It’s about them (i.e. content strategy)

My local paper ran a story last week asking members of the state’s congressional delegation – and the people who hope to run against them in November – where they stood on the recently passed health care bill.

Guess what?

All the Democrats were for it and all the Republicans were against it.

Not only that, they all sounded the same common talking points echoing across the media landscape. And they weren’t even that colorful about it.

Now, I’m not writing to mock my local paper or the reporter who wrote the article, what I’m trying to mock is the journalism groupthink that considers this is news, or, to put a finer point on it, useful news.

If I know what everyone is going to say in an article before I read it, why should I read it? There’s so little time to spend on anything, I want to spend time on things that matter to me.

How about using the space taken up by that article to run a Q&A or analysis from a wire service that might actually help readers understand the bigger picture or learn something they didn’t know? How about giving the reporter a few more days to dig into how the bill would actually impact the state or region?

Yes, I’m talking about a specific industry here – journalism, which faces daily deadlines that many other organizations don’t – but this issue can affect any business trying to create content.

Putting something up just to “fill a hole” doesn’t serve you or your audience. The value of your content is proportional to how useful it is to your customers: Tell them something they don’t know, and why it matters to them.

Springtime in my town

Flood 2010, Version 2.0

There’s a road under there, somewhere.

Why my town hall should tweet

I just looked to see if my town has a Twitter account.

I was heartened when the search results came up and (mytown)NH showed up, with the town seal as the picture. But it turned out to be a local real estate agent listing places for sale plus a few random comments.

Now, I have nothing against real estate agents using Twitter. In fact, I think it’s a great service for home buyers and I wish it existed the last time we were looking for a new home. The thing that disappoints me is that my town isn’t tweeting.

We recently had a massive rain/windstorm that closed roads and knocked out power for days and the town did a great job dealing with it and keeping people informed via the Web and an automated phone alert system (which it bought earlier this year for several thousand dollars in the wake of the even-more-disastrous ice storm in December 2008). But for people with mobile devices who had no power and, in some cases, no phone service, a Twitter feed would have been additionally helpful – and wouldn’t have cost the town any extra money.

I can see this being useful for more mundane news, as well: Reminders about dog license renewals, info on when the DPW is doing road work are, scam warnings from the police and even notifications of when meeting agendas and minutes are posted on the Web. This is the kind of content that daily newspapers have long since abandoned and which may be too time-sensitive for weeklies to accommodate.

Sure, somebody at Town Hall (actually several somebodies) would need to send this information out, but think of how useful it would be for residents, how it would build, dare we say, “brand loyalty” for town government. Maybe, down the road, if enough residents subscribe, it could supplant the newspaper as a repository for the legal notices the town is required by law to disseminate, thereby saving money.

I’ll be reworking the essence of this post into an e-mail to my town administrator. I’ll let you know how this works out. Does your town or local public school tweet?

The right content for the right channel

A new report from Pew Internet & American Life Project on “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer” has some interesting data:

 In this new multi-platform media environment, people’s relationship to news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory. These new metrics stand out:

Portable : 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.

Personalized : 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.

Participatory : 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.

This is useful information to be sure, but I hope small and mid-size media outlets – or any content-producing organizations, for that matter – don’t take the key findings simply as marching orders to push more random content out onto mobile channels and stick more random widgets on their Web pages.

 After working in journalism, where instant analysis is valued – and sometimes overvalued at the expense of actual market research – I can imagine the dialogues in some places:

Publisher: “I just read the new Pew survey. We need to make all our content more available for mobile users, we need to make our Web site customizable, we need to allow users to share our content on as many social media sites as possible and we also need to push this content out to those platforms ourselves. And get it done before May 1.”

Managers in online and editorial departments: “OK, boss. We’ll get right on it.”

What’s missing in the script – and will be missing in many places – is an in-depth exploration of what kind of content do mobile users want and what kind of content do they want to share. More questions: How do they want it? When? How does it differ from the traditional news content we’re currently cranking out? What unique, location-specific content can we offer better than anyone else? Do we have the resources to provide it? How will we measure the success of these efforts?

And, once we know those answers and many others, what do we hope to gain from the effort?

Finally, if this is, in fact, a priority initiative, can we create an organizational infrastructure that makes it a priority?

 That last one is tough, especially for resource-starved organizations that are already trying to do too much with too little (and are doing it progressively worse as a result). The lack of resources and the relentless pressure to generate content traps many organizations into fighting an endless series of daily skirmishes and prevents them from ever stepping back and assessing the entire battlefield.

As I noted in a previous post, convenience plus content equals customer loyalty (I think I made that up myself, but am leery of taking credit because I’m sure it’s got to be floating around elsewhere in the blogosphere). If you buy that equation, try these variations: Convenience plus infrequent, spotty content equals running in place. Convenience plus bad, useless content equals irrelevancy.

