Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

What they think

Posted on | March 27, 2008 | No Comments

There’s a hard-core group of Ghost Busters on this blog who contribute mightily, passionately and insightfully to the conversation about the plague infesting B:B publishing in the electronics business. You know who you are.
Many are editors, ex-editors or editors in hiatus, so we speak from a unique perspective. We rap on the business side for flashing a little leg at any advertising john who passes by. They clearly have abandoned us.
The advertisers are obviously in a stuporous daze. We could tolerate them 20 years ago because they put food on our plates, but no more: They clearly don’t get it.
I had thought for most of the past 3-4 years that the advertisers in the electronics industry were calling the tune. That the maturation of electronics was squishing its cost structure to the point where the industry simply (and very much in an evolutionary sense) would no longer support the vibrant publishing business it had spawned and nurtured for 40 years.
But maybe, just maybe, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
For one thing, the industry is maturing at such a rate that the managers coming into the business are increasingly not engineers. It’s a trickle, to be sure, but expect to see guys from the financial world migrating in and from other areas. They may, just may, understand the value of marketing in a way that many engineer-CEOs have not. They put up with it for the fat years of the semiconductor expansion because they could, but in more difficult times, things that can’t be quantified are the first to be canned.
This will be welcome news to the many longtime professional marketers and communicators in the business whose careers have been emasculated in a world of shrinking budgets. (I’ve seen it in the eyes of 30-year marketing vets–people who once launched huge semiconductor campaigns–who suddenly are supposed to do something with a budget they would have laughed at in 1975 or ’85; it’s no way to live).
For another thing, the sclerotic effect of the current environment on publishing is really starting to take its toll on communicators. They think, “Whom do we tell our story to?” This lament gets louder by the year. While my current mantra in my present job is “the company is the medium is the message” (in other words be your own publisher), that co-exists, in my mind, with a vibrant media. People want their story to be vetted by a professional journalist. It’s validation. It’s new business in some cases (a CEO told me today that an EE Times story two years ago, which he did not solicit, ended up getting him phone calls from two EDA vendors who eventually partnered with him). Fill in any independent publication. It doesn’t matter. But that validation is important.
So most of the key actors are standing around, hands stuffed into their pockets, while the house is ablaze, looking to the others to find the hose.
Except for the reader.
The reader by all intents and purposes has not gone anywhere. He likes his publications. He does go online, but his re-subscription rate to at least some publications has never been higher. And he’s doing it even as advertisers are bleeding publishers dry. That’s loyalty.
And that’s what THEY think.

P.S. They do read the ads, and they do remember them.

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No Responses to “What they think”

  1. Lou Covey
    March 28th, 2008 @ 8:17 am

    At last. A note of hope.

  2. Greeley's Ghost
    March 28th, 2008 @ 10:02 am

    I do tire of the hand-wringing posts, but lord knows there’s enough evidence to go around for ’em!

  3. mike santarini
    March 28th, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    I think publishing management’s blunders are often overlooked in this whole scenario. Roman generals used to fall on their swords when battle plans went awry. There are few Romans in the general ranks of publishing. Instead of falling on swords, they get promoted to emperor…so go’th Rome. Here are the top three battle blunders in my opinion.

    Battle blunder 1: Regurgitating press releases. Why would any savvy company fork out $10,000 to have an advertising agency create a print add and then fork out an additional $5,000 to $20,000 to have the advertisement placed in a magazine (adjust the numbers a bit lower for web adverts), if they can simply pay a PR person or a ghost writer $2000 to write a press release that an editor will repurpose/regurgitate and run pretty much in its entirety (canned quotes and all). As Ry and others pointed out, readers ignore pop up advertisements to read content. If you can get your advertisement into a notable book as editorial, that’s a win win win. It costs less, people will be more likely to read it, and an editor will even sanctify it by putting his or her by-line on it. It’s just lazy journalism and a monkey can do that job. What do the publishers get out of the deal….$3,000 to $18,000 less advertising dollars than they would have and they don’t have to have qualified editors, just folks who can repurpose/regurgitate press releases quickly.

