with zeal. Here was a chance to learn by talking to practitioners on the leading edge and earn a few bucks and a byline in the process.

In late 2006 Ellis offered me a monthly column on the editorial page called “New Channels.” I’m still writing it more than six years later. I’ve never been paid for it, but I would probably pay BtoB for the privilege.

New Channels gave me an opportunity to share what I was learning with more than 30,000 subscribers and perhaps to materially impact the way B2B companies were thinking about social media adoption. I sweated every one of the 450 words I was allocated each month and still think it was some of my best writing of the past six years. When you have so little space to say something, you have to focus and minimize waste. Length limits are a great way to improve your writing.

Looking back on some of those early columns dramatizes the speed with which things have changed. In 2007 I remarked on how big brands were embracing blogging and YouTube, completely unaware of the impending arrival of social networks. In 2006 I wrote about Microsoft’s Port 25 blog, which invited its critics in the Linux community to heap abuse on it in a Microsoft-branded channel. Thanks to Facebook, such interactions are common today across hundreds of brands.

John Obrecht took over from Ellis in 2010 and was kind enough to ask me to continue writing the column. I understand John will be leaving Crain Communications when BtoB shuts down. If you want a top-notch business editor and writer who understands B2B markets, be sure to give John a call. He’s in Chicago and hopes to stay there.

Gillin_at_BtoB_eventOver the years I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in many of BtoB‘s social media-related projects. I’ve helped judge its Social Media Awards for the last four years and also contributed to the annual Interactive Marketing Guide since 2010. I’ve been privileged to be on the stage for the past four years to present awards to some remarkable companies that are innovating with social media and to participate in numerous other BtoB events. The association with the BtoB brand has been invaluable to me. Despite all my blogging, books and contributions to other websites, the BtoB magazine association is the one people still mention most often when I meet them.

Many readers of my blog probably know that I also maintain a blog called Newspaper Death Watch, where I’ve commented on the massive changes sweeping through the newspaper industry for more than six years. BtoB is a victim of those same forces. The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else. Crain Communications is notable for its commitment to print publishing. It sustained a print presence for BtoB long after most publishers probably would have opted to go online-only. The decision to shutter the brand isn’t surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

 

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When Bad News is Good

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
–Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Consider the case of Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author of the controversial new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethAslan was interviewed by Fox News’ Lauren Green last Friday, resulting nine of the most bizarre minutes in television journalism history. Green, who had clearly not even cracked the cover on Aslan’s book. repeatedly questioned the author’s credibility as a Christian religious scolar based solely on the fact that Aslan is Muslim. MediaMatters reports that her bias against Islam goes back many years.

As a rule, public relations professionals advise their clients against getting involved in a confrontational interview such as this, but in Aslan’s case it has worked out splendidly. As of this moment, his book is the top seller on Amazon. Twitter is recording about 10 tweets per minute mentioning the author’s name. The story on BuzzFeed (linked to above) is approaching 4 million views and nearly 6,000 comments have been posted to the coverage on Huffington Post. Scores of articles have appeared in mainstream media. YouTube views are over 1 million.

Reza Aslan is making out like a bandit. The Fox interview virtually guarantees his book will be a bestseller. Getting attacked by Lauren Green is the best thing that could have happened to him.

What’s the lesson here? In today’s hyper-caffeinated media market, you have to make a scene to get noticed. Aslan’s book was controversial before he went on Fox, but had this interview not occurred it probably would have received little mainstream notice. Pairing him with a questioner with a Christian fundamentalist agenda was a recipe for dynamite. The author was clearly prepared to be challenged. The fact that Green bungled the whole interview so completely was just his good luck.

The story is a microcosm of the new media industry. Outlets like Fox thrive by pushing an agenda. It doesn’t matter to them if their tactics occasionally look stupid. Their core audience will stick with them regardless. Watch Lauren Green’s popularity soar in the wake of this incident. Many of Fox’s ultra-conservative viewers will believe she was only saying what too many others are afraid to say. In the echo chamber of extreme media, it’s almost impossible to go too far. Far from being cowed by this incident, Fox will only be further emboldened, just as Rolling Stone has profited from anger over its recent controversial cover photo.

