Avoid These Nine Pitfalls When Gathering E-news Quotes

Howard Rauch

Submitted by Howard Rauch

Recent e-news studies conducted by Editorial Solutions, Inc. found a shortfall of articles containing direct quotes. Quotes used usually are not based on contact between editor and source. Instead, the information posted is close to word-for-word rewrite. As a result, information is often hard to read – aka lots of long sentences – and/or low/value puffery.  Here are nine pitfalls you want to avoid in the quotes you elect to post on-line or in print:

  1. Numberless pitfall. The interviewer settles for adjectives (“big”…“substantial”…“modest”) as opposed to hard numbers.  Sometimes this occurs because the interviewer doesn’t know the right questions to ask.  At my former company, we defeated this problem by providing all staff members with a list of two dozen questions that required quantitative answers.
  2. Redundant pitfall. In the published article, first the point is paraphrased, after which a quote merely echoes rather than expands upon the point.
  3. Transition pitfall. After responding to the specific question posed by the interviewer, the interviewee tacks on a totally unrelated observation that somehow gets published.
  4. Jargon pitfall. The interviewee responds in popular terms (such as fashion retailer always talking about “functional” garments) but offers no specific examples.
  5. Unclear pitfall. The writer does not understand what the interviewee is saying, but includes the direct quote anyway, assuming the editor or managing editor will catch any snafus.
  6. Windbag pitfall. Interviewee offers 500-word, valueless responses to most questions, and an intimidated interviewer makes no attempt to channel response along more useful lines.
  7. “For example” pitfall. Interviewee generalizes about specific trends or techniques, and writer does not attempt to ask the “for example” question in pursuit of better information.
  8. Hype pitfall. Usually occurs during interviews with advertisers who are trying to get as many self-serving statements as possible into the article.
  9. Platitude pitfall. Typical quotes get posted all too often (like “people are our most important asset” and “quality products and service are emphasized at all times.”)

There are many variations on the above, and your recommendations for additions to the list are invited. To avoid posting any low-value quote, of course, you must go the enterprising route by calling the original source (if dealing with a PR release) for better input.  Today, however, many editors tell me they don’t always have time to do that. Alas!!!

Content Strategist vs. Writer: What’s the Difference?

Sara Zailskas, a content strategist for Realtor.org, the website for the National Association of Realtors, explains why organizations need someone to keep an eye on the big picture in addition to superior content producers who focus on the details.

A friend and colleague who’s lucky enough to be setting up a content position for her website asked me to define the difference between a content strategist and a writer. My answer was that all web writers should be content strategists too; if you’re writing copy for the web, shouldn’t you be contemplating the different ways – the best ways– that copy could appear?

But that wasn’t her question. Here’s what I said:

A traditional web writer accepts an assignment to write about X and receives direction about how to execute that content or is at least familiar enough to follow a format. The writer is educated in nuances such as sentence length and SEO within the content and has a good understanding of how users react to web presentations of copy versus print. That person’s main job is to write and ask key questions about audience needs and the goals of posting the copy.

A content strategist’s role is more consulting than writing, although writing –especially wordsmithing– is involved to some degree. A content strategist would work with the writer or assigning department to define the goals and needs and strategize how that copy will appear across all platforms. We’ll help shape its presentation, considering the type of content, the audiences, metrics of past performance, length of time spent with the content, and more. Someone else does the bulk of producing the content.

You might be thinking that good web writers should already be asking all those questions, and I would heartily say yes. But the truth is, when your main goal is to write and really shape the voice, nitpick the words, and hone each piece of content in an assignment for placement, you most likely don’t want to dive into great detail about analytics or debate the many ways the content can be purposed. And because of that attention to detail, web writer’s copy should be far and above anyone else’s, and it does the job it should.

I feel similarly as a content strategist. I get all giddy inside thinking about where people will find the information and how it’s going to look. I want to know what’s worked well in the past and what hasn’t and what people are responding to. I want to investigate it, and I ask a ton of questions that raise other questions. We  propose how the copy should play out and make sure the person doing the writing gets why we’re assigning it the way we are.

