TechTarget's Mark Schlack:
Web Nearing End of Awkward Adolescence

Mark Schlack, vice president of editorial content for TechTarget, spoke at the chapter's Northeastern Region Azbee awards banquet (a second banquet for the region will be held in New York City on June 28). Schlack shared some thoughts on the current state of web publishing. "I can't claim that I'll give the definitive talk on the Internet -- I don't think anyone can -- at least, no one who actually works in the Internet," Schlack said. He did, nevertheless, have a few ideas about how to approach web publishing.

Conventional Wisdom, Circa 1995

For starters, Schlack noted that the people with money to invest in web sites used to think you had to be the first on the web with a new idea or you weren't worthwhile. "But does anyone here use AltaVista as a search engine? Or think that AOL is the best way to connect to the web? And there was iVillage. But now many of us are networking on a site called MySpace."

Another myth busted: "The punditry from the mid-'90s held that the web was a mass media phenomenon, and if you were going to do something, it had better be big. That turned out to be true, up to a point," Schlack said. Yet TechTarget has succeeded by focusing on its market.

TechTarget's web sites tend to have large audiences, but its strategy in print has been to concentrate on small-circ magazines. "We take the elite of [the web] audience and build a print mag around their needs," explained Schlack. And TechTarget magazines deliberately leave out some staples of print publications: there are no new products or news. "Those things are done better online," Schlack insisted.

Fast Forward: 2006

Schlack debunked some current ideas about the web, too. "You hear a lot about the democratizing influence of the web -- citizen journalists, people being their own experts. It's interesting and exciting, and there's lot of truth to it, but it's pretty much overblown. The idea that as editors we build a stage and the real actors are our audience -- that we don't have much to bring to the party -- is pretty much ridiculous," he said, echoing some of Jim Lehrer's recent comments.

Schlack conceded that there are cases where "a programmer who can't spell puts up a text-only web site that gets five times the traffic of anything you ever did." Nevertheless, he said, "there's more to providing information and being useful and compelling than those types can provide." Our readers have very specific needs, he said, and as B2B journalists we know something about what those needs are. "That's our profession," he said. "There are no wizards out there that can wave a wand and make it happen."

Taking Ourselves Seriously

"The audience takes the web more seriously than it did 10 years ago," Schlack observed. "I see it in news. There used to be an attitude that said 'Just get something up right away. Who cares if there's a mistake? We'll just correct it.' The news that we wrote online was disposable. That was the audience's expectation, too." But today the audience gives the web more credibility, so we have to take ourselves more seriously, too.

Schlack thinks news is an area of major opportunity for B2B web sites. "We all work in markets that are terrifically underserved in news. … It's about time that the communities that we serve had [someone] focus on their issues."

Print vs. Web

In Schlack's view, B2B web sites don't have to have the same unified look and feel print publications do. "A magazine usually has a personality, a voice… It has to hang together. On the web that doesn't hold true. It's about having a collection of tools that the readers find useful. On one part of the site, there can be a discussion with people flaming each other, and on another part, there might be some expert you can have a Q&A with. And another part has crackerjack reporters doing some great reporting. The reader will accept that." And the best part, he noted, is that in web publishing there is no paper to buy. "You can try lots of different things."

Schlack overturned another piece of conventional wisdom: "The web has been seen as a short-attention-span theater, where you don't want to write articles over 200 words. But I've worked for sites that wrote 4,000 word articles that got great readership. There is a place for deep stuff online. We don't know if people will read news online in 5-10 years, or if they'll read them on smart phones or RSS feeds. Maybe then the longer and more complex stuff will be on the web."

As for the connection between print and web staff, Schlack had this to say: "We don't get too hung up on online/print coordination -- either not having online and print working together, or having them work together all the time." But, he added, "If you're using same people for both, you're not using both media to full advantage."

The Web's Future: No More Fright Wigs

"Print is in a position that radio was in in 1950," said Schlack. "[Radio] was the biggest medium. Then when TV came in it was the second-biggest. I think online will pass print pretty soon."

But despite its increasing maturity, the web hasn't hardened into old age quite yet. "Because the web is so new, we as editors get to do some different things online. It all comes under the banner of inventing the medium. We're still inventing the medium. This is not a done deal. We're out of the Milton Berle fright-wig era, but we still have a long way to go. … Some crazy things still happen."

Schlack concluded: "It's not so much how good you are at HTML coding or what fad you sign on to support. It's much more about building solid relationships with audiences and constantly refining what you do."

For more about the banquet, including the list of regional winners, see this post.

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