There’s also a lesson for professional communicators. If you want to get noticed, you have to be outrageous. This new fact of life frustrates many of us who believe our work to be thoughtful, serious and worthy of informed debate. Authors can hope for thoughtful reviews in the Wall Street Journal, but that isn’t going to sell 100,000 copies of their books. If the opportunity to  engage with immediate extremist media emerges, grab it. An attack may be the best publicity you can ask for.

 

 

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Who Should I Interview at White House Correspondents’ Events?

By sheer dumb luck (and knowing the right people) I’ve scored invitations to several activities around the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington the weekend of April 27. I’m not invited to the dinner itself (I’m not that well connected!), but I will be at the pre- and post-parties, as well as at the Sunday brunch.

Thomson Reuters, which is my host, is offering to try to set up interviews with its other guests, who are listed here. I’ll have my video camera ready. Question for you: Who should I ask to meet? Give me some suggestions in the comments area below, and if you’d care to suggest questions, that would be even better.

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens (left) – English Actor best known as “Cousin Matthew” in Downton Abbey
Fred Armisen – Actor/comedian best known for Saturday Night Live & Portlandia
Jamie Wyeth – Artist
Jeremy Renner – Actor best known for The Hurt Locker, Bourne Identity, the Avengers
John Baird – Canadian Foreign Minister

Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner (left)- Actress/Activist, best known for Body Heat, Romancing the Stone
Madeline Stowe – Actress/Activist, best known for Revenge, Last of the Mohicans
Mariane Pearl – Freelance Journalist, widow of Daniel Pearl, Writer at Glamour magazine
Mark Carney – Governor, Central Bank of Canada
Mary Jo White – Chairman, Securities & Exchange Commission

Victor Cruz | New York Giants

Victor Cruz

Michael Corbat – CEO, Citigroup
Pat Llodra – Selectman, Newtown, CT
Ruth Porat – CFO, Morgan Stanley
Steve Zahn – Actor best known for Treme
Victor Cruz – Wide receiver, New York Giants
Several Top Chefs from Bravo TV Show ‘Top Chef

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Microsoft Down, But Hardly Out

I followed Microsoft closely for many years when I was in the technology press, visited the company every year or so and even sat down with Bill Gates for interviews a few times. I was always impressed by the competitiveness of the Microsoft culture, and wondered whether it could resist the disease that killed companies like Digital Equipment, Wang Laboratories and Compaq, and that nearly killed IBM and Novell.

That disease is described in Clayton Christiansen’s 1997 classic The Innovator’s Dilemma. Companies that dominate technology industries tend to become so addicted to the products that made them successful that they fail to respond to changes in the market and are done in either by low-cost competitors or a platform shift.

A new article by Kurt Eichenwald in Vanity Fair paints a dismal picture of Microsoft’s performance over the last decade and doesn’t offer much optimism for the future. The article is currently available only in the printed edition of VF, but you can find a summary here and dig up scans of the printed piece if you look around a bit.

Creeping Bureaucracy

Eichenwald documents a decade of missed opportunities, unforgivable delays, bureaucratic infighting and intellectual stagnation that made this once-fearsome competitor a caricature of the company that regulators on two continents tried to break up a little more than a decade ago. He recalls the Windows 95 launch, when people lined up around the block outside consumer electronics stores to get the first copies. Today, the idea that anyone would get that excited about any kind of Microsoft product launch seems unfathomable.

I only have a couple of comments to add to this well-reported piece. The first is that Bill Gates’ departure from the helm of Microsoft at the end of 1999 was the beginning of the downward spiral. While many people thought his self-imposed demotion from CEO to Chief Software Architect was a ruse at the time, it now appears that Gates really did step away from active management of the company.

