Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Content Becomes King Once More – This Time of Search Marketing

Edited transcript of BriefingsDirect[TM] podcast with Media Survey's Sam Whitmore, recorded April 24, 2007.

Listen to the podcast here. If you'd like to learn more about BriefingsDirect B2B informational podcasts, or to become a sponsor of this or other B2B podcasts, contact Interarbor Solutions at 603-528-2435.

Dana Gardner: Hi. This is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you're listening to BriefingsDirect. Today, a podcast discussion about the future of marketing -- maybe we can call it Marketing 2.0?

We're going to talk about content creation as a strategic activity, and we're going to talk about what the PR and marketing folks in the field, in the enterprises, in businesses, are making of all of this.

Joining us to sift through it all, we have Sam Whitmore, founder and editor of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey. Welcome to the show again, Sam.

Sam Whitmore: It’s great to be back, Dana.

Gardner: It’s been two years since we started these conversations. I came to you as a professional providing tools for the media pros, asking, were they making blogs, were they making podcasts, what about RSS? And you weren’t sure. But do we have a new state of the art? Are people into this now? Is it a fad or are we really into something substantial?

Whitmore: It’s as close to substantial as it’s ever been. There are many segments, and we should be careful about generalizing, but in our world are the people that are likely to listen to this podcast. People understand about RSS feeds now. Microsoft Vista, entering the market with Web feeds, moved the marble a little bit -- and it's a very exciting time.

Gardner: I just got back, Sam, from the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco and was very impressed with the use of RSS, particularly as a machine-to-machine capability. Folks that are creating content, and then creating distribution networks using these within the mashup interface, the rich-Internet application interfaces. RSS is really a very popular tool for developers, and that’s going to hasten its appreciation for those a little higher up the food chain who are thinking about strategies, marketing, outreach, community development and so forth.

Whitmore: We're now getting people to understand the concept of "You don’t have to browse anymore." They still search, of course, probably more than ever before. But think about the two ways that people get their information now. It's either through RSS syndication, or through search. And it’s almost quaint to think back about, "Yeah, I think I am going to go through my bookmarks and see what I haven’t visited in a while." I don’t know anybody who does that anymore.

Gardner: The thing that’s interesting to me, and what’s changed in my business in the last year or so is this emphasis on search. Search, from what some people tell me, is the "new media." When you want something, you know enough about it to start a search. If you're a little bit diligent, you can find just about anything you want. That includes B2B content that describes products, values, and services that companies want you to know about.

What’s been interesting for me is that as I have created content -- some of it of by my own creation and, and other content that is sponsored -- people want help in creating content. As an analyst, I can moderate a panel or discuss something with users, and then make that available to many people. But that content has now become a very powerful force in search, and I did not intend it that way.

I intended this content to be something that had more of an RSS play value. But what’s happened is that the content is a search-ranking benefit for the topics we cover. I will blog about this content on three blogs, and I share it with distribution partners who are often IT media companies like TechTarget and E-Commerce Times. I also share it with direct subscription-based content deliverers to IT decision buyers, including Books24by7, AnalystPerspectives, Gerson Lehrman Group's News, and Insight24.

There are a number of channels that this audio and text content then finds its way into -- where it's tagged, has a different URL, and is associated with a different Web domain. The search engine crawlers and the algorithms that rank content take a look at this content and say, “Wow, it's going across multiple domains, it's been tagged a lot, it’s been put into bookmarks, and linked to -- so it must be highly relevant." And this content tends to move up swiftly in the search ranks.

So, my question to you, Sam, is: Are you seeing search marketing as I am seeing search marketing -- that it is becoming as important as advertising?

Whitmore: In a word, yes. I'll know a lot more in a couple of weeks, because at the end of the month, out in San Francisco, I will be going to ad:tech and hanging around with that crowd. But, it's been building for a while. The investment in search-engine optimization (SEO) and some of the acquisitions that we have seen, such as big, multi-national marketing companies now snapping up the iProspects, and iCrossings, are doing a great job. So, it’s definitely being built into the mix. That’s what Content 2.0 is. And you’ve really staked a high ground in that, haven’t you?

Gardner: I am trying.