And while I know that I produce great copy, I’m envious of the folks who get to hone in on the details and wear the “writer hat” because, in the traditional role, that is their main focus. Conversely, they’re probably glad they didn’t have to take part in all the debate and review!

If your organization is lucky enough to be able to separate the positions, good on ya’! And for those who must make the most with one solitary content figure, be wise and go with someone who is thinking of it all.

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?

10 Reality Checks To Test High-Value Headline Delivery

Howard Rauch

Submitted by Howard Rauch

High-benefit headlines always have been a high-priority item for B2B editors.  When it comes to digital, having an audience engagement message start right at the top is even more critical.

For the past few years, I’ve judged the Best Headline category in the AZBEE Awards and similar competitions.  While many entries were on target in terms of delivery, a few others missed an occasional step.  Based on previous reviews, I recently posted the following series of caveats on my Twitter page (@editsol):

  1. Hot headline is easier to write if lede’s first sentence expresses key story point within first ten words.
  2. Bad habit:  basing head on first paragraph of PR announcement.  There often is better angle further down.
  3. Perhaps hot headline you try to write doesn’t work because accompanying article should have been scrapped.
  4. News item’s first sentence must tell readers something new.  Repeating all or part of the head is not how to do it.
  5. Some headline writing suffers from an “echo” that occurs when head and deck sound identical.
  6. If few of your articles require heads with numbers, make more assignments designed to fill in the void.
  7. Remember that subheads used to break up articles must have all attributes of main head.  “Labels” not allowed.
  8. Headline variety is helpful attention-getter.  Asking questions and pulling hot quotes from articles are two ways to do it.
  9. Design that limits main headline length to three or four words is a bummer!  Editors must demand more leeway in their turn at bat.
  10. Good headlines tell readers what the writer discovered as opposed to what was covered.  There is a difference!

Of the above items, the one competition entries goof on frequently is #6.  This is a somewhat baffling observation, yes?  Significant numbers demand reader engagement.  Nevertheless, the number of heads including quantitative grabbers rarely exceeds five percent of total.

Another caveat not listed above – “cute” – often gets heavy flak when mentioned in a headline critique.  Despite being nagged about this in previous competitions, some editors continue to embrace the temptation to engage in clever word play.  This is especially self-destructive when the main headline uses three or four words.  Surprisingly enough, attempts to be amusing rather than instructive regularly lead off some editorial columns.  Instead, accompanying headlines should clearly reflect the author’s opinion.  Achieving that goal requires at least eight to ten words.

Finally, despite previous blogs and face-to-face exhortations, I’ve been unable to convince some editors to abandon “source first, news last” lede sentences.  This snafu’s most common form is beginning the article with a source’s very long title and company affiliation.  Before you know it, readers may be dragged through over a dozen word s wondering when the real story starts!!

The Fight for Editorial Ethics and Quality in Today’s Competitive B2B Environment

Matthew Wright, 2011 TABPI Young Leaders Scholarship recipient, reports on a panel discussion about the challenges faced in maintaining editorial ethics at the national ASBPE conference Aug. 4-5 in Chicago.

“It’s always a sign if you’re vomiting in the parking lot that it may be time to go,” said Abe Peck, director at Medill, Northwestern University.

Professor Peck offered some advice to participants on how to retain editorial ethics when they perceive their job to be on the line.

“Keep trying to make the case that things like transparency and ethical journalism are business arguments. . . . Pick your battles and really make a stand when you have to,” he said, adding that it makes sense to try building ethical practices within the organization rather than to fight individual cases.

Joining Professor Peck on the panel, Mark Schlack, editorial vice-president at Massachusetts-based publisher TechTarget, emphasized the need to be involved in training sales staff in the principles of editorial ethics. He also suggested that decision-making on content should be placed sufficiently high in the editorial ranks.

