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Striving for objectivity

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Being accused of being a shill for a company is pretty common for anyone who writes in tech these days.  Writers don’t even have to express an opinion to earn such epithets; simply reporting facts will earn spittle-flecked outrage if someone doesn’t like the facts presented.  Welcome to the internet era.

I am a writer.  I write for technology magazines, directly for vendors, and sometimes for other organizations themselves directly engaged with vendors.  One of the most frequent questions I get is how I maintain any sense of neutrality or objectivity with such an arrangement.

Five years ago I would have been terrified to write about any of this.  Content marketing was still something of a secret.  It was a badly kept secret that marketing types blogged about ceaselessly, but still largely a secret kept from readers.

Today, it’s the middle of 2017.  We are smack int he middle of the era of “fake news”.  There are powerful forces – billionaires and even the mechanisms of entire nations – devoted to destroying the credibility of journalists, analysts and new outlets everywhere.

How these news outlets survive matters.  How marketing works in the 21st century can’t be something we all pretend we don’t know.  Keeping schtum makes everything appear far more sinister than it really is.

Journalists, analysts and writers of all kinds need to get paid.  News organizations, magazines and everyone else who publishes content advertise in order to bring in money.  And yes, you guessed it, traditional display advertising isn’t bringing in the money it used to.

None of this means that writers, editors and publishers don’t value objectivity.  Many – and I personally hope it’s accurate to say most – of us think about bias, objectivity and neutrality a lot.  I know I certainly do.  So this brings us back to the original question: how does someone like me maintain any semblance of objectivity?

I am biased

I start by admitting I’m not objective.  Objectivity is an unattainable goal; all any of us can do is strive for objectivity and hope that.  This starts with understanding ourselves.

I have biases, just like anyone else.  I work hard on self-awareness to not only understand my biases, but get to the root the cause of them.  I am very much a champion of the end user and the small business.  I see “the little guy” as the one whose interests are never met and I tend to be pretty hard on vendors whose only interest is large enterprises.

Being aware of this, I can temper my own natural responses by getting better information from others who work in large environments, who don’t live daily with the budgetary constraints of small organizations and so forth.  For the most part, I know when my own idealism needs tempering.  That’s the start of writing in as objective a manner as possible.

Another part of objectivity is to put the time in to learn.  One reason that lobbying, for example, is so effective in today’s democracies – even when the politicians themselves are trying hard not to be corrupt – is that knowledge is power.

Knowledge isn’t merely power to those who have it.  Imparting knowledge is also a means of exercising power.  A politician drafting legislation can only consider the points of view to which they have been exposed.

The same is true for journalists.  If all we know about a given technology segment is a single vendor’s solution or approach, then we are unwittingly “captured” by that vendor.  To become more objective we need to understand the problem space we’re writing about as completely as possible.

The problem space

Talking about problem spaces in technology writing gets muddled.  Individual technologies can solve multiple problems, and many organizations have similar – but not identical – problems.  Consider, for example datacenter networking.

Ethernet is easily the dominant networking technology in today’s datacenters, though there is still plenty of Fibre Channel and Infiniband to be found.  This is a completely different problem space from WAN networking, where we might talk about SONET/SDH versus OTN.

Datacenter and WAN networking differ in more ways than the individual technologies used.  For example, they have completely different assumptions about link oversubscription.  The east-west versus north-south discussion is very different in both and discussions about asynchronous versus synchronous traffic delivery can quickly veer away from technical considerations and get deeply mired in some very heavy international political and economic considerations.

While datacenter networking and WAN networking are both networking, and both have a number of similar issues to address, they are completely different problem spaces.  This concept of a problem space is very important to any discussion about a writer’s attempt at objectivity.

Subject matter expertise

As a technology writer, even knowing enough about the topic to define the problem space as separate from the various adjacent ones puts you ahead of the pack.  You’re significantly less likely to be subject to bias due to a single vendor’s briefing, and you probably won’t do silly things like write scaremongering pieces about robot apocalypse just because Facebook’s chatbots invented their own language.

Many writers are assigned to a “beat”.  If you’re taking a skilled practitioner and teaching them to write, they come with pre-canned expertise on specific problem spaces.  A network engineer that can write in a coherent fashion becomes a pretty obvious choice to be assigned to the networking beat.

Coalface experience isn’t the only way to earn a reputation for objectivity on a given beat.  Many folks are old school journalists; they overcome the knowledge barrier through constant exposure to a single problem space, or to a set of intimately interlinked problem spaces.

I am more of an edge case.  I am a small business systems administrator.  By necessity, I learned a great deal about a great many problem spaces in IT.  I spent fifteen years as a generalist until, about five years ago, I had to make a choice between writing and full time systems administration.

In my case, the breadth of IT simply became too large for any one individual to learn it all, especially whilst actively putting out fires every day.  Being a generalist is something I enjoy.  I crave knowledge, so I decided to become a technology writer instead.