Whitmore: So, you tell me. How are you doing with that? Is it driving your business?

Gardner: It is. About 90 percent of my business is now supported through custom podcast content creation. And I even hesitate to use the word podcast anymore, because for me, podcasting is really a means to creating content -- and not an ends. Just as you and I are having a discussion now on the phone, and I can create a transcript from this in about two or three days, that means this content can be widely distributed through multiple modes or modalities across different distribution networks and partnerships. We can even license it to people to use and create more content.

That’s sort of led me to another concept, which I call the "content pyramid." Interestingly enough, I’ve stumbled onto this in the same fashion that I stumbled onto search as an important element. Because I look at software development and deployment strategies as my main domain area for coverage -- and then I am more of a practitioner of Web 2.0 in terms of how I deliver content -- I’ve noticed over the past five years or so, a more strategic approach to software development.

That is to say, there's a new way, instead of small groups off doing their own thing, creating their applications that run autonomously on a monolithic stack of some kind, that have no real relationship to one another, and that at some point I might have to integrate and/or assimilate the data that they contain and create. The idea is to take a strategic overview and to think about applications from an architectural perspective.

The idea is to think of applications from their lifecycle, not just how we create them -- but how we might want to use them in the future, or even sunset them. Then think what we’re going to do with this pile of data that, in many cases, is about the same customer or the same product, but in a different format in a different application? This one-off approach is just not productive, and it’s expensive.

Companies are spending 70 to 80 percent of their IT dollars just on maintenance of these existing applications, and are not doing innovative new things. There has been a whole host of things that have happened around, "Hey, let’s create components, let’s use standards, and let’s develop around a common framework such as Eclipse." So, there’s more of a strategic approach to software.

Ultimately, the goal is a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) where you have lots of different business services that you can then package, mash up, and aggregate to create different processes. Then, you can tear them apart and build them up again. It’s more of a use-reuse, common-repository mentality, and not just one-off production.

Whitmore: All right, so let’s see how you pull this off with content.

Gardner: The idea is to start thinking strategically about your content, instead of having thousands of people around your company, each creating their own content without much interaction, without much coordination, but perhaps a lot of overlap and a lack of reuse, adding to redundancy. That goes for everything from mimeographs to RSS feeds, and all in between.

But when you think about content more strategically, and can plan for and create core content that can be reused and extended across different uses -- like marketing literature, the documentation you provide for your services and products, your advertising, as well as your communications with your investors, with analysts, with the press -- you create more of a coordinated core set of messages and documents and content. We'll be seeing more audio and video increasingly in this mix.

If a company can create this content core and allow people to use it and make it accessible -- in the same way as with the development of software tools and components -- you can better control your costs. You can better control your message, because more of your messaging will be in sync, because it's all coming off of the same core. You can create a lot of this core without having to go through a sixth-month review process, and without taking up your experts’ and your company’s time by forcing them to write 80-page papers.

Maybe this whole notion of the conversation that is prominent in social networking and in Web 2.0 -- of having a series of conversations, capturing it as audio, turning it into text, reusing it across different aspects of your communications, and increasingly, capturing it as video as well -- will allow for a much easier way of gathering knowledge from your experts and users, keeping it on message, and then making that available as a set of core content.

Now, it’s a vision. There is always going to be a lot of need for exceptions, but conceptually starting to think about content strategically to me makes a lot of sense now.

Whitmore: Well, I know that Netflix has somebody in the CCO position, Chief Content Officer, and that they have looked into that as a fundamental principle of communicating to their constituencies, their prospects, their customers, their investors, and people like that. So, it is a good idea.

Gardner: It’s really all about content discussion and community. As more companies outsource and offshore elements of their production and distribution, and as more business services become available off the wire, what is it that’s going to define the business of the future? It’s going to be their relationships, and the way that they foster those relationships is through ongoing content-based discussion.

We now have the ability to distribute content far more widely, but, at the same time, in a more granular sense -- that long-tail concept -- more widely, yet more targeted, and more cheaply than ever. So, you can create a 30-minute movie, put it on YouTube, and almost anyone on the planet has access to it. Anyone, by the way, who does a search on the key issues about your value, your products, or your company gets to the content.

