Category Archives: Journalism

Campaign and new business agencies

This week Campaign ran this article on its website:

http://www.brandrepublic.com/News/944244/Confessions-new-business-executive/

It’s a first-hand, confession-style account of one person’s experiences working at a new business agency. It’s an interesting article and has prompted a flurry of comments. However, I’m not convinced it was a good idea for Campaign to run it.

Let’s put to one side for a moment the issue of whether a leading trade mag like Campaign should really be the forum for a disgruntled employee to conduct this kind of poison pen revenge job – these articles are often very popular with readers who can recognise the scenario and identify with the writer. Let’s also accept that the cloak of anonymity was essential for the author to fully express his views. We can even refrain from pointing out that Tom Messenger’s writing would have benefited from the attention of a more vigorous copy editor.

The real problem with this article is that it doesn’t offer a portrayal of life in new business agencies that many people working in that industry today would recognise. Ten years ago there were quite a few a few disreputable agencies like the one described here. They were terrible places to work and they did little for their clients other than waste their time and money. However, the industry has matured. Most new business agencies are now thoroughly professional outfits, employing bright and hard-working people who use a tried and tested formula to provide good new business  leads for their clients.

The comments on Campaign’s website page make this point in no uncertain terms, and many of them raise the question of what Campaign was thinkng of running something as poorly researched and one-sided as this. There is, without doubt, a place for first person anonymous confession-style articles, but they  have to ring true with the readers. Before agreeing to publish them, the editorial team needs to speak to a few people in the industry – both clients and practitioners – to check that they recognise the scenario being portrayed.

Sadly it doesn’t look as though Campaign did this. I believe this is a reflection of the trend in so much journalism – away from properly-researched articles by capable and impartial journalists and towards sensationalist diatribes from amateurs with axes to grind. It does no one any favours, least of all the publication involved.

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Backwards golf and how to make money from online publishing

I had an interesting couple of pints with some of the clever digital PR folks at Edelman last night. We discussed the irony of a print magazine about social media, the fun to be had in playing golf courses backwards (tee-off from the first but aim at the 18th green – sounds entertainingly dangerous!) and finally, the long-term decline of advertising.

As regular readers of my blog will know this is a theme I’ve touched on before.  In this recession trade titles are suffering from the slump in ad spend. They always do – but I’m not convinced that by 2011 ad spend in print will be back where it was in 2007. Marketers are putting more and more of their ad spend online. They’re increasingly convinced that it is more targeted, more trackable, and crucially, cheaper.

Marketers expect to spend less on online ads. This is a big problem for publications that rely on advertising for their revenue – which is almost all of them. If their ad revenue falls how can they continue to make a profit? Sure, they can save money on print and distribution, but still, for the majority the equation won’t add up.

The only way they can plug this revenue shortfall is to persuade readers to pay for content.

And yet we know this won’t work. In the early days of the web, publishers learnt very quickly that people will not pay for content. We expect the Internet to be free.

And this is where last night – well into our Staropramen – we came up with a good idea.

It’s based on two initial premises:

1) People’s expectation of the quality of online content has risen in the past decade – we have become more adept at sorting through the online waffle to find what is genuinely useful/interesting to us

2) People are now much more comfortable with paying for things online than they were ten years ago

So, while in 1999 paid-for content might have been a non-starter, that doesn’t mean that it still is in 2009.

Then the third, crucial, premise is:

3) People don’t subscribe to content online, not because they’re not willing to pay for it, but because they can’t be bothered with all the hassle. They know they’ll have to go thorugh half a dozen pages of form-filling, they’ll have to find their credit card details, they might be signing up to a long-term deal they can’t get out of, and then the site might go down meaning it was a waste of five minutes. Five minutes might not sound like a lot, but when we’re looing for information online we expect to receive it immediately.

So, here’s the idea we came up with……

You buy credits in advance and then buy content simply by clicking a button, and paying £1, 50p, 25p, 10p even, for that specific article. It would be a simple application that every publisher could add to their sites so there became one instant, low commitment way for people to pay for content. It would be like the Oyster card of online publishing. Or iTunes for written content.

Great idea or just the Staropramen talking?

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Is this is end for the business and trade media?

Business and trade publications always get hit disproportionately in recessions. Whether it was the bursting of the dotcom bubble back in 2001, the early nineties housing-led recession, or the unemployment and industrial strife of the early eighties, businesses have reacted in the same way every time: slashing their advertising in trade and business publications.  Consumer titles also suffer, as do all media outlets, but trade and business titles tend to bear the brunt of it.

And this recession is no different. As we discover towards the back end of the noughties just how naughty we were with our unsecured loans, unrealistic mortgages and bloated credit card debts, as the global economy continues to contract, so trade and business titles have struggled. Advertisers have melted away, pagination has dropped, and a few have closed – CFO Europe and Training & Coaching Today to name just two.

