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Economic Recovery Provides Contributed Article Opportunities

by C.G. Masi

Contributed articles-technical features written by company employees and contributed free of charge to trade magazines-have been a staple for the business-to-business press for a very, very long time. The dynamics of recovery from a long period of severe advertising depression, however, are making the next few months especially attractive for measurement and control companies who want to use this avenue for getting their message out.

I just got back from two conferences (Sensors Expo and the International Robots & Vision Show) in Chicago. The fact that these two conferences coincided in time and were co-located in space attracted a broad cross section of editors and publishers to the Rosemont Convention Center, as well as a good crop of vendor-company executives. With so many people strategically located in the high-technology marketplace all gathered together, I got what I think is a good read on business prospects for the next six months or so.

The Setup

We're seeing an interesting dynamic starting to play itself out, which I haven't seen in so pure a form at any other time over the past twenty years. Business spending, including advertising dollars, has been depressed for three years. This long drought has materially changed the financial and organizational structures at most business-to-business publications in such a way that they are not in a position to deal with the coming recovery.

Things started looking raggedy during the year 2000, but we were all so mesmerized by the turn of the millennium that nobody seemed to notice a fundamental downturn in business activity. A few of us (maybe even most of us) had a creepy feeling down our spines, but didn't appreciate how bad things were about to get, nor how fast they'd go bad or for how long.

The downturn's breadth, depth and duration have exceeded our expectations and, for most of us, our experience. The businesses that provide technical trade publications with readers, advertisers and new technology to cover first stopped offering contributed articles. Then, they started cutting ads. It eventually got so bad that executives, engineering managers and other employees stopped giving interviews. That's the part that I have never seen before!

Business-to-business publications started responding by halting their ambitious expansion plans. Next, they started holding the line on costs. Then, they started cutting costs wherever they could. Eventually, they started cutting staffs. Finally, they decimated staffs.

The good news is that business spending looks like it has started recovering. Company executives and sales people have stopped simply sitting in corners staring glumly at their feet, and are talking about new orders, better profits and their investments in new technology. Marketing communications people are hatching plots for how they're going to expand their budgets and what they're going to do with the new money. Notably, company representatives are coming out of their corners to give interviews again.

The anticipated upturn puts magazine editors in an awkward position. With their staffs trimmed well below the bone and their budgets already set for the next six months to a year, they are in no position to provide the editorial copy needed as folios expand. It will take six months for them to get their pipelines full of freelance-written pieces, and a year for them to get their internal staffs rebuilt.

They're hoping (against hope) to fill the gap with high-quality contributed manuscripts. They need contributed manuscripts because they won't have the budgets to pay writers. They need high-quality contributed articles because they won't have internal editors to fix the deficiencies of poor ones.

Contributed Articles

Business-to-business magazine editors have a love/hate relationship with contributed feature articles. These are manuscripts authored by employees of vendor companies in the industries the magazine covers, and offered to the magazine for publication free of charge. Companies are motivated to contribute such articles because a good contributed article in a prestigious magazine enhances the company's image, shows their mastery of cutting-edge technology, and (perhaps most importantly) gives them an opportunity to show the advantages of the new technology incorporated into their products.

Magazine editors love the things because they can provide copy written by technologically savvy authors at no cost to the magazine. When written by development engineers, they can provide an insight into the nuances of emerging technology that even the best professional journalists have trouble achieving. When it comes to learning the ins and outs of a particular technological advance, there's no substitute for having spent months (or longer) designing a real product based on it. The fact that the magazine doesn't have to pay the author makes budget-conscious editors feel like a kid in a candy store.

Like the kid in the candy store, however, an editor accepting a contributed manuscript risks getting a bellyache. While an engineering title on the author's byline looks good in print, editors know that it's no guarantee of a well-written manuscript. They realize that the author wasn't working in a vacuum. He or she usually writes the manuscript at the behest of the company's marketing department. No matter what the circumstances, the editor must assume that the author felt pressure to focus on the company's marketing message, rather than the technology the reader wants to learn about.

Trade magazine readers are quite sophisticated. They have read a good deal of technical explanation as well as a good deal of self-serving marketing hype. It is important to their careers to absorb as much technical explanation as possible without falling for any hype. They are, thus, motivated to read every article critically. Any article that looks the least bit "fishy" damages the reputations of the author, the company and the magazine. The last part is what worries the editor. Editors want to enhance their publications' reputations, not damage them.

