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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.