The joy (and occasional heartbreak) of good contributed content

As a longtime tech PR practitioner, my knowledge of B2B technology is an inch deep and a mile wide — I’ve never used a mobile marketing platform, for example, but I know enough about them to get reporters interested in writing them.

Or increasingly, getting their editors to accept contributed articles (also known as “bylines” or even op eds, if you’re trying to impress the NPR crowd) about them.

As PR types outnumber journalists anywhere from 3-1 to 5-1, vendor-contributed content has filled the space left when newsrooms emptied. Good, bad or somewhere in between — it was a future of promise for vendors to get their message across in a “vendor-neutral” way.

Journalists, however, weren’t jumping for joy. This 2009 piece painted a bleak future, particularly for the trade press:

Traditional publishing companies are now struggling to make the transition to online operation, and the results are anything but satisfying.  Evisceration of the editorial departments resulted in the near-elimination of objective content.  The resulting online replacements for print publications are filled with information primarily supplied by vendors, with virtually no objective voice.  Vendor-contributed articles make up most of the pseudo-editorial content, and advertising disguised as editorial fills up the balance of the space.  The editors who are still employed are compromised into choosing between vendor-written promo papers, selecting vendor-generated press releases, and even moderating vendor-sponsored webinars to lend a false air of objectivity to blatantly proprietary content. — “The Death of the Trade Press,” EEJournal, Kevin Morris

And the editors weren’t overwhelmed with the submissions:

Over the years, I have edited countless vendor-contributed articles that begin at least one sentence with: “Savvy marketers know” and finish the thought with some concept that even a drool-bucket-moron marketer should know. — “Stupid Terminology Watch: These Words and Phrases are Banned,” The Magill Report, Ken Magill.

Increasingly, these vendor-contributed pieces are written by their PR firms. As someone who enjoys writing, this has been an exciting opportunity–whereas in the past, I would write an abstract, place an article and hand it over to the client to write, now I got to be the subject-matter expert. And since most of these pieces are around 600 words, I knew enough about my clients’ market and the problems they solved for their clients to write credible pieces about a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to:

  • Digital manufacturing
  • HVAC systems and the danger of thermal load
  • A weekly column on the future of mobile engagement and radio
  • How SMS marketing programs helped a car dealer break its monthly sales record, and “increase the peace” in Baltimore (separate programs, by the way)
  • CRM systems for commercial real estate
  • The value of unstructured data in marketing (inadvertently placed in two competing trade magazines … I know it was 13 years ago but I am so, so sorry)
  • The heartbreak of ERP migration
  • The joy of ERP migration

I want to share best practices — but not the obvious ones (“don’t overtly write about your clients’ solution, but hint strongly that theirs is the only one that truly solves the problem at hand”; “for God’s sake, don’t mention your client’s company name until the bio of the author,” etc.).

Instead, here’s some things I suggest:

  • Write something you’d want to read. Do not write it with the enthusiasm of, say, completing a grocery list.
    • If the topic doesn’t interest you, pepper it with pop-culture references that will engage the reader, or hell, at least impress the editor.
      • The aforementioned “digital manufacturing” piece referenced the classic I Love Lucy scene in the chocolate factory. The unstructured data piece quoted a James Brown lyric (“Talkin’ Loud, And Sayin’ Nothin'”) although that was ultimately removed when I was told the author for whom I was ghostwriting was not a soul music fan.
  • It’s fine to use a vendor white paper as the starting point for your piece. But don’t cut-and-paste. White papers serve a different purpose than an 800-word piece in a trade or technology publication.
  • Start with an abstract, then an outline, then write the piece. (Obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people just dive write in).
  • I use a writing style that falls between breezy and authoritative — have some fun writing it, but make a point.
  • If you’re truly having a hard time finding a way to make something interesting, figure out a way to make an analogy that is.
    • For example, a piece about using “bots” to increase programmatic advertising numbers used baseball’s steroid scandals as an allegory — the bots were the “juice,” and the publishers were Mark McGwire. (Ultimately, this got watered down by the client, which is entirely their right … but still, it was fun to write).
  • If your topic gets rejected at a higher-level publication (say, a TechCrunch, which is VERY choosy about contributed topics), shoot for a trade, and if it doesn’t fly there, use the content for a blog entry. The lesson? Your idea may not be as interesting as you think. And that’s OK.

Finally, I will say this — I love ghostwriting for clients, but there are times that there are articles I’ve written that truly excite me, and there is a moment of brief sadness when it appears under someone else’s byline. But that sadness is short, and disappears with positive feedback and shares.

It’s the ghostwriter’s lament — but as a PR pro (who likes to write), it’s what I signed up for, and that’s fine.





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