In the early days of my career in tech journalism, back in the nineties, reporters and editors received a steady stream of pitches from public relations pros touting expert sources we could interview. These pitches rarely worked. There were too many of them, and they were usually just excuses to plug products or services.
Today, the situation has shifted dramatically. Sources don't have to wait for reporters to call them; they can craft content and present it to editors, neatly wrapped. Publications with ever-shrinking staffs need this content both to fill coverage holes and generate online traffic.
But as the former editor-in-chief of an online publication that accepted a wide variety of contributed content from subject matter experts, I saw how many thought leaders botched this opportunity.
I held contributed content to a high standard. And my standards were clearly spelled out in our contributor guidelines, as is the case for most publications. But some people ignore the guidelines. Others can't tell their boss the truth about a lousy article, or can't resist the temptation to promote their company's products or services. You can absolutely establish your expertise without making a sales pitch.
The harsh reality is that many contributed articles go straight into the trashcan on the editor's desktop. How can you avoid rejection? Follow these 10 core strategies:
1. Know the publication: You may be a mobile device management (MDM) expert, but if I've been covering this topic for the past two years, the bar is pretty high, and you'd better not write about something we did three months ago. If you want to write about MDM, you should …
2. Present a novel idea: New wisdom. A fresh opinion. A fact that others have overlooked --- or, best of all, failed to think through. (Sound hard? Thought leadership requires intellectual rigor, as my colleague David Rosenbaum noted in his recent column, "Yoda Says, Don't A Thought Leader Try To Become".)
An overview of the three main issues hindering MDM technology is not going to cut it, but a huge number of people submit articles just like that. This article resembles an industry overview slide. No editor will run it because no reader will click on it.
3. Bring something unique: Lots of people design data centers, but did you design one that's in an abandoned underground mine? Did you solve a staffing challenge in a middle-of nowhere town? Capitalize on the unique value you can bring to a topic.
4. Be a contrarian: Journalists love to bust myths. Myths about technologies, industries, and project approaches provide a great opportunity for thought leaders to establish their expertise and hook readers. Think hard about what your community is getting wrong. Also, if you read an article in a leading publication, or hear a presentation that is dead wrong about a topic dear to you, dispute it. Net neutrality is an example of a topic for which editors welcomed contrarian views this year.
5. Know your audience: Are you writing for salespeople? IT executives? Developers? HR pros? Then write for them and not yourself. Too many thought leadership articles seem to have been written by marketers for marketers, or academics for academics. Editors think like their readers. That's their job. As a contributor, it's also your job.
6. Deliver takeaways: The best expert content uses data and examples that readers can apply to their own decision-making processes or projects, with takeaways (preferably bulleted or numbered) they can put into action. Weak contributed content concludes by bemoaning a problem, asking a question, or perhaps weaseling out by saying, "Only time will tell." Strong content tells readers how to act or where to concentrate their efforts.
7. Write in plain English: Journalists have internal alarm bells that ring when they encounter jargon. (Leverage synergies? No thanks.) Editors often ban certain terms. I had an editor who banned the word "solution." (It might be hardware, software, or a service, but it wasn't going to be a solution, not on our site.) Editors don't have time to translate what you write into English. Not only that, jargon obscures your expertise and masks your voice.
8. Don't let too many cooks in the kitchen: Make no mistake, this is a top reason editors kill stories. Well-meaning companies take perfectly good articles written by passionate subject matter experts and let far too many people edit the material. The passion dies and the article ends up sounding like what it is: something produced by committee. A good editor can sharpen content without killing its spark.
9. Sweat the headline: Online editors live and die by headlines because they are measured on metrics like online traffic and reader engagement that track how many people open stories, share them, and the like. A great story with a bad headline dies a quiet, sad death. A pitch with a bad headline may suffer the same fate.
The editor will likely tweak your headline. But sending a story or pitch with a strong headline greatly increases the likelihood the editor will give it a chance. Think like the editor. How would she write the headline? Don't send a BuzzFeed-style headline to an accounting journal, or vice versa. As an editor, I loved opening an email and quickly being able to visualize the proposed story on my site.
10. Don't give up: Just because a publication rejects your first story doesn't mean the editor hates you. Ask how you can tailor the proposal or article better next time. Remember, editors love cultivating longtime relationships with subject matter experts who deliver consistently great thought leadership pieces. That's a relationship worth the work -- for both sides.