Unfortunately, the editors I talked to complained bitterly about the manuscripts companies have been sending them. I'm not going to give quotes because I don't want to name names of the editors or companies involved. I'll just summarize the information.

There are three classic problems contributed manuscripts are prone to.

Fluff is the technical term for blatant sales pitches embedded in technical stories. Contributed manuscripts often pass review by companies' advertising and sales departments, which generally insist on inserting ad copy. Most often, fluff consists of statements that the technology (which is supposed to be the subject of the article) is used in such-and-such new product, which is therefore the greatest thing since sliced bread. The process of removing fluff is called sanitizing the manuscript, and requires the ministrations of an experienced technical editor who understands the technology, how to recognize fluff, and how to excise it without gutting the rest of the manuscript. These technical editors are just the people who are in shortest supply at overly lean publications.

Bad Writing is copy that contains useful information-a story the Editor would like to tell-but explained in words selected and arranged to maximize the reader's desire to sleep, or at least go do something more enjoyable than reading this drech. Magazines that publish bad writing soon get new editors, so editors have to fix it. Again, the repair process requires the services of a technical editor who knows the technology, etc., etc.

Nonsense can be called by many (mostly scatological) names. It is copy that is so badly written that the reader doesn't have a clue to what the author is trying to say. The Editor's only choice is to simply reject the manuscript completely as devoid of socially redeeming value. Unfortunately, it takes a technical editor (again) an inordinate amount of time to sift through the blather and determine whether the manuscript really is nonsense, or just a case of obfuscation, which is a subspecies of bad writing that hides the information under layers of apparent nonsense.

The worst situation of all is nonsense that sounds good during a quick scan. Editors can't thoroughly read all manuscripts before accepting or rejecting them because there are just too many. Many times I've gotten really excited about a manuscript that turns into nonsense as the technical editor picks it apart.

What I heard from the editors I talked to in Chicago is that, while they see lots of garbage crossing their desks in the guise of contributed articles, they can't find enough good stuff to fill their books. It seems the quality of contributed offerings has dropped just as their need has gone up. The fact that the trend is not surprising doesn't help. Editors find that just as they get pinched between a rock and a hard place, the ground drops away from under their feet.

The Opportunity

This situation puts companies who want to get maximum exposure for minimum expenditure (i.e., the most bang for their buck) in a very nice position. Assuming that they are working at the cutting edge of technology (sorry, I've got no hope to offer those running behind the technological power curve), they can get a lot of attention by assigning engineers to author contributed articles about their advanced technology. The articles have to avoid the three main pitfalls above, have to be clearly written, and the technology has to be advanced. If the manuscript has these qualities, beleaguered editors will fall all over themselves to give them several pages in their magazines.

I've assembled a list of feature article subjects that various magazines want to cover with contributed manuscripts. You can find the list in the Editorial Opportunities section of this website. These are topics the editors have slated for future issues, but haven't a clue as to how they are going to cover them. Editors are also sometimes willing to substitute a related story for a planned topic if they have a high-quality contributed manuscript available. Less often, they may even slip something in if it's intriguing enough to them.

This is the part where I put some fluff in, myself. The product I'm pitching is help to produce a manuscript any editor would die for. In an attempt to provide socially redeeming value behind this fluff, I will, instead of telling you why you desperately need my help, tell you how to know when yours is one of those lucky companies that don't need it.

You don't need my help if your engineers are also good writers experienced with trade-magazine (as opposed to scholarly journal) style. There are lots of folks like this around. Of course, they also must have a couple of weeks free to research, compose and polish the manuscript.

If you don't have the required glib engineers, maybe you have a marketing staff with the required skills and enough technical savvy to debrief the engineers. There are a surprising number of folks in high-tech companies that fit this bill, too. Some companies actually have one or two employees whose only job is to ghost write contributed manuscripts for busy or non-verbal engineers.

Whoever you assign to write the manuscript has to have a couple of weeks free to actually do the job. That means they must have upper management support to put everything else aside and concentrate on writing the piece.

If you see your company fitting this profile, you're in an ideal position to gain more than your fair share of mind among your potential customers. If not (and here's the product pitch), give us a call and we'll help you fill in the gaps. You, too, can take advantage of this opportunity to save money while gaining market exposure by helping editors fill their magazine pages.


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