More companies will be making some pretty high-quality, interesting, 30-minute, maybe 15-minute movies. We are already seeing this. There was a great one on SOA that IBM did not too long ago. Are you, as a marketer, going to want to have someone else define your messaging for you? Or are you going to start thinking about doing this yourselves?

Again, IBM is a bellwether in this, at least in the IT space. They’re just creating scads of content. And when you go to Google, if you type in "SOA" or "Services Oriented Architecture," which is an important direction and business opportunity for IBM, the left hand side of the search page, that free-content stuff, is littered with IBM content. Discussions with developers, whitepapers, mentions in press – these are the things that get vetted by the search engine algorithms as being relevant.

Any company that has a strategic direction in which they are taking their business should say, “What are the keywords that relate to our future? What is the content we can create that will drive recognition from those keywords of our value, specifically as an individual company? And how can we create an ongoing process by which we’re feeding that algorithm machine over and over again to retain that high ranking?"

That to me is Marketing 2.0.

Whitmore: That model works hand-in-glove in uber-search environments like a Yahoo!, YouTube, or Google. But in the world that I follow, you've got the IT and tech media really trying to drive their brand, because they don’t want you to go to Google and type in “SOA.” That would be a terrible defeat for them.

Gardner: But, you don’t want to limit yourself to one media company’s input. What these media companies should be doing is the same thing their customers are doing. That is to create the very best possible content on the key subjects of interest of the day, and have them appear high up in the general search ranking. So, when I do a Google search on “SOA,” I’d just as well see an article up there by InfoWorld as one that is from IBM. But either way, if it's good and valuable information, that’s what I’m going to look at.

Whitmore: But as you get closer to, “I've got to make a decision on a reseller or a solution provider or vendor," then I think that I am not going to trust IBM. They are not going to be my goal because they are going to be omitting the stuff about BEA and its competitors.

Gardner: Well, we hope that BEA and its competitors are creating content about their value and that it’s also available. Obviously, buyers will be moving from research, into creating a shortlist, into an RFP process, getting into weighty, detailed discussions, and then ultimately buying negotiations. This Marketing 2.0 approach is completely complementary to a traditional sales, research, and then execution process.

Whitmore: It absolutely is. They can work in parallel, and these IT trade titles and these people that are being rapidly disintermediated need to figure out how to get some of their content to rank well in generic search environments. That brings us back to SEO and the fact that you can subscribe to RSS search results. These people really are getting hammered.

Gardner: We're now leveling the playing field. The best content that is vetted through the algorithmic search process is what’s going to be most prominent. We know that when people do searches, they don’t go more than one or two pages in. Therefore, the IT media, those companies covering IT, need to come up with great content, great columnists, podcasts, RSS, video, whatever it might be, that would show what is voted on as best and vetted.

Whitmore: I have an editorial bias, when I hear the word "content." I think about generic, by-the-pound content. Whitepapers have their place, and product documentation too, but as the 20-somethings and 30-somethings take over the world – and that’s happening – they are not going to accept the same blandness and pseudo-authority that a lot of content has for us.

Gardner: I agree. People need to loosen up, and I've written a number of whitepapers. The way you go about a whitepaper is you do research, you get information, and you do interviews – primary research. And what is an interview? It’s a discussion. Why not just create a great discussion with the experts and put that up, instead of putting it into some sort of a turgid-prose, 80-page tome of which people only read the executive summary?

Why not give the long tail its due, put up a series of five key discussions with the experts you would have interviewed anyway for the whitepaper, let people either read the transcript or glance at the executive summary of each individual interview or discussion, and then pick and choose? To me, that’s just a better way to learn. And it's also a lot easier for the experts as well as the authors. So, it really is a discussion.

There are more young people thinking about community and social networking, and so why not combine all of this into a happy discussion that is also substantive and educates at the same time?

Whitmore: It reflects real people with real attitudes, and not created by the lawyers and the PR people and the conservative forces within companies because that’s simply not going to work. One of my last points questions is, when are we going to see an example of a company relying on "content pyramid" philosophy, and could we prove that they were successful doing so? When are we going to see that?