Steve Ballmer at CES 2010He handed it over to the wrong guy. I personally like Steve Ballmer, and I have great respect for his competitiveness and sales/marketing skills, but he’s not a product guy. It seems that great tech companies only stay on top as long as there are technical visionaries at the helm, and it’s clear that Microsoft lost its vision years ago. Jim Allchin and Ray Ozzie perhaps had the technical chops to do the job, but neither seemed to have the natural leadership skills. Ballmer is the perfect guy to take a completed product and drive it into the market, but he’s obviously not the guy to get the product to market in the first place. I don’t see that changing, and I don’t see Microsoft turning around as long as Ballmer is in charge.

Misplaced Management Technique

My second comment is about the Microsoft management tactic called “stack ranking.” This forces managers at review time to designate two people out of every 10 as superstars, seven as average and one as trouble. The person at the bottom isn’t likely to be around very long.

Bloggers have been kicking the crap out of stack ranking since the VF article appeared, but it’s really not as bad an idea as it sounds. I worked at a company that used a similar system, and in the right scenario it’s actually pretty effective.

The goal of stack ranking is to force managers to make hard decisions about weak performers. Most managers hate even to give bad reviews, much less fire people, and stack ranking enforces a certain toughness that many managers could use, in my experience. It sends a message to the organization that poor performers won’t be punished by merely getting a 2% smaller raise than the top performers.

The problem is that stack ranking doesn’t work in organizations that put a premium on innovation and creativity. If Xerox had used it at PARC in the 1960s, we’d probably still be using MS-DOS today. Creative people shouldn’t have to worry about sucking up to managers and competing with the person at the next desk. They should spend their time being creative. Stack ranking works great for sales forces and process-oriented jobs, but it’s a disaster when applied to engineers, programmers, graphic artists or writers.

A lot of people are beating up on Microsoft right now, and with good reason, but this company is hardly a basket case. Futurist Thornton May recently told me that Microsoft goes into the top engineering schools each year and scoops up as many of the best graduates as it can get. It has a desktop franchise that won’t stop throwing off cash anytime soon and its position in the corporate data center is secure. The biggest problem there is that the future of the corporate data center is in some doubt right now.

Eichenwald contrasts Microsoft’s performance to Apple’s, and the Redmond giant comes off looking pretty pathetic. But then again, so does everyone else. This piece will hopefully cause some soul-searching within the Microsoft executive suite, and maybe restore some of the drive that once made that company so terrifyingly great.


Update: Dan Gillmor reaches much the same conclusion, although for different reasons. He points to some Microsoft innovations that the VF piece overlooked, and also notes the depressing effective of an antitrust settlement on the way a company works.

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.

 

Five Tips to Make Your Writing Sparkle

Now that we’re all publishers, writing has become a core skill for marketers. I love good writing, and whenever I get the chance to teach it, I share these five tricks I’ve learned to make anyone’s writing better.

The Art and Craft of Feature Writing cover1. Write in Pictures. Former Wall Street Journal page one feature writer Bill Blundell used that phrase in a seminar some 15 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever had.

Human beings think visually. The words we read continually conjure up images in our mind. So why settle for ordinary words when vivid images are available?

Consider this passage from a Journal story from two years ago about the declining popularity of Grape Nuts cereal. Describing the factory in which the century-old breakfast staple is made, reporter Barry Newman writes (emphasis added):

All day every day, objects with the proportions of hewn firewood and the heft of cinder blocks hurtle along a conveyor, dive into a steel chute, disappear down a black hole — and emit what sounds like a startled scream.

Each of the bolded terms creates a mental association that makes the scene come to life. Words like “hurtle” and “dive” are so much more descriptive than “travel” and “fall.” These are words everyone knows; we just don’t think to use them.

2. Tell stories. In writing The Joy of Geocaching with Dana two years ago, I had the chance to use one of the best opening sentence I’ve ever written: “In early 2003 Ed Manley decided to kill himself.”

The following paragraphs went on to tell about an injured and embittered veteran who discovered a game that gave his life new purpose. It was a powerful story that encapsulated the curious appeal of geocaching in a way that no statistics could have matched.

Storytelling is the oldest form of human communication and the most instinctively effective. They hit us in our gut. They are one of the most effective tools we have to grab a reader’s attention. Tell them whenever possible.

