Marrying Companies and Content – by David Carr

On Thursday, Contently, a hot little company, held a buzzy conference at the Bowery Hotel on a very of-the-moment topic.

The conference, the Brand Publishing Summit, included clients, agencies and publishers, with a lot of chatter about brands going direct to the consumer and cutting out the middle man. (Which come to think of it, would be people like me, but let’s not dwell on that.)

But as Tomas Kellner, managing editor of GE Reports, a publication put out by General Electric, reminded people, the trend of the moment has been around for a long time. In 1947, General Electric had an in-house reporter telling the company’s stories — a guy named Kurt Vonnegut.

The founders of Contently like that anecdote a lot. Three young men — Joe Coleman, Dave Goldberg and Shane Snow — started the company in 2010 after the rise and crash of so-called content farms. They believed there was room for a company that enabled high-quality stories told on behalf of commercial clients, what is now known as branded content.

Over the years, this content has had an unsavory reputation — most have been infomercials masquerading as editorial content. But the bar has been raised by companies like Red Bull, whose incredibly popular extreme sports videos almost make it seem like a media company that sells beverages on the side.

Contently, which grew out of the TechStars incubator program in New York, developed a roster of writers and journalists for hire and a software application that helps companies tell their own stories as well. Three years later, the company has raised $2.3 million in financing, developed a roster of 27,000 writers, grown to 24 employees and has 40 Fortune 500 companies among its clients. Some of its customers include American Express, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo.

When you walk into the Contently office in SoHo, as I did on Tuesday, you can’t help noticing the large slogan on the wall: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” There’s a wall of books as well — the company gave employees $20 each and turned them loose at the Strand bookstore — and another wall with photos of famous writers, including Oscar Wilde, Philip K. Dick and Hunter S. Thompson. The company also produces a print magazine called Contently Quarterly.

A cynic might suggest the furnishings are just a way to drape a cravenly commercial enterprise in the trappings of literature — akin to a Williamsburg hipster in a fedora — but part of the company’s mission is to help people who type for a living actually make a living at it.

Mr. Snow, the chief creative officer, is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and a writer for Wired and Fast Company magazines, among others. He suggested that in the thriving mix of custom-sponsored content, there was one way to stick out.

“We decided to plant a flag on quality, get good writers to buy in and make sure they are paid well,” Mr. Snow said. “We wanted to be the anticontent farm.”

Now Contently is helping companies produce articles that appear on their own websites, are used in native ad placements and are spread through social media — in essence helping their clients compete in a cluttered media environment.

Scott Roen, vice president of American Express Open, a small-business network, used Contently to produce high-end coverage about its online forums.

“By working with them, you get access to a network of really good writers, but they also help manage the work and integrate it into what we do,” Mr. Roen said. “We’ve learned a lot about publishing from working with them.”

Sitting with Mr. Coleman, the chief executive of Contently, and Sam Slaughter, the vice president for content, in a conference room decorated with tiny robots, Mr. Snow said that when he attended Columbia the most persistent question was building a sustainable business model for journalism.

“It was clear with the fragmentation of traditional media, we were in a kind of freelance revolution and it was also clear that brands wanted to connect directly with their audience,” he said.

About the same time, Mr. Coleman, who has known Mr. Snow since their days in middle school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, was working on a start-up he founded in Las Vegas called CashCrate. He needed some high-quality content. “I could find you a developer in Russia pretty easily, but I had no idea where to go to find a good writer,” he said.

He called Mr. Snow, an idea was born, and Mr. Goldberg built a platform for story-telling — for both clients and writers. At a time when advertising is achieving diminishing returns and public relations has trouble breaking through, companies are learning the value of putting their names around — but not in the middle — of memorable stories.

Bank of America sponsored an article written by a Contently freelancer about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and ran a sponsored post that was distributed by The Associated Press. BMW sponsors a series about innovation on the media and technology site Mashable written by Contently writers, with the explicit mandate to not promote cars. (It’s not just brands that are doing this: Media companies like Gawker and The Huffington Post have used Contently to produce native advertising without using their own newsrooms.)

Contently provides two fundamental capabilities built on the same platform. Writers can put up a portfolio for free and many have, including 8,000 writers the company has designated as “pros” because of their credentials. Writers for hire include people who have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many top magazines.