“A lot of times [such problems] proliferate through the lower ranks – by people who don’t know better, aren’t in a position to say no, or want to please the advertiser.”

Schlack said the business model in online publishing is changing. Until about four or five years ago the model was to get a lot of eyeballs and show them a lot of advertising. This was convenient from an ethics point of view because the ads were displayed randomly, he said.

“Now, by and large, unless you have one of those really large sites, your business will be changing to more of a ‘lead generation’ model,” he said.

Content, he explained, is then a way to attract a desirable audience who will register, provide some information on who they are, and then become “prospects” or “leads.” Although he believes that this model is not unethical in principle, issues arise when “topic  A is something that advertisers want to get leads for and topic B is something they are not that interested in getting leads for, [and] then the pressure is to publish a lot about topic A and nothing about topic B.”

It seems that, more and more, advertisers are expecting publishers to carry a version of “topic A” that is aligned closely with the message they want to impart. According to Schlack, this threatens the editor’s ability to create a mix of content to satisfy his or her audience.

He added: “The advertising community is very aggressive these days trying to rewrite the rules. In some cases they just don’t know the rules. There’s a whole new generation of people who have come into the online advertising and marketing world.”

Also speaking on the panel, ASBPE associate director Robin Sherman encouraged attendees to consider what is meant by editorial ethics, principles around which are set out in the association’s “Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices” – available at http://www.aspbe.org. One of the big problems,  Sherman suggested, is that, with a paucity of research that equates high editorial standards with increased revenue, editors are unable to quantify the return on investment for following such guidelines for their company’s executives.

Nevertheless, Schlack suggested that “there is a business argument to make, to say ‘we’re trying to get a certain audience so we have to serve them with quality content.’” He argued that editorial ethics drives high-quality content and a strong relationship with the audience, which is a good business goal. “The absence of ethics is a detriment to business.”

Professor Peck believes that editorial ethics should make sound business sense in the long run. “In the short term there is immense financial pressure to compromise,” he acknowledged, adding: “It is hard to measure but, if you can make a long-term quality argument, it’s going to make your material more engaging and improve loyalty – that is a good advertising environment.”

And avoid making an emotional argument, Schlack advised. “The freedom of democracy is not at stake in most of what we do [as B2B editors]. But the business is at stake. Publications that ignore their readers’ interests will disappear.”

Matthew Wright is editor of the UK journal Clinical Pharmacist, published by Pharmaceutical Press.

5 Tips for Repurposing Content for a Book

Publishing consultant Ally E. Peltier continues her series on repurposing and promoting previously published content. She began by explaining how to properly choose and assemble content for a successful, cohesive book. This was followed by a post identifying the three main sales venues for your book. Now she explores choosing the right print format.

 How to Choose the Right Print Format for Your Book

POD vs. Offset

“POD” stands for print-on-demand and refers to a digital printing process by which books can be produced one at a time for a minimal cost. POD technology is available to any publisher but is most often used by so-called “vanity presses” (more appropriately called “POD publishers” and “POD publishing services”) and self-publishers.*

The offset printing process takes files and turns them into metal plates, which are then inked, stamped onto rubber, and pressed onto paper. The cost of producing small numbers of books with offset can be prohibitive, so you’re usually looking at initial orders of a couple hundred to a few thousand copies. This is a “print run,” a term increasingly irrelevant in the world of digital printing. Traditional publishers most often use offset.

If you own and register your book’s ISBN, you are the publisher; you will work directly with a printer using your choice of offset or POD printing. Conversely, most POD publishing services own the ISBN they assign to your book, which makes them the publisher.

So how do I choose?

Here are some considerations regarding offset:

  • The quality of offset print is superior to POD. If your book uses full color or a lot of grayscale illustrations, offset may be a better choice.
  • You can lay out thousands of dollars for a first print run. However, the larger the print run, the smaller the cost per book. If you know you can sell a large print run, say 1,000 or more books, offset can be more cost-effective (though you’ll have to store your books or pay to warehouse them).
  • If a brick-and-mortar retail presence is essential to your publishing plan, go with offset. Most stores won’t stock POD books, though you’ll have marginally better luck self-publishing with a POD printer rather than using a POD publishing service.