3. Get angry. Newspaper columnists use this trick all the time. We write best about topics that stir our passion. You may think your situation doesn’t lend itself to such emotion, but with a little imagination, you can get angry about even seemingly mundane things: the way people behave in meetings, the antics of an industry standards group or the way a company treats its customers.

Getting angry doesn’t mean going on a tirade or hurling insults. That’s embarrassing. Anger is better expressed with irony, sarcasm, counterpoint or wry condescension. The more eloquent your words, the more appealing your message. If you make people laugh, all the better.

One of my favorite angry writers is the Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre, whose You Don’t Say blog should be in every writer’s RSS feed. In a recent entry condemning restroom devices that periodically emit a spritz of perfume, he wrote,

“It does nothing to cancel out the underlying smell of the premises, merely adding one offensive aroma atop another. It’s rather as if someone went to the zoo and spritzed the bonobos with Dollar Store perfume.”

If you can send your readers scurrying to Google to look up “bonobo,” you’ve won.

4. Remove Unnecessary Words. Do you ever get memos about how someone “facilitated the process” instead of just “did?” Is there ever any reason to use the phrase, “We all know that…?” Have you received an e-mail stating that “Greater emphasis and guidance was placed on ensuring…” when it could have said, “We stressed…?”

Verbose writing and passive voice are drilled into us beginning in junior high school, and we suffer the consequences of this injustice every day. We don’t always have the time to tighten our messages, but it’s a service to readers when we do.

Try this with your next essay or staff memo: Re-read what you’ve written and remove every unnecessary term. Change passive voice to active: Instead of “succeeded in accomplishing,” try “did.” Substitute short words for long ones. See how many words you can remove without diluting the meaning. You’ll be surprised.

Writing coach Don Fry5. Surprise Your Reader. Writing coach Don Fry (right) calls these “gold coins.” They’re the little nuggets of information that delight and reward readers for staying with us. Or they may just make us laugh.

Consider this passage from The Rubber Room, a withering assault on the way the United Federation of Teachers protects some of New York City’s worst educators. Describing a competency hearing for fifth-grade teacher Lucienne Mohammed, Steven Brill writes that her case “is likely to take between forty and forty-five hearing days—eight times as long as the average criminal trial in the United States.” That little nugget of comparative data validates the point of the story more effectively than any quote from a frustrated administrator ever could. Brill did a little extra work to make his point a lot more powerful.

Or how about this gem from Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess, Gary Wolf’s wonderful exploration of the enigmatic classified ad site in the August, 2009 Wired:

“Jim Buckmaster is tall and thin, [Craig] Newmark is short and round, and when they stand together they look like a binary number.”

I laughed out loud at that. It was a reward for reading the 3,000 words that came before it (which were also very good).

The three feature articles I’ve cited above are fantastic examples of great writing. Here are a couple of others that I’ve used in recent classes:

Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? This gut-wrenching 8,700-word feature story in the Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Read it and you’ll see why. It will touch your soul.

The No-Stats All-Star – Michael Lewis’ profile of Shane Battier, a seemingly unremarkable NBA forward who raises every team he plays for to a higher level continually delights us with gold coins and features one of the best conclusions I’ve ever read.

What tricks have helped you become a better writer? Share them as comments.

Are Exclusives a Good Idea? In a Word: No

Should you give exclusives to journalists? My advice on this has always been unequivocal: No. Exclusives are a bad deal for you in the long-term and make no difference to the audience you’re trying to reach.

This question came up last night during a panel sponsored by the New England Venture Network on which I participated along with several business journalists. I broke with my colleagues on this question, but I firmly believe that exclusives are a bad idea.

Here’s my thinking: Journalists are a competitive bunch and they care deeply about who gets information first. However, no one else does. These days information travels so quickly that its source immediately becomes lost. Outside of a few big stories – such as TMZ’s scoop on the death of Michael Jackson — the public doesn’t remember where a story originated.