Gardner: We're seeing dribs and drabs of it. The idea is to look at what’s effective in terms of engagement with your communities. If you can engage your community with a whitepaper from the people doing lead generation, and they get 300 or 400 leads, it’s a success. But when you put something up on YouTube, you get 30,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands of potential downloads and click-throughs and looks.

The scale is much greater and the cost can be comparable or even lower. You are going to start to see what works in the field. When people recognize that if they are number one or assumed to be in the top several media outlets, they are going to have to be there. Vendors will cultivate the search option too through PR and AR and Investor relations and operate among different channels or distributions of content to reach their end-users and communities.

I can see "search relations (SR)" as another possible definition of people’s approach to this.

Whitmore: That’s a very interesting concept, but from a VP of sales perspective, Dana, I don’t want 30,000 leads. I want the 25 that are in an advanced state of consideration for the product that I sell.

Gardner: Then, you just vet them. You take that 30,000 potential community and bring them down into another level of content that will slough off those who are not interested very much. That’s to say, if they’ll click through and look at a five-minute video, that means there’s mild interest. If they click further down and read a transcript of hear a podcast on a similar topic, but more refined, that shows even more self-selecting and interest.

Then, if they listen to the podcast, you get down to the where it’s a lead generation benefit. That’s where you separate the wheat from the chaff and you get real leads. It's also where the content pyramid works. You need the content to walk them down that path of self-selection.

But, I would rather start with a large universe and work it down, creating brand affinity and relationships with those people, and then find the content and the mechanisms that then bring them to the point where they are ready to sign up for the product or service.

The pyramid is, in that case, inverse – you start wide and you go narrow. But the content creation process should start specific and narrow and then go wide. It has to be two-way discussion. Once you engage the people on a discussion, that’s where you have a myriad of opportunities for bringing them into your business.

Whitmore: Are there examples of people that are prospering with this philosophy?

Gardner: The notion of getting people to a sales-and-marketing activity requires community, affinity, and interest, and you have to lure them in there and then get them to click – whether the click is a download or it’s a lead generation form.

I’d look at some companies that are good at that. I'd again bring up IBM, but I have also noticed that BMC has a very good page, where you can go for information. And this page has got a listing of all sorts of content that has to do with specific values about what they bring their customers.

And they're saying, "Here’s the content that we have created. Here’s content that we found out there that others have created. Here are links to blogs and podcasts that we think are relevant to this. Here’s a download of whitepapers in the traditional marketing literature." It's really just a site or a destination around a topic that’s a subset of their business that people can go to, and then they could get an RSS feed from.

In a sense, BMC is doing their community a service through a knowledge triage around a specific topic that then hopefully will engage the community. So, BMC is a good example. They still have to populate this. People who come back, people who have a subscription to RSS, are going to need something new and fresh coming down their pipe every week or two.

But, they're creating this funnel, qualifying people, and then hopefully getting them into an engagement. It therefore requires these companies to become publishers themselves.

Whitmore: But, most companies don’t have the headcount for that.

Gardner: Why not?

Whitmore: Because usually the executives are going to say, “If I had any spare headcount, I'm going to put it in sales and field marketing and they're not going to get into the publishing business.” They might subcontract it out, but I don’t think they're going to bring it in-house. I’d be very surprised.

Gardner: I was thinking the same thing when I started my business, Sam. I thought that I would be one of those subcontractors – and I am. I basically help people figure out how to make content distributed and keep it credible and valuable. But, I'm seeing more and more companies are actually saying, “We're going to create a studio – a video studio -- inside of our company.”

Whitmore: What kinds of companies?

Gardner: Well, Red Hat, for example, recently had a job posting that they are looking for someone who has experience as a video producer. And they are going to start doing this in house, I suspect. I expect to see the same thing from other companies.

Whitmore: That’s interesting, because they live in a viral world. And Apple’s the same way.

Gardner: Their goal is to get people to download the code that then leads to support and maintenance. That interests business.

It will be a mixture. Some companies aren't going to be interested in being in the content business. They’ll outsource the whole thing. Other companies will say, “Listen, it just makes more sense for us to make this a core competency. We'll still use traditional media, but we're going to create our own media too.”

