B2B for You and Me

When I consider why my segment of the publishing business-B2B-is in such dire straights, I see clearly that the recession only accelerated its inevitable decline. There are many other reasons, not the least of which is the fact that B2B publications are not traditionally subscription-based, so offering content for free online was a natural move. Yet as the content moved online with its existing cost infrastructure in place, advertising moved online too-unfortunately, at a much lower price point than its print counterpart. For a time, the two balanced each other out. But when the recession hit and all the advertising dried up, the inevitable truth that online advertising couldn't support the way we've done business came painfully into focus.

So we've seen the shuttering of dozens of B2B publications, we see some moving online only, and we see the emergence of web-native alternatives that leverage work-at-home flexibility to create content at a lower cost: no offices, no benefits, no salaries, lower freelance fees, etc. However, even these nimble web-based companies are struggling to survive on banner ads and webinars.

As I look around at some of these sites that I respect, such as those produced by TechTarget or by FierceMarkets, which includes EContent contributing editor Ron Miller's FierceContentManagement blog, I note a dearth of advertisers despite a respectable quantity of quality content.

I fully expect these sites, and B2B sites that can trim their infrastructure to fit into web-sized business models, to rebound somewhat as the economy does. There's growth to be had in web-based advertising, and these models will be poised to put ad messages next to great content that serves readers well.

However, I think that B2B publishing has another rival that we may not be paying nearly enough attention to: you. Yes, you, the reader. For years, EContent writers have put forth the notion that today, everyone's a publisher-meaning that given the universal web publishing platform, every bit of content created by any sort of organization has the power to make or break the company behind it. That your website is the face of your company and that, via well-provisioned web content, you put your best face forward every day.

Yet it is from another EContent contributing editor, David Meerman Scott, that the next big wave of web publishing for everyone is gathering strength: brand journalism. David has written a related column for EContent ("Attention Corporations: Hire a Journalist"), though his blog post "Brand Journalism" is a great place to start if you are not familiar with this idea (www.webinknow.com/2010/03/brand-journalism-.html). Essentially, David proposes that today, organizations no longer need to pass their stories through a media filter; instead, they can deliver stories directly to their customers via the web.

I agree. I don't want to, because we're talking about my livelihood here. But he's got a point. Thing is, David's idea is predicated on organizations producing journalistic-quality content. I don't want to get into some sort of urinary fracas over whether or not professional journalists are the best writers. I've seen more examples than I can count of "amateur" writers who craft elegant prose, who uncover news and report on it quickly and well, who offer insights well worth reading (and supported with advertising).

That said, I can also produce more examples than I care to consider of poorly written marketing schlock, of nonsensical press releases that are little more than thinly woven jargon, of case studies that fail, in any way, to lay out a story for the readers that tells them how hurdles were overcome, why they should care, and that leaves them with a great feeling about the organization behind the story.

The fact is, marketing professionals have had one-sided, ye-ha, hollow content writing drilled into them for so long that reconsidering their value proposition from a reader's perspective will take a radical transformation. That's why David suggests that organizations who want to take the plunge into this new wave of journalistic-style marketing "hire a journalist."

I think there will be opportunities for journalists who bravely cross that line and can hold strong against inevitable pressure from marketing gray hairs who review their copy and demand that any negatives, any difficulties, any challenges be expunged and replaced with "it slices, it dices, it transforms the world" bologna.

Today, however, I think that B2B publishers need to consider what this trend means for us. As organizations increasingly master brand journalism, forgoing their fears of a narrative arc replete with ups and downs and recognizing that consumers trust these stories and those behind them-and choose to do business with them because of it-well, we may find ourselves out of a job. So rather than wait and see, perhaps now is the time to leverage the many sales-based relationships we built up during B2B advertising's glory days and form partnerships with our customers to help them tell great stories their customers can relate to-and build a business model around that, which may help us keep our heads above water as this next wave comes crashing down.