Rare is the opportunity to see the beginning of a new media platform, and rarer still to be in a position to help shape it. Yet in the digital age, this is precisely the fortuitous place that we early 21st-century journalists occupy. As was the case with the pioneers of television, many of the approaches we take today to online media will no doubt be refined over time but they also will help to define this completely new way to view and describe the world.
This portends great things for B2B editors and writers, and especially for those who can retain their journalistic backbone while shaping a whole new outer identity. Like early TV journalists trained in radio who first merely read the news to the eye of the camera before discovering television’s potential for visuals, we must put aside our own print assumptions and adapt the online medium as a new and unprecedented means of multiplatform communication and interaction.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 trends – currently in various stages of adoption – that have the potential to make or break our editorial careers, depending on how well we adapt.
1. We will be measured. Gone are the days when we as print journalists could proclaim an article a success if we received a handful of favorable calls and letters or emails. Today the online brand with the most opens, unique visitors and pageviews wins. And this will be true for individual writers and articles as well. Audience response is not everything – there always will be room for the important story that absolutely must be published – but metrics increasingly will be how the money people keep score.
2. Our content will become “co-creative” with our audiences’. That is, we’re going to share more and more of the authorship of our media products with the people who consume them. Article comments and online polls have been joined by sparks of dense, peer-to-peer interactions in online communities and growing numbers of blogs by industry experts – natural descendants to magazine columns. Coming now or soon: far more audience-supplied text, images and video, which itself will spin off more audience interaction. And how long will it be before our B2B sites begin true crowdsourcing – issuing “open calls” for collective, problem-solving contributions from our communities? B2B media historically has published articles identifying pressing industry challenges; now we can become instrumental in their very resolution.
3. Editorial-produced content will focus predominantly on analysis and exclusives. I think we’re in the middle of a long-term decline in the need for what used to be called “news of record.” Major company and people announcements, meeting news, and tradeshow coverage become commoditized when they hit everyone’s websites at the same time. Remember too that we’re not alone in using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. to follow the slipstream of daily developments. In the future we’ll spend less time and attention on non-exclusive news reporting and more of our efforts on (a) expert analysis of the meaning of and likely reverberations from breaking developments, and (b) editorial presentations that our brands alone are known for – rankings of companies and people, expert predictions, exclusive columns and blogs, etc. A deeper and more expert knowledge of our markets than often has been true in the past will be needed for us to do this.
4. We are in the entertainment – as well as information – business. B2B media historically has been resistant to much of the entertainment value of consumer media, but in an online realm where disparate worlds can and do collide, we may be at liberty – in fact, compelled – to discard some of our businesslike soberness in order to remain relevant. Some marketers already have discovered the great value of using humor in viral video, such as Blendtec and its faux-retro “Will It Blend?” series. Prediction: video and audio scriptwriting is in your future; in fact it already is reality in some corners of Meister Media, where we recently constructed a video production studio. Likewise, the very graphic presentation of B2B websites will evolve, as Flash and other forms of animation come to the editorial webpage as surely as consumer-like 4/c forms chased cover-to-cover b/w from our magazine pages. Editors increasingly will work with designers and web developers in “directing” animated presentations.
5. We (not publishers) will be the primary marketers of our own content. Posting our content, once the coda of our work, now is setting off a secondary step of “placing” links in social media; monitoring metrics; and modifying story angles, headlines, ledes, etc. in a gambit to reap more pageviews. Again, this duty will fall on the individual journalist as surely as the work of crafting the very story itself.
6. It’s nearly certain that no member of our audience is going to pay us or our publishers directly for our content. The Wall Street Journals of the world notwithstanding, the vast majority of the media will have little to no success turning around the deeply ingrained expectation for free content online. It’s been estimated that as few as 5% of online users will pay for digital news. As is the case with controlled circulation magazines, this reality will require editors to continue working with their publishers and their advertising community to attract commercial support that pays the freight.
7. The fading “bright line” between editorial and sales may get even dimmer. Publishers and salespeople are as challenged by the transition to online as editors are, with the famed “print dollars to digital dimes” devolution reducing revenue and profit margins for many media outlets. Publishers need audience engagement like never before. Web metrics are like nonstop readership studies – they’re conducted year-round, year in and year out. In order to generate more pageviews and, hence, ad impressions, the editor’s creativity and knowledge of audience needs and behavior will be in even more demand, sometimes directly in the service of the advertiser. This is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it’s probably good for the longer-term employment prospects of the editor – but emerging discussions about online ethics are very timely, as the differentiation between editorial and advertising is not always as distinguishable online as it is in print.
8. In just a few years our content will be just as likely to be read on mobile devices as on desktop and computer screens. In fact, as I wrote this, a report in min predicted that mobile will overtake desktop web in three years. Text for smaller screens must be pithier and more useful on the go, and its development even faster – nearly instantaneous. Graphic images must be more workmanlike and immediately useful, less ornamental. And video played on handhelds is on the verge of a breakthrough.
9. Print content will go the premium route. In a web-first environment our online content often will be priority one on a day-to-day basis, but that doesn’t mean print will go by the wayside. In my view, print publications will be developed for a more select audience worthy of the additional costs of printing and distribution. To coexist in an online world, print content will need to improve overall and reassert its unique value. I envision a return to larger trim sizes, higher-quality paper, and more lavish editorial and graphics – but again, for a more select audience, and likely at a less-than-monthly frequency.
10. The Millennials will want our content, but in different packages. I recently wrote in my emedia blog about my college-age daughter’s disinterest in newspapers. But a rejection of the medium doesn’t necessarily equate to a rejection of the content. Example: the Beatles are more popular now than they have been in years, in part due to Rock Band’s popularity with the iGeneration. The Millennials of course will demand content that is relevant to their specific needs – a challenge for every generation of journalists – but what they consume must be served in a context that they like and are used to: far from reliant on paper; mobile (of course); entertaining and irreverent (think Nickelodeon, their cable channel of preference growing up); interactive (think Facebook); and customizable (think iGoogle).
As a media platform the web already has been around for 15 years or more, so isn’t it funny that we should still be talking about how to adapt our content for its uses? I don’t think so. The early 2010s for emedia are roughly analogous to the early 1960s for TV, which is to say: the infrastructure has been laid, the technological novelty (and intimidation) is wearing off, the audience is reaching a critical mass – and attention now turns to the quality and value of the contents that are pulsing through this pipeline rather than on the technical marvel of the pipeline itself. For anyone involved in the creation of content, it’s an adventurous time to be alive.
Jim Sulecki has more than 25 years of editorial, publishing management and sales/marketing experience in business-to-business and consumer media. Currently he manages Meister Media Worldwide’s 20 brand and custom websites, 12 branded e-newsletters, custom e-media, webinars, and online video/audio, crafting sales and marketing strategies and developing online content and search engine optimization programs. He was named “Innovator in Business Media: Online Executives” by BtoB Media Business magazine in June 2009.