Some considerations regarding POD:

  • If you’re primarily selling online or at events, POD may be for you. You can order small quantities to hand-sell as needed and books will be printed and shipped as online orders are placed. There’s nothing to store.
  • POD typically requires set-up fees minimal in comparison to the cost of offset print runs. Because you order and ship POD books as they’re sold, you only pay when you sell (or when you order for yourself). However, the per-book cost can be higher than offset depending on the number ordered.
  • To get a bookstore to stock your POD titles, you’ll have to set up the right wholesale discounts and return policies. POD publishers typically won’t offer these options (or will charge heavily for them); you’ll have more control over these aspects with a POD printer.
  • POD is so easy and affordable anyone can do it, which means it’s taken less seriously by industry pros. The most respected book reviewers won’t review POD titles, and your access to other sales and marketing channels is likewise affected (see my previous post).

*If you’re coordinating the production of your book from editing to design and book printing to distributing, then you are self-publishing, whether you use a POD publishing service or not. But for the sake of discussing choices in process, the distinction between “self-publishing” and “vanity” publishing or using a publishing service is important to understand.

Check out this series of articles on the Writer Beware blog by Victoria Strauss for a really comprehensive look at POD and electronic self-publishing, plus lots of resources for further reading.

Ally E. Peltier is an editor, writer, and publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge of the publishing industry and more than a decade of experience to help others reach their publishing goals, whether it’s showing a writer how to improve his manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish, or ghostwriting a book to help an entrepreneur skyrocket her business platform to new levels. Grab Ally’s free white papers and learn more about her services at www.ambitiousenterprises.com and www.allypeltier.com.

Making the Leap from Editor to Content Strategist

Sara Zailskas, a content strategist for Realtor.org, the website for the National Association of Realtors, asks questions editors should consider before they pursue a career as a content strategist. Those who do, Sara says, may find a more lucrative and stable career than what they had at the publishers they’ve left behind.

If I ever lost my current job as a content strategist, I like to think I’d have a good shot at finding another position because:

  • I have editorial skills that are the foundation of good content strategy, and
  • companies I’d never think of as publishers are using content strategists, meaning I wouldn’t be limited to looking for a job in one industry.

That was one of the takeaways from two days last month at Web Content Conference 2011, which gathered content strategists from all types of non-publishing companies – places I’m willing to bet pay more than any publisher today. Think BP, Abercrombie & Kent, and Wyndham Hotel Group.

Most of these very smart people were also just learning about editorial calendars, how to execute the same message in multiple media – concepts editors in trade publications use daily. As editors, we often underestimate how transferable our editorial experience is, and those skills are particularly important to content strategy.

The last I checked, publishing had some kinks to work out, and many folks have lost their jobs – that was me a year ago. You’re probably hearing about content strategy as a full-time job and wondering if it might be right for you. If so, consider these questions:

  • Can you let go of a project? Content strategists often work as consultants and don’t “own” their projects, and that means, whether you’re internal or external, you don’t always get the final say on key decisions.
  • Are you good at looking at things from different perspectives? Working across groups with different goals and interests?
  • How are your teaching skills? Content strategy is a new concept to many communicators or stakeholders in general. Plan to explain your role, thinking and reasoning. A lot.
  • Are you curious about the who, what, when, where, and why behind a project? About the history behind how you got to this point? About how people in other organizations would approach the same problem?
  • Do you have a sense for design and spatial organization?
  • How well can you sort things?
  • And how are your negotiating skills?
  • Can you apply your skills to all content types and subject matters?
  • Are you willing to track data and use it to make decisions, even if it goes against your idea?
  • Are you capable of performing triage without making your blood boil?
  • Can you define content strategy in one sentence?

And finally, what color is your content-strategy cape? Because if you answered positively to pretty much everything, you’re ready to wear one.