Author, Speaker, Journalist, Strategist
The guy in 7A is bugging me. I’m sitting on a tiny airplane, crammed into a single-seat row waiting for an update. It’s Sunday afternoon. I was supposed to be home around five. I look at my watch. We’re already an hour late and it’s been a half hour since the pilot came on the intercom to tell us we’d be leaving in ten minutes.
I am already annoyed.
It doesn’t help that I’m tired. Really tired. Conference tired. The kind of tired that can only follow very little sleep, long days lugging a too-heavy messenger bag, long evenings eating, drinking and carrying heavy discussions. It’s a good kind of tired, but not the kind that sits well in a tiny seat – especially when everyone around you is annoying you.
They are Christian missionaries on their way back to Cincinnati after spending some time doing good things in Mexico. I don’t begrudge them that. I have no problem with Christians. Or missionaries. I have always been a Christian – born and raised Lutheran, converted to Catholicism after marriage. I like it when people discuss faith. I like when people put their faith into action. It’s not what’s in this guy’s heart that’s driving me crazy, it’s what’s coming out of his mouth. Apparently the book he is reading “disproves” atheism, agnosticism and any other form of religion other than Evangelical Christianity in six simple points. “They don’t have an answer for it!” he says with unreasonable gusto to the couple across the aisle from him and 15 year-old girl reading “The Odyssey” sitting across the shoe-box width aisle from me. And he goes on. And on. And on. Pontification does not usually bother me and I’m not sure I would have paid much attention to this guy if I weren’t tired and weary and if he didn’t, with each passionate exclamation, push back hard in his chair, driving the metal frame into the soft spot between my femur and kneecap.
I want to scream at him, but all I can muster is a weak a-hem, which he ignores. I don’t have the energy to fight and my mind is elsewhere. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’m heading home, leaving Houston and the Dad 2.0 Summit behind me, returning to the world of gray skies and snowy fields. To work and stress and wife and kids. I can’t wait to get off the plane.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve just been informed by the maintenance crew that it will be another 15 minutes or so,” the pilot says in his best Chuck Yeager voice. “Thanks for your patience.”
Another shot to the knees – praise God.
I was only at the first Dad 2.0 Summit for a day last year. Just long enough to come in and moderate a panel, share a drink with some friends and score some swag before heading off for SxSW in Austin. There was another panel to do. Work to be done. I enjoyed it last year, but my time was short and I felt like I missed the point. It felt more like a trade show for products dad’s might be interested in instead of something that was designed to transform new media. It was very well run, don’t get me wrong, but I have a unique place at conferences like this. I’ve spoken at M3, Blog World, SxSW (twice), Dad 2.0 and a few others. I got invited because I was editing a website aimed at dads. I wasn’t a blogger, per se, but a magazine editor, just as I had been before I moved online. I was in newspapers before that. I began my professional writing career in high school. I racked up AP awards the same year I could legally buy beer.
I’m not a blogger.
That’s not to say that I don’t write online. If you are reading this, you’ve obviously discovered my blog. But I don’t self-identify as a blogger, so I always feel a certain otherness when I go to these things. The site I was editing is in mothballs and for the last year or so I’ve been working as a digital content strategist. I work with massive – and I mean massive – brands to help them understand content marketing. I help them establish editorial content strategies, processes and match their business goals to measurable conversions created by content. I still work for the same company as I did when I edited the site, but I sit in the planning department and think things up. I haven’t worked on a professional project specifically involving dads or dad bloggers in a year. So, I felt like an interloper when I went to Dad 2.0. I had been invited by a good friend of mine – Jason Avant – to moderate his panel on turning your social media passion into a career and felt a little dirty because, in truth, I’m not particularly passionate about social media. I do it, but I wouldn’t call myself passionate about it.
What I am passionate about is innovation. And I’ll get to this in a minute, but first I have to get a few observations off my chest.
I missed a lot of the Friday sessions because I was on the phone in my hotel room. They sounded great. I would love to have heard Caleb Gardner read and gone to a couple of break-out sessions. Caleb is a great friend of mine and, in my mind, a great writer. Plus, I always want to learn more about the community of online content creators. I feel like I got to know a few Friday night – once I was done with my calls – over dinner and drinks and karaoke. And I was able to attend all the events Saturday. Let me tell you, the conference made leaps and bounds in progress between year one and year two. Doug French and his team put together a heck of an event that I’m sure pleased sponsors and attendees alike. Every booth I visited, every blogger I cornered, everywhere I went were happy people, but I wonder if we’ve really pushed things forward?
Among the bloggers I’ve spoken with, I hear a few common goals. They want to be read and appreciated. They want to be able to be paid for their work. They want brands to notice them and lay products and opportunities at their feet. They want to stand out more than other bloggers, be the ones at the top of the sheet when a brand is reaching out or, heaven sent, paying for content. They want their art to be appreciated as valuable.