When writers receive a project, Contently takes an agency fee of 15 percent and pays writers upon acceptance of the work at 50 cents to $1 a word and sometimes more. And companies use Contently’s software to create projects, track workflow and export content to their platform. That software, which companies lease for $3,000 to $25,000 a month, is where Contently makes 80 percent of its money.

“People in technology ask us if we are a marketplace for talent or a software company,” Mr. Coleman said. “That is not a question that Pepsi asks.”

Chris Perry is president for digital communications at Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm that was early to the business of helping brands become media companies. He has done a fair amount of work with Contently.

“This is not a fad,” he said, pointing out that both corporate money (advertising) and venture money (backing) were pouring into brand publishing. “These guys stand out because they bring a depth of understanding to the economic proposition and know that for it to work, it has to be done right.”

A number of other nascent companies are rushing into the space, but Contently has a leg up because it is already there. Mr. Snow says the company revenue is up 300 percent over the last two years and should pass $10 million annually sometime early next year. Mr. Coleman says he thinks he and his co-founders are building a business, not riding a trend.

“We want to build something real and solid, the kind of company where we end up with the name on the side of our building,” he said. For now, it’s a crowded little office in SoHo jammed cheek-to-jowl with common tables and portraits of literary giants looming over them.

If it happens, it would be a good story to tell.

Thinking for the Future – by David Brooks

We’re living in an era of mechanized intelligence, an age in which you’re probably going to find yourself in a workplace with diagnostic systems, different algorithms and computer-driven data analysis. If you want to thrive in this era, you probably want to be good at working with intelligent machines. As Tyler Cowen puts it in his relentlessly provocative recent book, “Average Is Over,” “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.”

So our challenge for the day is to think of exactly which mental abilities complement mechanized intelligence. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few mental types that will probably thrive in the years ahead.

Freestylers. As Cowen notes, there’s a style of chess in which people don’t play against the computer but with the computer. They let the computer program make most of the moves, but, occasionally, they overrule it. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of the program and the strengths and weaknesses of their own intuition, and, ideally, they grab the best of both.

This skill requires humility (most of the time) and self-confidence (rarely). It’s the kind of skill you use to overrule your GPS system when you’re driving in a familiar neighborhood but defer to it in strange surroundings. It is the sort of skill a doctor uses when deferring to or overruling a diagnostic test. It’s the skill of knowing when an individual case is following predictable patterns and when there are signs it is diverging from them.

Synthesizers. The computerized world presents us with a surplus of information. The synthesizer has the capacity to surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story.

Humanizers. People evolved to relate to people. Humanizers take the interplay between man and machine and make it feel more natural. Steve Jobs did this by making each Apple product feel like nontechnological artifact. Someday a genius is going to take customer service phone trees and make them more human. Someday a retail genius is going to figure out where customers probably want automated checkout (the drugstore) and where they want the longer human interaction (the grocery store).

Conceptual engineers. Google presents prospective employees with challenges like the following: How many times in a day do a clock’s hands overlap? Or: Figure out the highest floor of a 100-story building you can drop an egg from without it breaking. How many drops do you need to figure this out? You can break two eggs in the process.
They are looking for the ability to come up with creative methods to think about unexpected problems.

Motivators. Millions of people begin online courses, but very few actually finish them. I suspect that’s because most students are not motivated to impress a computer the way they may be motivated to impress a human professor. Managers who can motivate supreme effort in a machine-dominated environment are going to be valuable.

Moralizers. Mechanical intelligence wants to be efficient. It will occasionally undervalue essential moral traits, like loyalty. Soon, performance metrics will increasingly score individual employees. A moralizing manager will insist that human beings can’t be reduced to the statistical line. A company without a self-conscious moralizer will reduce human interaction to the cash nexus and end up destroying morale and social capital.

Greeters. An economy that is based on mechanized intelligence is likely to be a wildly unequal economy, even if the government tries to combat that inequality. Cowen estimates that perhaps 15 percent of workers will thrive, with plenty of disposable income. There will be intense competition for these people’s attention. They will favor restaurants, hotels, law firms, foundations and financial institutions where they are greeted by someone who knows their name. People with this capacity for high-end service, and flattery, will find work.

Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.

