B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences
Last week I attended the 2018 B2B Media Success Conference held by the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). The topics of the day ranged from the growing obstacles editors face in accessing public information and officials to the way changing B2B media business models have altered the day-to-day roles and expectations of the B2B editor. I thought it noteworthy that many of the sessions and ensuing Q&A often came back to the ethical challenges of being an editor in the B2B media business.
When I realized how much of the conference focused on ethics, my first thought was perhaps it was just editorial hand-wringing at play. But as the conversations of the day unfolded, it became apparent just how prevalent ethics dilemmas are in B2B – and how much they threaten the health of the industry.
Before we get to that, I wanted to note that the ASBPE he has an active ethics committee. ASBPE president Dominick Yanchunas says that members have been experiencing mistreatment in the form of reduced access to public officials and Freedom of Information Requests being unfulfilled, delayed, obfuscated or price gouged. Yanchunas pledged the ASBPE’s to editors and asked them to make them aware of such mistreatment.
Are B2B Media & Ethics Antithetical?
The biggest takeaway from hearing speakers’ comments and attendees’ questions is that journalistic ethics in B2B media are all over the map. That’s not to suggest there isn’t a diversity of moral codes floating around B2C publishing. Many fashion publications have been accused of advertiser reciprocity, and you might make the same claim of many consumer, niche, and special interests publications. But if we’re being honest, B2B media has an especially nefarious legacy of playing fast and loose with the journalistic craft, an advertiser-editorial coziness that wouldn’t be tolerated in most non-B2B organizations, and in some cases, a history of blatant pay-to-play coverage.
Before we look at the causes of ethical lapses in B2B media, it’s worth considering why, if at all, this is a problem. A bit of historical perspective will help.
For a long time, some B2B publishers were happy to place nearly any editorial content that stuck to the wall between the covers of their magazines as long as they could get a BPA or other auditing statement to show advertisers. The auditing statement was proof of engagement. I’m not painting the entire industry with one broad brush, but it would be naïve to think this wasn’t the mindset in some B2B publishing houses.
Next the internet came along, and along with blowing up the business model for most print-centric publishers, it pulled the curtain back on the B2B audience engagement model. Now the engagement (or lack thereof) was clear in the analytics. Advertisers love analytics.
Many publishers have evolved quite a bit in their thinking and one key step in that evolution was the realization that quality original content drives audience engagement and monetization. There will always be a challenge of balancing scale and quality, but the transparency of the web has forced the hand of many publishers to produce a superior product.
And this is the direction B2B media companies should be running at full speed: toward “consumer grade experiences.” That’s because the digital upstarts that come along in each niche market get this – they’re nimble, can stand up polished mobile-friendly sites backed by a lightweight tech stack quickly, and they present content that audiences can seamlessly navigate between platforms. In other words they are meeting the consumer-grade expectations of the next generation of B2B audiences.
To be fair, B2B publishing has come a long way. When I started to cover the media business 5 years ago, most B2B media brands had sites that looked 10-15 years old (ours included). Today the B2B media experiences have been greatly elevated. But there persists a regressive mindset in B2B publishing that has effects on everything from website design to...ethics. And in order for B2B to progress it needs to leave this legacy thinking behind.
The oft-coveted reputation of being perceived as an authority in the market is a high-level value that most B2B leadership understands, but it’s one built on the day-to-day battle for editorial integrity. If you think that’s a problem I encourage you to read on. If you think your organization is immune, I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong. The sessions at the ASBPE conference revealed what I take to be some of the common causes -- and some potential solutions -- for the B2B ethics virus.
(By the way, I recommend more publishers attend the conference next year to understand what challenges editors face and how they can empower them. Or have your editors attend and become a member. Membership is free.)
A session titled, “Navigating the Minefield of Editorial-Advertising Conflicts,” made good on its title by looking at some of the common issues of undue sales influence on editorial in B2B. JD Solomon, editorial director of Professional Media Group (with publications such as University Business and District Administration) led the session. In most cases, these conflicts were precipitated by sales perceiving editorial as a liability to the business (my words, not Solomons), as opposed to an asset. And in these cases, Solomon showed how a bit of entrepreneurial ambition could solve the undue influence sales was attempting to put on editorial. In fact, Solomon was able to create new business opportunities while enforcing the integrity of editorial.
“Sales sees company mentions as a form of currency to reward their advertisers or woo prospects,” said Solomon.
Besides company favoritism being just wrong from an journalism perspective, company mentions are just not the type of currency B2B publishers should be trafficking in if they want to establish a strong product. Solomon’s solution was to stop interviewing vendors for stories. I’m not sure that’s the best long-term solution, but it certainly ended the barrage of emails he was getting on the matter. Some B2B media organizations are plagued by that notion that to sell advertisers into their platforms, they need to give some access away for free. I'm not certain, but I don't think Facebook does this for their advertisers.