Let’s think about the numbers here. Let’s say you're a $5 billion-a-year company, revenue-wise, in the IT space. You and I have worked for large IT publications. What was the total editorial budget?

Whitmore: Back in my day? It was at least $1 million.

Gardner: Let’s say you could create an entire weekly news publication that’s the best in its field for a couple of million a year, and you're a $5 billion company. Wouldn’t you throw $750,000 or $1 million at a core competency of content creation, and perhaps soon dominate your space for content, and dominate all of the keyword searches because you're putting up the best, most interesting content?

Whitmore: If I had strong enough leadership, I would.

Gardner: If I were spending five times that much on just advertising -- and half of that advertising was wasted, but I didn’t know which half it was -- wouldn’t I take some of that money and devote it to my own content creation competencies? This is no-brainer. Any company, after a certain critical mass of size and revenue, should look at -- among their marketing spend and advertising spend -- their content creation spend.

Whitmore: Being a student of media, I have observed a collective lack of will across most segments most of the time. When you see the exceptions to this, that’s when you see a feature story. That’s when you see a Q&A. The journalists are out there beating the bushes to find people with spines who do something other than what's expected of them.

Gardner: You know as a former journalist -- and I should say you're still a journalist in what you're doing -- when you beat the bushes, there are always stories out there. There is another thing that's interesting, there's something called News@Cisco, and Cisco Systems created it like a newsroom.

Whitmore: I love that site. That is the absolute archetype for vendor publishing, as far as I'm concerned.

Gardner: There it is. You can go in and say, “We want to talk to you. We're just fine in the field -- whether it’s a sales person, an engineer, another blogger, an evangelist -- what's news and interesting and happening in the communities that affect Cisco? Let’s talk about it. Let’s publish it.” There's plenty of great stuff in there.

Whitmore: Well, that’s a good place to send people. It’s newsroom.cisco.com I believe or is it news.cisco.com?

Gardner: Or you could just go to Google and type News at Cisco, right? I mean, why even think about the site? You go to the search engine. It’s the same way that your clients and prospects are going to find your stuff.

Whitmore: Well, I guess I’m old school and I never realized it. I tried to think of the destination but you're right, I don’t need to, and that sort of makes your point.

Gardner: You can call it lazy but, darn it, it works, it’s productive. If you use search, not just for search, but for navigation, that’s just another reason to look at that as a place you have to be.

Well, we've been having an interesting discussion. I want to thank you Sam, but we're out of time. We have covered some Marketing 2.0, maybe even some press release 2.0. I've been tracking what folks like Shift and Edelman and some of these other firms are doing, where they create a whole slew of rich content that becomes available when a press release or a news event happens, I think it’s very similar thinking to what we've been describing.

Whitmore: That’s right, a content stack. We probably don’t have the time to get into that, but here are the two things, the two litmus tests, that I would point to regarding this social media press-release thing. Number one, who are the vendors using this approach and do they continue to use it once they have started? Do they stick with it?

The other thing is, are journalists publicly saying, "This helps me do my job better and I'm inclined to write longer or richer pieces when I'm communicated to in this new way?" When I start to see critical mass in both of those areas, then we’ll know that the trend is taking hold. Until we see that, I'm still skeptical

Gardner: Well, I would offer one more opportunity for how it could be gauged as a return on investment, and that would be when you do a search on a company. If any of those pieces of press release 2.0 content actually start rising up, then it’s served its purpose too.

Whitmore: You've done it to me again. I didn’t think of "search" first.

Gardner: "Search" -- it’s the new media.

Whitmore: Even though I started with it in this podcast interestingly enough.

Gardner: Search and RSS, yeah.

Whitmore: That’s right. Well, Dana, I enjoyed it as always. It’s great to talk with you.

Gardner: Right, we've been talking here today with Sam Whitmore. He is the founder and editor of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey at mediasurvey.com. or, heck, just go to Google and type in "Media Survey" or "Sam Whitmore," and you’ll get there.

This is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you have been listening to BriefingsDirect. Thanks.

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Transcript of Dana Gardner’s Podcast on Marketing 2.0 with Sam Whitmore. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2007. All rights reserved.