From the Editor’s Desk: How we work with outside contributors

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I’m in charge of what may be the most mysterious part of the editorial operation at Marketing Land, MarTech Today and Search Engine Land — the contributed columns.

Who are these contributors? How are they chosen? What determines the topics covered? Even among my fellow editors, questions like this abound. In this edition of “From The Editor’s Desk,” I’ll answer these questions and more, hopefully demystifying how all this works.

To start at the beginning, let me explain how our editorial operation is set up. It consists of two parts: our News department and the Features/Columns area. Our News staffers are either full-time employees or freelancers who cover the fast-moving events occurring in the industry — things like mergers and acquisitions, new products, trends and issues facing marketers. You’ll see their bylines again and again: Danny Sullivan, Matt McGee, Barry Schwartz, Greg Sterling, Ginny Marvin, Amy Gesenhues, Tim Peterson, Barry Levine.

Meanwhile, our Columns are written by outside contributors who are experts in their particular area of marketing because that’s what they do in their day jobs. They aren’t journalists or professional writers (content marketers aside), but they’re immersed in the everyday practice of marketing. In short, they are people that are just like our readers, but with a level of experience or unique perspective that enables them to help everyone else.

Who are these contributors, and how are they chosen?

There are a variety of ways that prospective columnists come to our attention. Sometimes they’re referred by other columnists, or perhaps they’ve been speakers at one of our SMX or MarTech conferences. Other times, we hear from folks directly or from their PR representatives, often via our “How to become a contributor” forms. Sometimes we’ll hear someone speak or see something someone has written on their own site and reach out to ask them to contribute.

In any case, there are a few things we look for when evaluating candidates:

Experience

We look for folks who have been in the industry a while and have responsible positions at highly regarded agencies, consultancies or brands. Additionally, contributors should bring to the table some unique perspective, access to proprietary data or in-depth experience in an area of interest to digital marketers.

We largely depend on contributors to come up with their own ideas of what to write about, which is why their personal experience and position is so important — contributors must be on the vanguard of digital marketing, continually exposed to the challenges of their particular space.

The editors on my team do a great job, in my opinion, of keeping up with digital marketing, but it’s impossible for us to keep abreast of every area in a space as diverse as digital marketing — think about the differences in email marketing versus search engine optimization versus display advertising. We need to be able to count on contributors who are genuine experts.

This means that we wouldn’t be interested in an article titled something like “What’s the difference between CPC and CPA?” or one that simply restates publicly available information you can find in Google Help files. We’ll sometimes run contributions aimed at small business owners or digital marketing beginners, but we get a lot more excited about something that couldn’t be written by any reasonably competent industry person off the top of their head.

For example, last year’s most popular column on Search Engine Land was titled, “We Tested How Googlebot Crawled Javascript And Here’s What We Learned.” Writing it required a lot more than just an afternoon in front of Google Docs — author Adam Audette and his employer, Merkle|RKG, first conducted a comprehensive series of tests, collected and analyzed the results, then summed them up in a way that proved useful to the SEO community as a whole. We were thrilled with the results, and so were our readers.

Maintaining currency

What’s of interest to digital marketers changes over time, of course, as external events — like Google or Facebook algorithm changes, new tool launches or the introduction of novel ad products — often determine the subjects that everyone is talking about or needs to know at a given moment. Therefore, the particular subjects we are most eager to cover will vary from one week to another.

That’s why we strive to have a mix of contributors who have expertise in different areas, but, no matter what the subject, we value columnists who keep up with current events in their niche. Thankfully, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and Search Engine Land are great resources to help them stay up to date with what’s happening.

When a dramatic industry event occurs, such as Google’s announced changes to AdWords earlier this year or Microsoft’s declaration of its intent to acquire LinkedIn, our news staff will cover the nuts and bolts of what’s happening. But we love hearing from our contributors who have done deep thinking or have a unique perspective on what the developments mean for marketing practitioners.

Referrals

Referrals count for a lot. Many of us on staff have been in the digital marketing industry for quite some time, and we’ve met people along the way who have gained our trust — including current contributors and PR folks. When these people, or another staff member, are willing to speak up on behalf of a prospective contributor, we take note.

Good writing

We have a team of editors who can check over submissions and help with word choice, grammar and style, but, to do that, we need to understand the point the author is trying to get across — and that means the writing has to be clear when it’s submitted.

Reliability and trustworthiness

When we bring a new columnist aboard, we typically put them on our editorial calendar and give them deadlines. And these aren’t just chosen arbitrarily — they are set up to provide our readers with a mix of different types of content over time. Whether these new columnists will make or miss deadlines is a tough thing to judge in advance, but we’ll be more likely to part ways with contributors who disappoint us and send us scrambling month after month.

Legal considerations

When we bring aboard new columnists, we have them sign a contract that governs our relationship. One of the contract’s key provisions calls for the contributor to submit only original content that hasn’t been published elsewhere and agree they won’t publish it elsewhere for a two-year period. In addition, contributors promise that what they will submit is true — in a legal sense, that means statements of fact must stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.

Requiring that content is original and won’t be published elsewhere means that our sites remain special places — places you’ll find unique and valuable viewpoints. And having contributors certify their submissions are true meets an even more critical requirement for the environment we’re trying to create, making our sites worthy of readers’ trust. That’s the most important thing we as an organization possess, and it’s easy to lose.

For our contributors, the relationship may be about content marketing, thought leadership or advancing their careers or businesses, but the reason the opportunity is valuable for them is that we make sure we’re putting out a valuable editorial product, not a thinly-veiled sales pitch or a seductive tease leading to a lead-generation white paper download.

By making it legal, we set out our expectations at the beginning of the relationship in the hope of establishing a smooth working partnership. We say what some might think goes without saying — you must disclose your relationships, you must link only to relevant resources, you must ensure what you’re saying is factually accurate and reliably sourced, and you must provide value to the reader — not just to yourself and your company.

Why does it take so long to hear back?

If you’ve applied to be a contributor via our “How to be a contributor” form, the topmost question on your mind may be, “When will I hear back?” Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s a lot of interest in contributing to our sites. That’s why we are often strategic in reviewing applications, starting with the categories and commitment levels we’re seeking at that particular time.

As we say on the form, we can’t guarantee you’ll hear back from us, but we keep a database so that we can find you when we’re in need of contributors with your area of expertise. I’m not going to lie; our approach has likely resulted in our missing a stellar contributor or an outstanding contribution along the way.

Hopefully, that doesn’t happen too often, but, if you want to make the case that we’re missing an opportunity, you now know a lot more about our process and philosophy —  work your network, introduce yourself at a show and make sure you stand out in all the ways we’ve outlined above.

Meanwhile, we already have more than 200 contributors we work with either regularly or occasionally. Oh, and then there’s that pesky need to edit and publish content that’s scheduled on the calendar every day. In a future edition of From the Editor’s Desk, I’ll continue the demystification by telling you all about how we do that.

Note: If, after reading this, you’ve concluded you’re just the kind of contributor we’re looking for, you can apply on Marketing Land, MarTech Today and Search Engine Land.


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