Most of the time, there is reasonable money to be made writing commercial content (blogs, whitepapers, etc).  It’s highly variable (2016 was an awful year), but in general a living can be made at it.

More importantly, a living can be made writing commercial content without having to write 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  In fact, one can usually get away with writing only about 10% of the work week.  The rest is spent – by me at least – learning.

I do briefings with vendors.  I test products in my lab.  I administer client networks; not because of the money they bring in (which isn’t much), but because they offer me legitimacy as a practitioner, and a place to hone my skills.

This puts me in a different position than many technology journalists.  Instead of being a practitioner who writes on the side, or a full time journalist dedicated to a specific beat I am closer to a professional student moonlighting as a tech writer.

Instead of waiting tables I write commercial content for vendors to pay the bills.  Instead of painting or sculpting as an art, I write opinion pieces and analyses for tech magazines.

And now you understand why I’m such a disappointment to my parents.

Thought leadership

Of course, knowledge’s power in helping the attempt at objectivity isn’t limited to subject matter expertise.  Understanding how the business side of things works is hugely important too.  Being someone who writes for technology magazines as well as directly for vendors makes this doubly important for me, because I am constantly on the razor’s edge of bias towards vendors I work closely with.

As discussed above, getting access to an audience in order to impart knowledge is a key part of getting whatever it is you want accomplished.  This isn’t only true when talking about politics or influencing journalists, its critical when we talk about marketing to end customers.

One needn’t lie to customers in order to sell one’s products, and doing so is almost always a terrible plan.  Telling the truth is far easier in the long run, and more importantly it is usually all that’s required to sell one’s product.  If your product solves a real world need then defining that problem space and demonstrating that your product answers the problems of that problem space is more than enough to keep you in shoes.

This is increasingly the province of thought leadership, which is a specific subset of content marketing.  The short version of thought leadership is that it involves getting subject matter experts – the more well-known and well respected, the better – to write about the problem space in question.

Thought leadership drives market education.  Once the potential customer base is educated about the problem space vendors can move on to the product differentiation stage which is more about sales and less about marketing.

In tech, marketing educates, sales differentiates.

Editorial versus commercial content

Commercial content isn’t limited to writing content directly for vendors. Thought leadership programs can be (and are) run through tech magazines themselves, but there is nowhere near the level of deep process engagement provided by a commercial content writer directly contracted to the vendor.

Going through the internal sales processes of the technology magazines, with their highly firewalled editorial/commercial divide, is the only way vendor can get any sort of content posted to their sites.  Vendors regularly try to bribe writers directly, but we are both ethically and contractually obligated not to do this.  (Additional reading: my page on the Editorial Firewall.)

What’s important to note, however, is that pursuing engagements with the tech magazines directly doesn’t present the vendor with much say over the content.  Let’s look at a generic version of how this works in practice, with the understand that the exact details vary from publishing house to publishing house and that this doesn’t represent any particular organization’s individual approach.

1) Vendor engages with publisher’s sales team and asks for a thought leadership program

2) Publisher tells editor “we are looking for 6 pieces based broadly on topic Y”

3) Editor creates and returns a list of topic ideas, or asks a subject matter expert writer to do so

4) Topics are selected and then writers for each topic are assigned by the editor

5) Writers do research, write whatever they want on the topic and hand it in

Right about here individual publications start to diverge widely.  Some magazines don’t allow vendors to reject articles, others do.

If an article is rejected okay, then the publisher will (usually) pay the writer anyways and a new writer will be selected to write a replacement piece, though some publishers will instead choose to arrange a briefing with the writer so that the writer can correct any misunderstandings they have.

Generally, rewrites because the writer is “off message” but factually correct aren’t allowed.

It is useful to call out the importance of the editor here.  Editors I have worked with are grumpy, distrustful of commercial content in general and paranoid about objectivity.  They don’t get paid to make vendors happy, they get paid to the readership happy.

Also, if something ends up being factually incorrect, they’re the ones who have to spend days in meetings with the lawyers.  Editors don’t care about your marketing message, and that’s a truly excellent thing for everyone involved.

Some examples

Another constraint on thought leadership through tech magazines is that tech magazines don’t allow blatantly commercial content to be placed directly into published content.  Some examples are helpful here:

A thought leadership content run could, for example, contain 6 pieces on why 100 gigabit Ethernet is important to practitioners and businesses alike.  Here is what a sample thought leadership run might look like:

1) Converged Ethernet: what it is and why you care?

2) Now that NVMe is a thing, networking is a hard bottleneck for virtualized systems

3) An analysis of network utilization rates in the modern datacenter

4) Advantages of hyperconvergence and why 10GbE is no longer enough

5) Poll + analysis of results: Who is deploying 100GbE, where and why?