Use the Office Holiday Party to Advance Your Career – by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Will there be an open bar? Do I have to go? Can I bring my significant other?

A few of the above questions may be dancing in your head when you receive the invite to your organization’s holiday party. These are reasonable questions — but if you want to use the events this month to advance your career, your primary question should be: How can I connect with the right people, in the right way?

For most people this approach doesn’t come intuitively so I’ve teamed up with Zachary Johnson, CEO of Syndio Social and an expert in social network analysis, to come up with a guide for maximizing the results of your time investment in holiday functions. Here are our seven ways to optimize the office holiday party.

Understand that the primary goal is not to have fun: An office holiday party serves a different function than one with your family or friends. This isn’t about completely relaxing and letting loose—unless you want a starring role in the water cooler drama the next day. It’s not about sampling each appetizer. It’s not about hanging out with the same people you see at lunch everyday. It is, however, about spending time with key individuals who you can’t connect with organically because they’re in a different functional area or located at different offices. If you need to stop home to take a nap or eat something before arriving at the event so you aren’t zoning out or fixated on the buffet table, give yourself time to take care of yourself. Then, once your foot steps in the door of the party you should be fully committed to being outwardly engaged and involved until you leave.

Plan to meet key people: If you find it impossible to schedule a meeting with certain individuals because of their packed calendar but you know they’ll be at the event, reach out to them in advance. Suggest meeting up for a drink before the party or simply let them know you’ll be at the event and looking for them. This will prime them to expect your approach and encourage you to make it a priority to find them. If you want to meet new people but don’t know who to approach, pay attention to which people are the center of attention in the different groups or who are making lots of introductions. According to Johnson’s research, these people tend to be “super connectors” who can open doors for you in the future.

Avoid the usual suspects: It’s comfortable to make yourself cozy in the center of a group that already knows you, but that won’t lead to the kind of meaningful connections that can help you get more done in the coming year. After saying a quick, “Hello,” to your standard crew, look for people who you don’t know very well. According to Johnson, “The people who you only talk to a couple of times a year are more likely to bring you new opportunities that you wouldn’t hear about-such as a job posting-because they’re outside of your main circle.”

Build personal connections rather than talking only about work: The speed at which you can complete projects often depends greatly on responsiveness from another department, such as sales, accounting, or legal. Identify which individuals could make life easier for you in the coming year, and then go over and talk to them. This doesn’t mean joining the receiving line in front of the CEO, according to Johnson, “the higher in the company you go, the fewer ‘getting things done’ connections you have.” But it does mean spending some time putting faces to the names of people who can supply information or grant the approvals you need to more effectively do your work. Find out about their plans for the holidays, ask about their hobbies, and generally build rapport so when they see your e-mail request in the future, they’ll be more apt to open it.

Use the buddy system: If you need a bit of a security blanket to venture into uncharted territory, bring along a friend or significant other to help ease your entry into new circles. One strategy is to approach a group and say, “Hello, I’m [Name]. I work in [ABC] department and am looking to meet some people outside of my division.” This then naturally leads to the other members of the group stating their name and department, which opens up the conversation to you.

Don’t spend too long with one person: If the conversation goes on for a while, enjoy the mingling and then gracefully exit by saying, “It’s been great to meet you, but I’m going to refresh my drink.” Or if you would like to keep in touch, say, “Would it be OK if I contacted you to set up a 15-minute phone call to talk about XYZ?” That way, they will be more likely to accept the meeting request when you follow up. Don’t say that you’ll follow up unless you actually want to and will do so. You want to build people’s trust in your follow through. I recommend immediately making a note in your calendar to send a follow up e-mail the next business day. Relying on your memory can lead to you appearing unreliable.

But don’t bounce around too much, either: You’re not playing a game of pinball and getting points for each group you hit. If you’re really not connecting with a new set of people, it’s fine to move on after a few minutes. But for most encounters, you should be spending at least 10- to 15-minutes making a genuine connection. Look for opportunities to give to those around you. It could be as simple as offering to get them another drink, make a connection to a colleague, or follow up with a book recommendation.

Of course, if someone approaches you that you do know or if you’ve met some other groups of people and are ready for something more familiar, it’s completely fine to stop and enjoy the moment. Don’t be rude to the people who already know and like you — just be intentional in widening your circle. Yes, it is a party. But it’s also work.