Journalists remember, however, and they tend to hold grudges against sources who favor their competition. Public relations is a relationship game. It’s been many years since I pounded a beat, yet I still remember a few PR people who gave stories to my competition. It’s safe to say that I never treated those people quite the same again. I’m not proud of that fact, but the reality is that it’s difficult to be chummy with someone whom you believe has slapped you in the face.

There are isolated incidents when an exclusive might work out. One of the audience members last night brought up a recent case in which her company had given The New York Times a scoop on a patent her startup company was about to receive. The story was picked up by many other outlets and she was satisfied with the results. I suppose if The New York Times is willing to promise you prominent coverage, an exclusive may be merited. But what if the story had turned up as a short squib in a “Miscellany” column or been cut by an editor? The PR person would have angered competitors and had little to show for it.

If you’re going to play the exclusive game, at least try to make it a win-win proposition. Perhaps you can offer one reporter a first interview with a customer or your CEO and give another a scoop on pricing or a particular new feature. Or you can promise the reporters you snubbed a first shot at your next big announcement.

In general, though, exclusives make one friend at the expense of making a lot of enemies. I can’t believe they are a good thing for your business in the long term.

Weinberger Wisdom

David WeinbergerMy definition of a good speech is one in which the speaker tells you something you already know in a way that you’ve never considered before. That’s why David Weinberger is one of my favorite speakers.

Here are my notes from David’s presentation this morning to the Mass. Tech Leadership Council’s Social Media Summit. These are adapted from my tweets from the event, but hopefully are self-explanatory. They’ve been cleaned up and expanded for clarity:

  • The Web has always been social. The only difference with Web 2.0 is that it’s easier to build a presence.
  • The page-centered Web paradigm has yielded to a people-centered one.
  • Apple is about art. Google is about scale. We don’t know yet what Facebook is about. That’s unsettling, because Facebook is to the social Web what Google is to the Web.
  • Media is frequently mis-characterized as publishing. The definition of media is that which  mediates between parties. Media isn’t content.
  • We are the media. We recommend knowledge to each other. New media transforms as it moves, unlike traditional fixed media like TV. Telegraphs are a fixed medium for sending messages. The Internet sends messages but it isn’t fixed. It changes every second.
  • We take on properties of our media and our behavior comes to reflect the media we use. For example: The phone is intermittent, interuptive communications driven by a reason to make a call. The Web is rolling sets of instantaneous, always changing fragmented networks. These networks may be transient or last a lifetime. This is a completely different model than traditional media.
  • Network sociality is more like a party than a phone call. Telephones are interruptive; the Internet is distractive. People interact with the medium differently.
  • In the days of broadcast, markets were abstractions created by advertising. Now they are real and social.
  • Transparency is now an imperative. For example, on Wikipedia you can always find out why an item of information is there. The entire process is open. More businesses will operate like this.
  • We are getting comfortable with fallibility. The most popular stuff on YouTube is about humans screwing up. This doesn’t embarrass us as much as it used to. This acceptance of our own weaknesses will change the way organizations operate.
  • People don’t buy drills or holes. They buy a nice place to hang towels to impress their relatives. Abstract to the level of basic human needs in order to understand behavior. This also works in marketing, BTW.
  • There are four types of transparency critical to Social Media: sources, self, humanity, interest.
  • Newspapers traditionally provided a curated mix of content reflecting a professionally derived combination of what we wanted to know and what we needed to know. News about Sudan is an “eat your broccoli” story. We don’t like it, but we need to know it. It’s not clear where we will get that kind of information in the future.
  • The social media generation now expects important information to find them. That’s a dangerous attitude.
  • Diversity is important but uncomfortable. Without shared interests, it’s hard to converse. When you have a truly diverse group, you get smalltalk because people don’t have a common platform for conversation. Nevertheless, diversity is important. We must fight the tendency to stick with people like us. Diversity requires conscious discomfort. We want to interact with like-minded people.
  • Media is increasingly an echo chamber in which we choose to listen to people who share our views. Echo chambers are bad for democracy and culture, but marketers like them because they say what marketers want to hear. Echo chambers aren’t necessarily bad, but if that’s the only place you ever talk, you’ll never hear other points of view.

