Ask ASBPE: When it comes to editorial quality versus revenue, what would you do?

ASBPE recently received this note from a member. On the heels of our National Conference and the recent ethics and editorial quality post, we thought it  helpful to see what our fellow editors could suggest for the note-writer.

I recently participated in a planning meeting where our sales team and editorial teams were discussing a project for next year.

I came to the meeting equipped with data that showed what topics had done well with our readers. My intention was to — like this year — create a project based on what our audience shows interest in.

The topics I suggested would provide the basis for good editorial quality; however, our sales team deemed them too difficult to sell sponsorships. Eventually, the group decided to develop a project series based on what sponsorships could be sold, not necessarily what has proven popular with readers.

I’m at an impasse with this concern over editorial quality. I don’t feel like I can talk to anyone at my company without seeming as though I was anti-revenue. In my role, I feel it is my duty to present things that are in the best interests of our subscribers and readers regardless of sponsorship.

I’m afraid I’m compromsiing my editorial quality and ethics if I don’t stick up for our audience; yet I’m risking my job if I do.

Any ideas?

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6 thoughts on “Ask ASBPE: When it comes to editorial quality versus revenue, what would you do?

  1. Not knowing details, such as what type of product this was you’re developing, it’s hard to give suggestions, but I find the problem with selling sponsorships (my editorial impression, of course) is that salespeople are often not interested in 1) learning about a new product so they can fully describe to a sponsor why it would be in their best interest to participate and 2) getting editorial input to help them create the sales pitch. For instance, I find it hard to believe an advertiser wouldn’t want to be involved in something that has historically been shown to grab the readers’ interest, especially because those readers are that advertiser’s key audience.

    I’d be curious to know what the sales team expects of the editorial in terms of this project’s success because if the project was not developed with the readers in mind, how does the sales team expect it to be successful.

    As somewhat of a boat rocker, I can’t really give advice that most would follow, but I would do a CYA move and create a memo just again outlining the data in support for project A and keep it on hand for when fingers point to you because of the failure of project B.

    Nikki Golden

  2. There are a couple of things to consider here. Just as a basic general matter, any publishing business that considers only sales and not what the audience wants will fairly soon have a diminished audience (both in size and quality) to deliver, and therefore is putting its revenue stream in jeopardy. similarly, if editorial is indifferent to sales potential, then who will pay for the staff? So the issue is how to navigate ensuring optimal overlap between sales and editorial and what to do about that part doesn’t overlap.

    So some questions I have:

    1. Did you feel that sales was wrong in assessing the value to advertisers of the projects you proposed? If so, were you given the opportunity to plead that case? Many times, for example, advertisers want to sponsor something about “hyperspeed green whizbangs” but you have chosen to write about “different color widgets” because that’s how your readers think and talk about it. Does sales understand that?

    2. Does your publisher understand that some of the things that advertisers want to sponsor are uninteresting to your readership? Maybe some kind of custom program is a better answer there.

    3. Does your publisher agree that you need resources and opportunities to write about certain topics that are interesting to your core audience but not to advertisers? If so, then can you develop your own calendar of non-sponsored stories, get them done well and serve your readers’ needs?

    Frankly, I often find that these sponsored projects are not any better, in readers’ eyes, than ordinary web stories. So if, for example, your sponsored projects are all videos or some kind of big web package, I wouldn’t get hung up on that. As long as you can cover what you need to in other ways, and promote it well enough (newsletters, home page, etc,.), than your readers will see it and read it. If anything, you’ll be proving your point hat this was vital stuff.

    If your publisher doesn’t understand that readers don’t see things the way advertisers do, thinks that everything advertisers want should be produced by the edit staff, and doesn’t think there’s any point to content that builds audience affinity regardless of revenue, then your job is already in jeopardy. Regardless of how good a team player you are, your company is taking a very high-risk strategy that historically has usually led to failure, or at least to sinking to be a bottom-tier player.

    The last question I would have is how well you have advocated. Aside from passion and persuasion, can you back up your arguments with traffic data, readership studies or any other objective measures that show either that some of the sponsor’s ideas are not likely to be accepted by readers or that some of your unsponsorable ideas are must-do stories for other reasons? If you’re satisfied that you’ve done a great job at that, than I return to my prior point — your job is already at risk.

    Tough to say, I know, in a down economy were changing jobs can be problematic. No less true, though.

  3. The previous responses have been thorough and, although I chair ASBPE’s ethics committee, I wanted to take this opportunity to offer additional thinking about editors’ engagement in marketing affairs. But wait . . . stop the presses! Today while scanning international sources of journalistic ethics developments, I found the following gem:

    During a national conference of unions just held in London, the National Union of Journalists proposed adoption of a “conscience clause.” It would protect journalists from being dismissed “for standing up against pressure to take part in unethical activities.” One individual commenting on the web site announcement said: “Journalists feel that there is a need for such a clause so that they may work in an ambience not tainted with the fear of unfair dismissal.”

    This is only a taste of the litigious developments cropping up constantly overseas in the wake of the hacking scandal. Recently, several discussions have focused moreso on regulating journalists as opposed to protecting their rights. Most likely, NUJ might find it difficult in court to defend a journalist’s right to have a conscience. However, the development clearly indicates how testy the situation across the pond has become. Clearly for some B2B editors in the U.S., relationships with publishers — where ethical matters are concerned — also have become less than cozy.

    And now a quick thought about marketing matters. I totally agree with Mark Schlack that having editors engaged in providing campaign guidance is a good thing. But editors also must have a reality sense in terms of how marketing campaigns are hatched. Previous comments have pointed out that content-focused programs must equally serve the needs of readers and advertisers, as opposed to being totally slanted to the latter. My past experience suggests that there are two categories of “advertisers” (1) the actual manufacturer; (2) advertising agencies. Some times, ethical rule-bending efforts are as much the fault of directives or practices followed by these groups. For example, some sources tell me that when media buyers place digital ad schedules, editorial quality is one of the last considerations. If we can’t sell to these folks on the basis of strength, what else do we have left? Seems to me that as deliberations on our situation continue, we might consider ways to make media buyers more quality conscious. Perhaps the B2B publishing industry should mount a national campaign to circulate that message.

  4. Just a few comments to add to the good ones already posted.

    1) We don’t know for a fact that ALL advertisers are NOT interested in the editor’s topics. We only know that the sales people believe they cannot sell it. Why is that? Are they lazy? Have advertisers told them they are not interested in the editor’s topics? If so, how many advertisers said that? Perhaps the sales force has only spoken with 3 advertisers. Perhaps some advertisers would love the topic if only they were approached.

    2) Just because the editor thinks her/his list of topics are the popular ones, doesn’t mean the readers would not like another topic that would also be of interest to advertisers. Perhaps there are other topics that the readers did not think of or didn’t have a chance to comment on. So, exactly how good is the reader research that the editor is relying on? What is the confidence level of the research? What is the response rate? What is the margin of error? What is the P value? And so on. Or was it information from a focus group? If so, that is for sure only anecdotal, not generalizable to the readership as a whole. The research question is not frivolous. There’s A LOT of bad reader research out there. And many editors and publishers are making decisions based on that poor data.

    3) Popularity of a topic, by itself, is not the sole/good measure of editorial quality.

  5. Pingback: Editorial Quality Vs. Revenue: A False Dichotomy | B2B Memes

  6. Pingback: Editorial Quality Vs. Revenue: A False Dichotomy « World Media Trend

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