6) 100GbE cabling: it’s not as scary as you think

At most publishers, none of these articles would mention the commissioning vendor unless the writer had a really good reason to include them.  Examples of a good reason would be that the writer is doing a comparative analysis of the whole of the problem space, or the only vendor in the problem space at the moment is the commissioning vendor.

As a general rule, editors will not allow the commissioned thought leadership pieces contain a discussion of how the vendor solves the problems inherent to the problem space in question.  There is some fudge factor allowed: a general discussion of how the problems could be solved would be allowed.  Specific looks at how a specific vendor solves a problem would not be.

Where this might get confusing for some is that it isn’t unusual for subject matter experts to write deep dives into a particular vendor’s approach to a technology, but when they do so it is not usually part of any paid program.  It’s because the writer, on their own initiative, decided to do so as a regular piece of editorial content, and they’ll usually have a good reason for it.  For example, because a given vendor solves a problem in a particularly interesting way.

Sticking to our networking theme, one might have run across a number of editorial pieces on how the use of RDMA in networking and specifically how Microsoft implemented it.  The press this implementation received was because Microsoft’s market share at the time was overwhelming, RDMA was relatively new, the numbers achieved were impressive and the numbers without RDMA were significantly less so.  Microsoft didn’t have to pay people to write about the awesomeness of their specific RDMA implementation: the tech press did it with minimal prompting.

Product differentiation isn’t news.  It’s not analysis.  It’s not education.  It’s not even opinion.  Product differentiation is pure sales.  It gives editors gas, and rightly so.

Advertising

This doesn’t mean that tech magazines don’t do vendor awareness or placement.  Some tech magazines might run display advertising along with the thought leadership pieces.  They may run blatant content marketing, but with a “sponsored content” warning on it.

Some publishers even offer the ability to bundle up editorially published thought leadership pieces along with some connective text into an ebook that the vendor can distribute, adding an “insert” at the end that contains a much more sales focused “here is how our products solve all the problems outlined in the ebook”.  Note that the insert would never be circulated by the tech magazine as editorial content and would be called out explicitly as sponsored content in the ebook version.  That editorial firewall thing again.

Many tech magazines offer “lead gen” programs in one form or another.  These are attached to webinars, newsletters/e-mail blasts, surveys or other forms of mixed media engagement.  People who sign up for these events get their information given to the vendor, and the vendor’s sales teams follow up.  This is more typical when the driving force is not market education (marketing) but product differentiation (sales).

Even here, however, tech magazines can separate editorial content from commercial content.  For example, the vendor might get the contact info of everyone signing up for a webinar, but may not have control over the content in the webinar.  The content may be left to a “panel of experts” recruited by the tech magazine.  Similarly, while surveys may net leads for the vendor, the analysis based on the survey results may be completely under editorial control, and the vendor may not get much (if any) input into that.

Vendor involvement in these forms of advertising is much clearer than vendor involvement in thought leadership programs, which is probably why there is so much FUD surrounding thought leadership.  Thought leadership can be – and is – done badly, or even deceitfully by unethical publications.  Fortunately, in tech at least, most of the magazines seem to be utterly paranoid about strict editorial firewalls, as do a great many of the writers and the blogging community at large.

The utility of content marketing

Thought leadership, both as seen in tech magazines and when the content is written for and distributed by vendors, is usually about market education.  It works on the assumption that one’s product is good enough that anyone who fully understands the problems they are facing and the potential solutions will leap at the chance to buy the vendor’s product.

Readers get utility from this sort of writing because they get to “peek around the corner”.  It’s great to be able to get a look at problems experienced by enough organizations that startups are beginning to appear and larger vendors are taking note – before they impact you.  Today, for example, 100GbE is only just starting to take off, and there is lots of room to write some articles about the triggers for considering 100GbE, and the real world considerations of deploying it in established datacenters.

Direct engagement with tech magazines are something of a gamble for vendors, but they usually pay off.  If the editor approves the piece, and it is factually correct, the writer gets paid no matter what the piece says.  The writer’s duty is to the truth, not to the vendor.

For many vendors looking to engage in content marketing this isn’t a particularly big issue.  They want thought leadership specifically because defining the problem space is the hardest part of marketing.  It requires subject matter experts, preferably those who have experience as practitioners, and who can write about a topic in an engaging manner.

This then is how and why I make money.  I get paid not to bamboozle or to shill, not to obfuscate or confuse.  I get paid to learn, and to pass that knowledge on to others.  Not all vendors think this is valuable, but even those vendors who prefer more classical approaches to marketing help me get paid.

We are all lucky – writers, vendors and especially readers – that there are still magazines and news outlets for every aspect of life that put the time and effort into establishing and maintaining an editorial firewall.  The more that “alternate facts” are the norm (in marketing, and society in general), the higher the value ascribed to the truth, and our first duty must always be to the truth.

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