Stop Worrying About Making the Right Decision – by Ed Batista

Difficult decisions like this remind me of a comment made by Scott McNealy — a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and its CEO for 22 years — during a lecture I attended while I was in business school at Stanford: He was asked how he made decisions and responded by saying, in effect, It’s important to make good decisions. But I spend much less time and energy worrying about “making the right decision” and much more time and energy ensuring that any decision I make turns out right.

I’m paraphrasing, but my memory of this comment is vivid, and his point was crystal clear. Before we make any decision — particularly one that will be difficult to undo — we’re understandablyanxious and focused on identifying the “best” option because of the risk of being “wrong.” But a by-product of that mindset is that we overemphasize the moment of choice and lose sight of everything that follows. Merely selecting the “best” option doesn’t guarantee that things will turn out well in the long run, just as making a sub-optimal choice doesn’t doom us to failure or unhappiness. It’s what happens next (and in the days, months, and years that follow) that ultimately determines whether a given decision was “right.”

Another aspect of this dynamic is that our focus on making the “right” decision can easily lead to paralysis, because the options we’re choosing among are so difficult to rank in the first place. How can we definitively determine in advance what career path will be “best,” or what job offer we should accept, or whether we should move across the country or stay put? Obviously, we can’t. There are far too many variables. But the more we yearn for an objective algorithm to rank our options and make the decision for us, the more we distance ourselves from the subjective factors — our intuition, our emotions, our gut — that will ultimately pull us in one direction or another. And so we get stuck, waiting for a sign — something — to point the way.

I believe the path to getting unstuck when faced with a daunting, possibly paralyzing decision is embedded in McNealy’s comment, and it involves a fundamental re-orientation of our mindset: Focusing on the choice minimizes the effort that will inevitably be required to make any option succeed and diminishes our sense of agency and ownership. In contrast, focusing on the effort that will be required after our decision not only helps us see the means by which any choice might succeed, it also restores our sense of agency and reminds us that while randomness plays a role in every outcome, our locus of control resides in our day-to-day activities more than in our one-time decisions.

So while I support using available data to rank our options in some rough sense, ultimately we’re best served by avoiding paralysis-by-analysis and moving foward by:

  1. paying close attention to the feelings and emotions that accompany the decision we’re facing,
  2. assessing how motivated we are to work toward the success of any given option, and
  3. recognizing that no matter what option we choose, our efforts to support its success will be more important than the initial guesswork that led to our choice.

This view is consistent with the work of Stanford professor Baba Shiv, an expert in the neuroscience of decision-making. Shiv notes that in the case of complex decisions, rational analysis will get us closer to a decision but won’t result in a definitive choice because our options involve trading one set of appealing outcomes for another, and the complexity of each scenario makes it impossible to determine in advance which outcome will be optimal.

Two key findings have emerged from Shiv’s research: First, successful decisions are those in which the decision-maker remains committed to their choice. And second, emotions play a critical role in determining a successful outcome to a trade-off decision. As Shiv told Stanford Business magazine, emotions are “mental shortcuts that help us resolve trade-off conflicts and…happily commit to a decision.” Going further, Shiv noted, “When you feel a trade-off conflict, it just behooves you to focus on your gut.”

This isn’t to say that we should simply allow our emotions to choose for us. We’ve all made “emotional” decisions that we later came to regret. But current neuroscience research makes clear that emotions are an important input into decision-making by ruling out the options most likely to lead to a negative outcome and focusing our attention on the options likely to lead to a positive outcome. More specifically, research by Florida State professor Roy Baumeister and otherssuggests that good decision-making is tied to our ability to anticipate future emotional states: “It is not what a person feels right now, but what he or she anticipates feeling as the result of a particular behavior that can be a powerful and effective guide to choosing well.”

So when we’re stuck or even paralyzed by a decision, we need more than rational analysis. We need to vividly envision ourselves in a future scenario, get in touch with the emotions this generates and assess how those feelings influence our level of commitment to that particular choice. We can’t always make the right decision, but we can make every decision right.

80-ed-batista

Ed Batista (@edbatista) is an executive coach and an Instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He writes regularly on issues related to coaching and professional development at edbatista.com, he contributed to the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees, and is currently writing a book on self-coaching for HBR Press.