Editor’s Note: Why Contributed Articles Fail

Digiday, like most industry publications, accepts contributed pieces. We want to involve all parts of the digital media community in an ongoing conversation about how the rapid collision of technology and media is going to affect brands, agencies and publishers. In theory, contributed pieces are a fantastic way to do so. In practice, this is an approach filled with pitfalls.

The most basic problem is most articles written by industry professionals are terrible. They are wretched for many reasons. They are at once both boring and self-promotional. At best, the writer’s main job is running a digital media company or occupying a senior role at a brand, agency or publisher. These are people with many opinions, strongly held. Unfortunately, they’ve foisted the job of writing the piece on a PR firm. You can tell the PR-written pieces from a mile away. They’re as dull as dishwater, clumsy in their attempts to sneak in a product pitch, and devoid of passion. It’s a fool’s errand to believe that the people who write your press releases would be well suited to turn your thoughts into words. The solution is simple: Write the article yourself. Think of the best digital media practitioners who write regularly. Fred Wilson and Mark Cuban spring to mind. Both combine deep expertise with passion — and a willingness to write what they really think. You cannot outsource expertise, passion and honesty to a PR firm trying to earn its retainer.

The brass-tacks problems start with the purpose. Many contributed pieces I read on other sites and submissions that land in my inbox are simply marketing pitches. There are times when I can almost see the points being made in PowerPoint form in a sales deck. They are laughably transparent about using the guise of a “viewpoint” to simply pimp a “suite of tools” in a dogged way that would make Ron Popeil blush. A good rule of thumb is that converting your sales deck into narrative form doesn’t make it a “viewpoint,” even if your PR firm sells you this as part of an “earned media strategy.” Crazy thought: If your goal is raising awareness and consideration for your product, buy some ads.

What’s needed, and more often than not completely missing, is a real, deeply held point of view. A point of view calls for an argument. At Digiday, we want to differentiate from our peers by insisting that our “viewpoints” articles meet the threshold of having an actual point of view. You’d be surprised by how many pieces this disqualifies. A how-to primer is not a point of view. The world probably doesn’t need another article on how to succeed in mobile marketing or social media.

Finally, there are common structural problems that make industry pieces a total bore. Few are written in plain English. Our copy editor has decried the crutch of jargon. Nowhere is this problem so acute as when industry executives write articles. Industry pieces would cause a generation of journalism professors to wince with their habit of “throat clearing.” It should not take until the fourth paragraph to get to the point of the article. Another common mistake is to lead an article with a bunch of stats. This is done with dismaying frequency. Yes, you have an eMarketer account like everyone else. Statistics support arguments, not the other way around. Use stats in a smart way. Leading off an article with a data dump is like hanging a “don’t read me” sign on your piece. Finally, don’t use bullet points and numbered lists. Digiday rejects all articles, without an edit, that have these. It’s a sure sign the author hasn’t really thought through the piece and is instead falling back on talking points.

All hope isn’t lost. Contributed pieces have been some of our best articles, both in terms of popularity and value. Peter Horan has written a few high-quality pieces for us. His recent one, “The Untimely Demise of Great Brands,” is a perfect example of how coming to the table with a strong point of view pays off. Other noteworthy pieces include “The Death of the Dot-Com” by Joe Lozito of Digitas; “Why Mobile Ads Fall Short” by 360i’s David Levin; and “It Might Be Time to Fire Your Ad Sales Team” by Vibrant Media’s Brian White.

Our hope at Digiday is that we can improve the quality of industry discussion. It’s critically important to our mission. We edit every contributed piece as thoroughly as our own. We hold all contributors to a high standard. There are, as Lance Armstrong might say, “no gifts.” Please feel free to contribute your points of view to me at the address below.



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