B2B leadership should ask themselves why salespeople in their organizations feel they even have the latitude to meddle in the editorial in this manner and why they’re spending time trying to curry favor with advertisers in a way that clearly undermines their product -- which to be clear is independent authority.
There is an understandably wide perspective on the value of vendor contributions, which depends greatly on the respective market, publication, and audience expectations. And in an era where editorial budgets are typically very thin, vendor contributions are a reality at most B2B organizations. (Full disclosure: we use plenty of editorially-vetted vendor contributions.)
For Solomon, the sticky politics of accepting vendor contributions wasn’t worth the trouble. For example, which vendor contributions get placed in the print magazine was a source of salespeople and vendor strife. As a solution, Solomon's publications created a sponsored content product opportunity for vendors to have a voice, which simultaneously strengthened the editorial integrity that was being threatened and developed new revenue.
For publishers accepting vendor contributions, there should be a firm policy in place to guide and protect editorial. Here are some things to watch out for:
Deceptive contributors - Those that may be surreptitiously carrying out content marketing by vendors paying them.
Non-bylined contributions - Content should be written by real people, not ghost writers or marketing committees.
Straight up hogwash – Content that offers no value to the audience and is a clear marketing pitch from a vendor.
Use of fake and bot social media accounts – This was new to me, but a session on fake news covered how some brands use fraudulent social media accounts to proliferate their content marketing efforts. A little sniffing on a contributor could reveal whether they are tied to some of these tactics.
Publishing Press Releases
In perhaps the most salient point made on B2B media in recent history, Solomon said: “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says I’m going to read education news press releases.”
It’s true, yet there’s a constant push at many B2B media organizations to publish press releases that no one will read and/or offer no context for the reader. If a press release is actually worth being published on a publisher site, it would almost always be better served by editorial context being added. Again though, a symptom of tight editorial resourced has forced publishers to take a “good enough” approach.
Solomon said his company created a self-serve portal on the web where vendors could publish their press releases. While this is a decent solution, it doesn’t necessarily get to the root problem -- but sometimes you have to pick your battles.
So where is the laziness? There’s a mental laziness on the part of salespeople that see an obstacle and want to barrel through instead of thinking of a creative way to get around it – collateral damage be damned. And there’s a laziness on the part of editors who would rather take the path of least resistance. It’s much easier to publish any contributed post than it is to thoroughly vet contributions and edit them rigorously.
2.Culture (and Policy) of Editorial Integrity
Publishing Executive has published several articles recently (here and here) that discuss the changing or modernizing of the former church-state wall between editorial and business teams in a publishing firm. Those posts delve into the need to foster collaboration, partnership, and mission alignment among different job functions given the new reality of the media business, while still maintaining a relationship where both “editorial” and “business” have recognized and respected areas of operational oversight in order to produce the best products for readers and advertisers.
Abandoning the church-state does not mean abandoning journalistic ethics. It means publishers should stop relying on a wall where a negotiated (and sometimes messy) relationship is required. However, this “new era” church-state relationship can only succeed if there is a culture that gives respect to editorial integrity and supports it with policy. (If your editors seem cagey about working more collaboratively with sales, perhaps it's because they've been bitten before.)
This culture and policy should extend to empowering and rewarding salespeople for being entrepreneurial. Instead of the default sales mindset of “make my client happy by any means,” media salespeople should use the integrity of their publications to leverage new sales opportunities. However, this takes ambition and energy which people typically only exert if there’s an upside.
One of the primary tools for establishing a more vital editorial culture is a clear corporate content strategy and mission statement. I wonder how many B2B organizations have a documented content strategy that defines the objectives of its content in terms of serving an audience and guiding editorial behavior. They should.
Such a policy sends a top-down mandate that helps editors (especially more junior editors) feel supported and protected when they are in the position of questioning sales and/or management in the interest of producing a superior product.
I often think of the role of editors as an analogy to the role of engineers at a company like Apple. If talented editors are empowered to do so, they should be making the best product within the means to yield the most customer engagement possible. The engineers of the iPod were surely under plenty of time and resource pressures. But a lesser visionary than Steve Jobs would likely not have created the environment to enable a product like the iPod to be developed -- one where the end-user was the most fundamental guiding light.
Are you providing the environment to produce the iPod of B2B media? Or does the B2B virus persist?
Denis Wilson is the content director for Book Business and Publishing Executive as well as the FUSE Media and FUSE Digital Marketing summits. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.