Fresh, original, relevant content is one of the most important assets you have as an online publisher. After all, what else distinguishes you from the many competitors you have trying to eat your lunch?
It’s easy enough to say that such content is key, but how do you go about getting it? Perhaps a little background on how ClickZ has attracted great articles on a consistent basis might help.
One thing we didn’t do was go out to the various syndicators and subscribe to their links and articles. We figured if it was this easy for us to get articles, it would be just as easy for our competitors to do the same. Just as important, the syndicated stuff didn’t have the feel we were trying to create. We wanted the personal, candid, sometimes even edgy tone of someone who’s writing right from the desktop. Couldn’t find it from the syndicators.
Another thing we didn’t do was build a big staff of professional writers and journalists. That’s what all the print guys did when they came online, and many of them learned quickly that the economics worked against them, big time. And again, we wanted the voice of the online marketing professional, not a professional writer or journalist speaking to our readers. We wanted the voice of someone whose job it is to DO what it is he or she writes about. With a boss or a VC or a client or a tough quota to satisfy. That’s the feel we wanted. One of engagement, not three-steps-back observation.
This is not to say that syndicated content or professionally written articles are bad. It’s just that we had very clear criteria for the voice of ClickZ. Our editorial voice is the most consistent and memorable expression of our brand, and if we hadn’t been stubborn about that one, we’d never have gotten very far.
So the most important player in the operation is our editor. Our editor has to take content developed by non-professional writers and make it professional, without compromising the authenticity of the writer’s voice. And that takes a LOT of work.
In the very beginning, we spent a great deal of time combing through the postings on various discussion lists such as Online Ads, Internet Advertising Discussion List and I-Sales. We looked for posts from people who had experience in a particular area or specialty and a way with words. We looked for compelling, passionate spokespersons who weren’t afraid to mix it up with the others on the list.
As we came across the kinds of people who fit the model, we approached them directly and invited them to write for us. Some did right away. Others within a few months. Some took a year or more to develop into contributors, but they came along.
We have never had the budget to pay the standard rates that magazines and other pubs pay their writers, but then we weren’t working with professional writers we were working with professionals who happen to write. So in many cases, we paid nothing at all. In others, we negotiated modest payments on a per-article basis. So why would any of these people want to write for us?
We adopted early on an approach we call “Queen for a Day.” Basically, it means that we pay our writers through making them stars on the day they write for us. We give them exposure that translates into speaking and consulting gigs, job offers and board seats, and any number of great opportunities that roll along. Their picture (we have insisted from day one that all ClickZ writers provide photos) appears on the home page, on the HTML mailing and the article. The bio and links to their email address and URL are prominent. In short, we do everything we can to make sure they get great visibility and are easy to contact. And that’s worth a lot.
While it’s safe to say that all ClickZ writers have a personal or professional agenda, we ask them to leave it for their bio. We have kicked back more articles than you can imagine to those who thought they could use their day on ClickZ to plug their new product or service. We tell them that if they can’t offer up useful advice and information for our readers, they won’t appear on the site. They’ve got to believe that the credibility they gain by offering useful content to our readers will help lay the groundwork for them to sell more product or plug that brand off our pages. And it does.
For some of you who are bootstrapping it or operating on limited funds, this might be a helpful model. If you offer information for cattle breeders or skateboard shops, cultivate some writers who ARE cattle breeders and skateboard shop owners. Work with them to hone their message. Make them stars. Treat them special. And revel in it when you see them become mini-celebrities in your space. It’s very gratifying.
You win. Your writers win. And so do your readers.
P.S. If you want to contribute to ClickZ, drop a note to Ann Handley. She’s always looking for new talent.