How to Conduct a Great Interview, Part 2

David Frost interviews Richard NixonLast week I talked about the art of the interview, an essential skill in creating content that generates traffic and visibility. (Be sure to read the advice of others who contributed comments to the blog entry). The first part of this two-part entry talked about preparing for an interview. Now let’s look at what to do when you sit down with your subject or begin the phone call.

Be Conscious Of Time – I almost always ask interview subjects how much time they have. This helps me plan the pace of the questions and also makes sure that I get to the critical ones. If you’re expecting an hour and your subject has only 15 minutes, you need to adjust quickly. If you need extra time, ask for it up front. If the subject turns you down, ask again later in the interview when he or she is hopefully more invigorated about the conversation.

Ask About the Subject’s Background – People like to talk about themselves, so indulge them with a question that they are happy to answer. I’ve found that the simple question, “Tell me about yourself” is a great conversation-starter.

Avoid Yes/No Answers – Instead of asking, “Are you satisfied with your progress this year?” use “Tell me how your progress this year compares to your expectations.” Avoid questions beginning with “do,” “will,” “are,” “and “should,” and instead use questions beginning with “what,” “how,” “why” and “describe.”  Asking someone to “Tell me about…” gives them no choice but to share an experience.

Invite Stories – I once heard former Wall Street Journal feature writer Bill Blundell give advice I’ll never forget: “Write in pictures.” In other words, tell stories that readers can visualize in their minds. Storytelling is the most powerful form of human expression. Stories turn abstract ideas into useful examples. Ask the subject to make the topic real by citing examples or personal experiences.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask The Same Question Twice – This is particularly true in an interview that concerns a controversial subject. Executives are media-trained to answer the questions they want to answer rather than the questions they’re asked. If your subject is evasive, ask the same question a different way. Sometimes you can coax someone into answering a difficult question by feigning ignorance: “I’m sorry, I didn’t follow that. Can you dumb it down a bit for someone like me?”

Control the Interview– You need to dictate the pace and topic of the interview. If the subject rambles or goes off course, cut her off gently whenever you can get a word in. Even if you back off a bit to let her finish the thought, you’ve sent a subtle message that it’s time to move on.

Be Empathetic – Chances are your subject is pretty passionate about the topic you’re discussing. Let your behavior reflect that interest. Smile when she smiles and shake your head when she relates a tale of woe. This isn’t misleading; it’s simply reflecting back a person’s feelings in a way that helps to draw them out. People like to talk to responsive listeners.

Ask For Closing Thoughts – The longer people talk, the more comfortable they are. This is why the best quotes often come at the end of the interview. When you finish your questions, give your subject a chance to summarize her thoughts or restate an important point. One good tactic is simply to ask, “Is there anything I missed?”

Here are thoughts on a few common questions:

Should You Use A Tape Recorder? These days, the answer is increasingly yes because you want the latitude to publish the interview as a video or audio podcast. That said, recording devices can put a damper on a conversation. Once you start recording, put the gadget aside and don’t look at it. You want your subject to forget about it as quickly as possible. Also, most states require that a person audibly consent to be recorded. Be sure you get that permission on tape.

Should You Go Off the Record? This question is complicated by the fact that “off the record” means different things to different people. Technically, “off the record” means the information can’t be used under any circumstances, which makes it of little value to you. However, people often use this term when they really mean “not for attribution.” I rarely agree to off-the-record terms but I will go on background if the information is important. It often turns out that you can negotiate the use of background comments if you paraphrase them appropriately.

Approvals – Many people ask to approve an article before it’s published. I let the context be my guide. Very often, both interviewer and subject have the common goal of making the speaker look good. In that case, I see no problem with letting someone review their comments for accuracy. However, if the topic is controversial or if the speaker is a celebrity or public official, no way. Those people know the rules. In any circumstance, I advise against giving full editing access. Confine the subject’s revisions to statements of fact.

Those are some of my best practices. What are yours? Post your advice as a comment.