As a freelance writer for these titles I’ve noticed it. In the summer of 2008 I was struggling keep up with all the commissions sent my way, but now I have to work hard to get the attention of editors and convince them to run with my ideas for articles. I’m lucky that Ive got the best part of a decade’s worth of work and contacts to fall back on, and that I know how to pitch to editors. Not every freelance writer does, and for many of us – as well as for our colleagues in the world of B2B PR – it’s really tough at the moment.

Our only comfort in these dark days of 2009 is the thought that economies always recover and the B2B media always bounces back.

However, I’m beginning to wonder if that really will happen. I really think that this might be the end of the road for much of our traditional B2B media.

For one thing this recession has come as the sting at the tail-end of a long period of sustained decline for these publications. We were already dealing with advertising budgets that were falling by between gfive and ten per cent a year. However, the real difference between this recession and those that went before it is that this time round we have the Internet. In 2001 the web was still in its infancy – only 8 years ago, but we’d never heard of Facebook, a large proportion of us were still on dial-up connections, and the concept of cost per click advertising was still alien to all but the most cutting-edge publishers. Now, advertisers are comfortable with online advertising. In fact they’re much more than comfortable – they recognise that online advertising can engage more people in a measurable and trackable way than print advertising ever could. And they’re moving their budgets online.

From my perspective I’ve seen clear evidence of this shift. As my income from offline publications has fallen, so I have been doing more and more work for online titles, most notably in my role as the editor of The Sales Professional. I fully expect this trend to continue, with an increasing number of my commissions coming from online titles. Many of them will be from publications like B2B Marketing, Personnel Today and Call Centre Focus, which have spotted this trend and spent the last few years moving more and more of their editorial and advertising online.

But I expect just as many commissions to come from online publications that have been set up to fill the gap left by the B2B titles that failed to spot or react to this trend. Many of them are suffering from this decline in advertising and are simply waiting for it all to pick up again. The danger is that it might not. The game might move on and leave them behind.

This isn’t necessarily bad news for me, as,  whether it’s online of offline, publishers still need well-researched and sharply-written copy. It’s not necessarily bad news for PR professionals, as there will still be widely-read and influential publications where they can promote their clients – they’ll just be online.  It might be bad news for magazine printers, but for the rest of us we simply need to recognise this change and adapt ourselves accordingly.

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Do editors want your pitches?

The ability to pitch to editors is absolutely essential for anyone who wishes to use the media to convey a message. However that pitch is made – be it e-mail, phone or in person – if you can persuade an editor to run your idea for an article you will be very well placed to get good coverage in that article and so reach your intended audience.

However, it is not easy to do well. It is a large part of the reason why companies hire PR experts – in-house and agency. They need people who know how to pitch article ideas to journalists and editors. It’s the skill that marks out the PR professional from the amateur.

And yet, very few PRs know how to do it well. From my experience as a freelance journalist, and from canvassing the views of editors I know and write for, the vast majority of pitches from PRs are poorly conceived, clumsily expressed, and very often a waste of everyone’s time.

This is a problem, not just for the PRs but also for those editors. The first thing that any PR should bear in mind when building a pitch to an editor is that the editor genuinely wants to receive good pitches from PRs. They absolutely rely on them.

Put yourself in their shoes. Their publication is well-targeted – perhaps on a trade such as retail, a business activity such as human resources, a geographical region such as Brighton, or a hobby such as running. Even if they work for a national newspaper they will have a section they edit, such as the arts. The point is that there is only so much you can say about retail, HR, Brighton, running or the arts. And these poor editors need to fill an entire publication or section every month, or every week or every day.

After a while every editor runs out of ideas. Unless they can find a good source of new ideas they will start repeating themselves, their publications will become stale and their reader numbers will fall. Once reader numbers fall so does revenue from subscribers and advertisers. It is a vicious circle that can prove fatal to any publication.

So, they need to find new ideas. They try everything they can to generate them themselves – brainstorming in editorial meetings, asking ad sales colleagues, scouring the Internet for ideas, networking at conferences, and so on. But no matter what they try they will always be reliant on third parties for fresh article ideas.

That’s you and me – PR professionals and freelance writers.

Without us, most publications you see on the news stand would rapidly become very dull. We play a vital role in providing the editors of those publications with new ideas that will stimulate their readers and boost their advertising revenue.

So, they want you to succeed. When they open an e-mail from you they want to see a good idea that they can use.

However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll accept any idea you send. You are up against stiff competition – hundreds of PR professionals and freelance writers, to say nothing of the hundreds of amateurs who want coverage for their cause, story, or business. So, you need to know how to stand out from the crowd.

In my next post I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how to do exactly that (or to learn exactly how to do it, sign up to my course on Pitching to Editors – http://www.alex-blyth.co.uk/training_details.php?id=3) but for now, I’d like to offer this optimistic thought to every PR out there who is struggling to pitch an idea to the media. It’s always difficult, and with so many publications suffering from plummeting ad revenues and so dropping their pagination, it is more difficult than ever beofre. But it is not impossible. And the people on the end of the phone or reading your e-mails DO want you to succeed!

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