So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

I understand this blog tends to skew more toward news than some folks might appreciate, given that my entire pitch for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” is that ALL disciplines of media (news, PR, Ad, marketing etc.) can get something of value out of it. The skew is due to trying to cover both the media-writing text and the news reporting and writing text in one spot. It also also comes from the idea that a lot of things people perceive as “news” things are actually valuable for all media, including skills like interviewing, research, inverted-pyramid writing and so forth. Finally, it seems that news folks tend to make more public mistakes than do some of the other disciplines, so I get more content there. (If you want me to hit on more topics in the PR/Ad/Marketing stuff, feel free to pitch me some thoughts. I’d love to do it.)

That said, occasionally there is a specific foul up in a specific part of the field that bears some analysis. Consider that when you look at this email I got the other day. I redacted the identifiers as best I could:

Dear Professor Filak,

​Greetings from (COMPANY NAME)! ​I hope this finds you well. In the coming months, (AUTHOR NAMES) will begin to revise the twelfth edition of their introductory journalism text, (REPORTING BOOK NAME). ​This text strives to give students the knowledge and skills they need to master the nuts and bolts of news stories, as well as guidance for landing a job in an evolving journalism industry.
Right now we are seeking instructors to review the twelfth edition of (REPORTING BOOK NAME) ​a​nd provide feedback. This input is invaluable to us, ​as it ​giv​es​ us a greater sense of how to best address both instructor and student needs. ​If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon, would you be interested in offering your feedback?
If you would like to review, please respond to this email and let me know if you will need a copy of the printed text. You should plan to submit your comments via TextReviews by 2/6/18. In return for your help, we would like to offer you (MONEY).
At your earliest convenience, kindly respond to this e-mail to let me know if you are available and interested in participating. ​Again, please let me know if you will need a copy of (REPORTING BOOK NAME)
I’m always happy to help people and I’m not averse to making a buck by pretending to know what I’m talking about, but this felt both awkward and ridiculous. One of the things both “Dynamics” books push a lot is the idea of making sure you know what you’re talking about before you ask a question. The books also push the idea of researching your audience members so you know how best to approach them. Either the person writing this email didn’t do that or just didn’t care.
Here’s how I know that: It’s called “Google.”
Had this person done even a basic search on me she would have learned several things:
  • I am teaching the courses they associate with this book. I teach nothing but these courses, as you can find on the UWO journalism department website. The line of “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” tells me I’m on a list somewhere and this is a form email at best.
  • I wrote several books, including one that is likely to be some form of competition for this book. (I’m not saying it will be as good or better or anything, but my title includes words like “news,” “reporting” and “writing,” so it’s a pretty safe bet we’re vying for the same students.) This was literally one of the top five items on the first page of my Google search. She also sent her message the same day I got this alert from Amazon:NumberOne
    (I have no idea how Amazon quantifies “#1 New Release in Journalism” but I’ll take it.)

    The point is, it wasn’t a secret, so it appeared that she didn’t look me up and was like the guy at the bar telling me, “Hey, see that babe over there? I’m totally going to score with her!” and I’m like, “Uh, dude, that’s my wife…”
    On the other hand, maybe she did look me up, found the book and asked anyway, which is like the even-worse guy at the bar who’s saying, “Hey man, your wife is pretty hot. Any chance you can give me some tips on how to score with her?”

Thinking about all of that for a moment, I did the polite thing and emailed back, explaining how I felt this would be a conflict of interest (it is), and that any advice I gave her would be likely be somewhat problematic as the author of a competing book (it is).  I also noted that I know the book she is pitching well (I do) and I know the authors well (I do), so this would also be a bit awkward for me (it really is). Here was her email back to me, which again made me think she wasn’t actually reading this:

Hi Professor Filak,

Thanks so much for letting me know. We will certainly keep you in mind for future projects!

So, again, the point of the blog isn’t to beat people up for doing things poorly but rather to offer advice on how to do things better. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Research first, then write: You don’t have to do an Ancestry.com profile on every person to whom you market or with whom you engage in outreach, but it’s not hard to Google someone. Most people put more social-media stalking effort into learning about the “new kid” at school than this person put into finding out about me. In marketing, you often have access to proprietary data as well, so you can find out if this person had any previous engagement with your organization. In my case, I used that book for more than a decade and still keep up with it, so that might have been something she could have found.
  • Personalize when possible: If you are sending out 100,000 requests for something like a survey and you are expecting a 10 percent response, you will not have the ability to personalize all of the information on everyone’s card or email. That makes sense. However, when you are microtargeting a group of people with a specific set of skills or interests and that group isn’t going to overwhelm a data center, work on personalizing your content. That line about “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” could have easily been tweaked to say something like, “I see you have taught writing and reporting courses at UW-Oshkosh…” and it wouldn’t have taken much. Making these minor tweaks shows that you have done your research. Engaging in some personalized communication shows your readers you care enough to see them as individuals as opposed to a wad of names on a spreadsheet.
  • Try not to screw up, but if you do, don’t ignore it: The one thing that stuck with me when I got that response email from her was that I didn’t think she figured out what she was actually asking me or why it was weird. I had that feeling that if I had written her back and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do this because I’ve just been placed in an intergalactic prison for the rest of my life for murdering a flock of Tribbles with a phaser I set to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun,'” I would have gotten the exact same email back. The whole exchange really reminded me of this scene:
 The thing that is important to realize is that you are going into a field that has two important and scary things going for it:
  1. It’s small enough that you’re really about two degrees of separation from everyone else, so people know other people.
  2. People in the field love to talk.

If you end up screwing up because you didn’t do the first two things suggested above, don’t compound the problem.

I have no idea if I’ll ever get approached by this publisher to review anything, but I know I will always carry with me the memory of this interaction. Had it been a great interaction, that would have been good for the publisher. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

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