    Battle blunder 2: Contributed articles in news pubs/sites. Basically this is the same thing as above but instead you are having your product marketing, pr or a ghost author writing content. Again for $.75 to $1.25 a word for a 2000 word article, you are getting your entire hidden sales pitch into a brand name pub for free. Further, it is now editorial, so readers will be more likely to read it. I think it would be an interesting test case for vendors to run a contributed article on a website and surround it by advertisements for the same product, and then compare hit and click-through rates on each. Which one will get the higher click rates? I’m betting the article will. This is the catcha 22 for publishing. When publishers go around to sell advert space these days, one of the first things they do (likely after the advertiser says “I’m not buying any print ads” for aforementioned reasons) is pull out a spreadsheet with click throughs and numbers of hits. The contributed articles, I’m sure, contribute a great deal to those click rate totals and they use them as a selling point, but what they don’t see is that it is coming at the expense of advertising…again, chasing nickels short term with no sense of longterm. Again, from the editorial perspective, this is just plain old lazy journalism. It’s much easier to edit a piece or simply send it back to the “author” or pr person who sent to you to have it edited, then it is to get on a phone and do a bit of research. From a publisher’s point of view, you really don’t need a qualified journalist to do it and you especially don’t need a full time journalist to do it (and have to pay pesky medical insurance). Thus you can cut bottom line. After all, meeting short term goals=promotion. Plus if you have a part timer doing it, they probably aren’t as concerned with quality as they are concerned with simply putting up some fresh content. Most publishers don’t understand what the editors are posting in the first place—they just care about hit rates.

    Battle blunder 3: Getting rid of the relatively pricy, qualified journalists. To demonstrate this I’ve been using an analogy comparing publishing to fine dining. The first version was rough but I’ve refined it a bit.
    The analogy goes like this: If you have a five start French restaurant with the best head chef, souse chef, saucier, pastry chef, etc., and then you replace them (or a lot of them) with short order cooks (part time editors) or mandate that the French chef’s serve prepackaged food (regurgitated press releases or contributed articles), then eventually the quality of the food will decline and people (readers) will notice. Eventually, they will stop coming to eat at the restaurant and will look for other places to eat.
    A couple of folks have pointed to studies, which indicated a flaw in that version of the analogy. Studies conducted by EET and by Novas Software, overwhelmingly indicated that readers didn’t read a an article or visit a given pub because they followed a particular editor (in short, they were brand loyal, not loyal to editors). At first, when I heard this it was a bit of an ego blow, but then I started pondering it and added to the analogy:
    Why do you go to a restaurant? The main reason is Good food. Why do you go to a publication: good content. Then I started thinking of my own reading practices. When I’m reading general press, I really don’t pay attention to the author of the story but I read the story. But when I’m reading something in my beats, I do pay attention to who wrote it. I imagine most chef’s are not only familiar with competing restaurant names and reputations, they are also familiar with who the chef’s are and associate certain quality with those chef’s. They follow the careers of the chefs or just don’t even bother with the chef’s who don’t serve good food.
    To take the analogy further, the patrons of restaurants can be split into two categories: connoisseurs (pr, marketing types, industry executives) and customers (general readers). Connoisseurs not only pay attention to the names of the restaurant and the quality of the food, they become very familiar with the Chef’s cooking the food or at least are more likely to know who the chefs are and their reputations. Meanwhile, most customers of a restaurant only know the name and reputation of a restaurant (a publications brand name) and whether or not it consistently serves good food. Do most consumers know who is doing the cooking? Probably not.
    So, if the chef’s leave, the connoisseurs will be the first ones to stop coming to a particular restaurant. They may come back to the restaurant a couple of times to see if the quality of the food is the same or to give the new chefs a chance, but ultimately if the food isn’t consistently good, they’ll stop going there. Maybe they will follow the old chef to his or her new restaurant.
    Similarly, consumers will likely continue to go to the restaurant for a while longer than the connoisseurs because they equate the brand with quality. But very gradually they’ll notice the quality of the food has declined. And if nothing is done to improve the quality, they will eventually seek other restaurants and stop coming to the restaurant altogether.
    Further, it will be interesting to see how editor/author branding plays out in the world of blogging. The blog is the author is the brand. Thoughts?

  4. Greeley's Ghost
    March 28th, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    Damn good points, Mike. A couple of quibbles.
    On Blunder #1: Maybe that’s why Lou’s new media concept might make sense in some fashion.
    On Blunder #2: In print, I think contributed articles aren’t such an issue any more. They were in the heady days when you had to fill a book that was expanding rapidly because of big advertising spending. It was a cheap and scalable way to fill the middle of the book–the accordion section. And people did want to buy ads in that section.
    Online, it’s a different and more insidious problem–the user generated content issue. Web sites don’t have a model to support many full-time editors and they fake urgency and timeliness with UGC. Ostensibly the argument is to add “many voices” to a virtuous community, but I think that usually turns out to be disingenuous.
    Blunder #3: Which came first? Chicken or egg? Great papers like the New York Times have been cutting for years. Until very recently, I don’t think it had a measurable impact on quality in that case. Certainly now it does.
    But then your response should be: Well, The Economist is thriving in this environment. Why is that?
    I think with newspapers, the beginning of the end was not Netscape 1994 but Joint Operating Agreement legislation in the 1970s. That vastly reduced the motivation for editorial change and evolution, and kept daily editors asleep at the switch for three decades longer than they should have been.

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