In other words, focus on the content strategy first and the tactics will become obvious.

Of course, some organizations (hopefully including my former company) will take the time to step back and figure this out; we’ll be able to tell which ones did because they’ll be the success stories that everyone will be copying next year.

What you want, baby, I got it

A new post by Gina Chen on the Neiman Journalism Lab points out something obvious that not everyone gets: convenience plus content equals customer loyalty.

The post describes how useful it was to learn that her kids had a snow day via a free text alert service provided by a local TV station and how the station, while not directly making any money off her, earned a lot of goodwill by giving her the information “the way I wanted it and when I wanted it.”

While point of the post is that one way for news organizations to remain relevant and useful is by focusing on user’s needs, the concept can – and should – apply to any organization seeking to strengthen its brand.

Again, neither she nor I are saying this is a radical concept, but all you have to do is look around to know that not everyone gets it.

Content is still king

A few days ago, I wrote that there are actually places journalists can use their skills beyond the newsroom and, voila, this post by someone who knows more about this stuff than I do – Kristina Halvorson , blogging on Brain Traffic – comes along to bolster my opinion. 

While the post is about developing a content strategy, not specifically about hiring journalists, it’s no secret that many of the demands of managing a sustainable content marketing strategy require people skilled in writing, editing and reporting on multiple platforms (i.e. journalists). 

 This passage struck me the most:

“Content strategy is more or less on the same trajectory as social media was three years ago. Why?

“I think it’s because the reality of social media initiatives—that they’re internal commitments, not advertising campaigns—has derailed more than a few organizations from really implementing effective, measurable programs. Most companies can’t sustain social media engagement because they lack the internal editorial infrastructure to support it.”

At first blush, this sounds great to a newshound like me. “Editorial infrastructure” is what I’ve been doing for years, and, regardless of the platform, the basic tenets of good content development are fairly consistent. If you don’t believe me, check out these blogging and content development tips, which touch on many of the same concepts you’d get in a Journalism 101 course. (And that’s meant as a compliment.)  

Then again, good content costs money. Are businesses willing to pony up to put a sustainable long-term content strategy in place? Or will behavioral ad targeting or some other technological magic bullet – perhaps paying Ashton Kutcher to mention your product on Twitter – provide a bigger ROI and thereby make content irrelevant?

Thankfully, I don’t see that happening. And I’m not alone: Among the findings in a recent study by the Custom Publishing Council, “78% of respondents reported that branded content is more effective than advertising.”

Migrating journalist

For a group that’s supposed to be up to speed on everything, a significant number of my journalist friends give me blank expressions when I talk about the explosion of content-producing jobs outside the newsroom.

Of course, I’m not pointing fingers. I can’t. Not that long ago, I was one of them.

After a recent layoff, I decided I needed to make a clean break with traditional journalism. The first thing I did was develop a job search plan that included a heavy dose of networking. Luckily, I’m one of those people who have never burned a bridge in my life. (If I were a German sapper in World War II, Patton would have been in Berlin before FDR even got to Yalta.)

I contacted as many former colleagues as I could, and one of them, who has been in the tech sector for nearly a decade, met me for breakfast at a hole in the wall in Milford, N.H. It was there – a few feet from a stool that had “Gore sat here” written on the leg in permanent marker – that he used two words that I’d never heard together before: content marketing.

He gave me a brief overview of how organizations are cutting back on traditional advertising models and outreach to traditional media to focus on creating compelling, meaningful content on their own Web sites and through social media. He explained that this marketing revolution has many different names – custom publishing, branded media, customer media, etc. – but that the common thread was the need for people who could develop and create useful information that strengthens the relationship between the content provider and the content producer, whether the provider was a business, a university, or a nonprofit.

Whoa, I thought, I can do that. Not only that, I can be excited about doing that.

When I later mentioned this to my newspaper friends – and even a friend of mine who’s a former journalism professor – they gave me a puzzled look. But the more I learned, the more I saw this is a great new career opportunity for someone with my skill set, and, just as importantly, my personality.

I’m learning that many of the things that drew me to journalism – the rush of deadline, the fun of trying new things and building a community, the joy of hanging out with smart, clever people and learning something new every day – aren’t exclusive to a newsroom. In fact, as newsrooms have been decimated by layoffs and attrition, those remaining smart, clever people are too damn busy bailing water to have much time left over to do the meaningful, fun things that drew them to the business in the first place. That’s not to say they aren’t trying, but the odds keep growing exponentially against them.

So, where does this leave me? I’m learning more every day and finding that many of the skills I though were unique to journalism – finding and telling interesting stories, organizing complex content into useful packages, engaging an audience – aren’t going anywhere; they’re just transitioning into another vehicle – one that I can’t wait to help drive.