(Warning: Harsh talk ahead)
Here’s the problem for bloggers as artists, particularly if they want to develop relationships with brands: your blog is not art. Brands are not the Medicis sponsoring your brilliance. Brands are not in the business of making art, they are in the business of selling products. To that end, a blogger outreach program is looked at in terms impressions and impressions are commodity. It doesn’t matter if you’ve slaved over your copy for weeks and weeks, shining it to perfection – it is just one more story with very temporary results.
There is a massive disconnect between content creators and brands that are buying or seeking content as part of a marketing plan. Creators make art. Brands buy commodity. They are both wrong. The value of content for a brand is not aesthetic – not wholly anyway – nor is it simply to check off a content marketing box. There is PR value in reaching out to bloggers and paying them a pitance or tossing them a free case of pencils to write something. But that PR value does not move the needle. And the longer bloggers are relegated to fighting over the tiny table scraps pushed to the PR budgets, the less chance they have of making real inroads with brands and innovating a new way forward. And as long as bloggers remain content to leave innovation to someone else, the big media companies and ad networks are going to continue to eat bigger and bigger portions of marketing pie.
Some stats for you:
If you are a blogger hoping to get discovered by a big brand who will make your dreams come true, understand that your site is a needle in massive stack of needles. If you think simply being a good writer makes you able to provide lasting value to a brand, get in line. I warn you, it’s a long, long, long line and the big kids – like Hearst and Conde Nast and NBC and Time Inc – are cutting in front of you. You may, like Black Hockey Jesus, simply be an amazing artist and content to be an amazing artist, but if you are in blogging because you want get involved in content marketing you’ve got a tough row to hoe unless you innovate.
I mentioned I’m a content strategist. I have a front row view of some of the most exciting developments in marketing and am amazed that I get to lead some really cutting edge content marketing efforts for visionary clients. I believe in content marketing, but know it needs to change. Content cannot be created as an art and acquired as a commodity. It has to be looked at as a tool. A value creation tool. A tool that can be optimized to drive business results. I believe content can connect a brand to a consumer in a way no advertising campaign ever could. I believe – and I know – content can be a tool to drive consumer conversion – from page view to return visit, return visit to social following, social following to opt-in, opt-in to sales and a million other iterations along the theme. I believe publishers are realizing the same thing and, looking at their declining ad sales and subscription numbers, are moving aggressively to create models that provide content to create and optimize that value.
But mostly I believe that bloggers have a right to win in the digital content marketing space. They just have to realize it. Who understands better the tenuous balance between content creation and social curation than a blogger? Who understands better how to develop and audience without the benefit of major marketing spends? Who understands what it means to have a voice, perspective and editorial equity than a blogger who is fighting for every visit, every page view, every comment they can get? No one. But where bloggers fall short is in expecting that those qualities and understandings will make brands come to them. Instead, they should be taking their knowledge to the brands. Not their audience – which, with rare exceptions, won’t move the needle significantly for a big brand – but their insights. I spoke with a few people at Dad 2.0, people who I think understand that innovation and evolution need to take place in order for bloggers to play a serious role in content marketing efforts for brands and my challenge was this:
Take what you know and blow my mind.
Solve my business problem and help me develop a platform that translates content into tangible value. Get a group of bloggers together and prove that you understand the pressures I am under – shrinking budgets, media proliferation making advertising less and less effective, the attention economy being a buyer’s market, the balance of search, social and content in a marketing mix. Prove to me that you can think about my business needs and my online ecosystem. Tie your compensation to my business results and understand that not all content creates the same level of conversion and not all conversion is equal.
Content marketing and publishing are two entirely different models. Publishing is all about putting eyeballs on iMedia. Content marketing is all about developing relationships with consumers and converting those relationships into sales. Show me that you understand that a pageview<a share<social following<opt-in<sale. Show me that you can be quick and responsive to my brand’s needs. Show me, in short, that you can convert what you know into action on behalf of my brand.
If you can do that, I’m a buyer. And so are others like me at agencies and brands around the world. If not, then bloggers will continue to fight for table scraps and samples. Conferences like Dad 2.0 will continue to be super enjoyable, but the medium will not reach its fullest potential and bloggers will be pushed to the sidelines.
I write all this with the utmost respect for the Dad 2.0 team and all the friends I’ve met in my time working with bloggers. I write it as a relative outsider, but one who believes in the potential bloggers have to change the paradigm in online marketing. As this and other conferences continue to grow and evolve, I’d like to see an opportunity for people like me to come and have my mind blown, for bloggers to show off and for real work to get done. Then, and only then, do I think brands will truly understand the value this community can create.
Now, if you don’t mind, the captain has just returned to tell us we will be taking off shortly and the guy in 7A has finally stopped talking. I think I’m going to get some sleep.