Some people will never put the time in to stay abreast of the news and trends of this industry. If you're reading this, you might already be one of the ones who do. If you are, please pass this article to your colleagues who always say they want to stay informed but never follow through.
How does the industry stay informed? The most recent research I could find comes from a 2011 study:
How do you learn about emerging digital marketing technology and trends? (select all that apply)
Overall, it appears that agency professionals over-index for staying abreast of news and trends. That makes sense because they are generally one of the key information resources for their brand clients and have to be prepared to answer a variety of questions on digital marketing.
There's no single right way to stay informed. I can share my own process, but what works best for me might not work well for you. For example, I don't like reading on my smartphone, but other people feel very comfortable on the small screen. I'm also very outgoing and will walk up to strangers at conferences and ask them questions; some of you might never do that.
Later in this article, I detail my method. Hopefully it will provide a roadmap to build out your own process if you don't have one. But first, let's take a look at the common reasons people give for not staying on top of our industry's trends.
"I'll learn what I need to know on the job."
If this is truly the business that you are banking on for your future and expect to be in for the next four decades, then why wouldn't you try to absorb as much as you can? Even 15 minutes a day could add up to a major knowledge lift after a few years.
"That stuff has nothing to do with me."
One of the things I hear from people who don't stay informed is that the knowledge out there just doesn't pertain to their job duties. Bah.
Let me share with you the notion of consilience.
Consilience is a concept introduced to me by Jim Sterne, renowned speaker, analytics guru, and one of the most informed people in the digital marketing industry. "Consilience refers to the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can 'converge' to strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence are very strong on their own."
I've embraced consilience to mean that learning things that might seem unrelated today could support incredible ideas later. This has probably happened to everyone reading this post, and the lesson here is that just because something doesn't seem relevant to you now doesn't mean that it doesn't have value. To take it a step further, if you absorb a lot of information, the chance of cashing in on beneficial consilience later goes up.
"I'm super busy already. It's not worth the time."
By building up your internal knowledge base, you can have this information on hand when you need it -- a potential ace up your sleeve. Whether it helps you overcome a particular challenge with your job, gives you a bit more polish to push you over the edge for a promotion, or introduces you to new concepts to help you shape career path, staying on top of the industry will have desirable long-term effects.
"I can't keep track of it all."
I think that part of the reason why some people don't aggressively stay informed is that it can be a bit intimidating. If you start reading any deep blog post from one of the online trade publications, you might immediately encounter company names you don't know, people you've never heard of, acronyms that aren't explained, and concepts that don't make sense.
Yes, there is an initial learning curve. It's almost like learning another language. You're not going to know every word. But if you take the time to investigate the topics that puzzle you, you'll become fluent in these areas over time, and it will become easier and easier to get through subsequent posts.
My advice is to not worry if reading a specific blog post or white paper is worth your time. Trust in the fact that the accumulated knowledge over time will benefit you in ways that you might not see right now.
It will be worth it, believe me.
Blogs and trade publications
Warning! With any presented information, there's an unavoidable slant no matter how much an author or speaker might try to keep the content objective. In some cases, the subjectivity of the analysis is the entire reason you might want to read what someone wrote. In other cases, at first glance, the material appears objective, but there's a hidden, deep intent to sway readers to a particular point of view, especially if it benefits the writer's own interests.
Sometimes I read the bio of an author first to better understand what could be under the surface before I even start with the main content. However, just because someone works at a certain company doesn't mean they can't be a good authority on a subject; they actually might be the absolute right person to learn from. But always keep a presenter or writer's role in mind when digesting their messages.
With that caveat in mind, it's amazing how much valuable knowledge is shared in blogs and trade publications. Every day you can find another "Top 10 Best Practices for..." or "7 Crucial Things to Know About..." Of course, you have to learn how to separate the clutter from the noise and the common knowledge from the truly new and compelling ideas. The only way to do that is to read a lot.
I try to read about 30 to 45 minutes a day, but I spread it out. In the morning, I skim through the headlines and click anything that looks interesting until I have a bunch of tabs open in my browser. Then I go back throughout the day whenever I need a quick break from my tasks or if I have a few minutes before my next meeting. If I find after a few paragraphs that the material isn't compelling or delivering on my expectations, I close that tab and move on to the next one. There are certainly days in which I am unable to spare the time to read, but it's not that hard to find 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes throughout the day at some point, and then 10 minutes before I leave for the night. It adds up!
Some of the different types of posts you'll find are:
- Industry coverage: A recap of an event or other newsworthy update such as a new product release.
- The business of this business: This is similar to industry coverage, but it's more about things such as the buying and selling of companies, stock price fluctuations and earnings calls, and when a big executive leaves Company A and joins Company B. It's good to learn the business of our business even if there isn't any information that you'll use immediately.
- Stats: These pieces might have some analysis but usually just present research either performed by the writer's organization or from another party. They generally contain proof points, charts, graphs, and infographics that you might find helpful later.
- Best practices: These how-to guides can be extremely useful. They usually contain lists of tips, some of which you might know and some of which you might not know. Even if you can just pick up a few nuggets of info, then it is worth reading.
- Point of view: These can be the most entertaining of all of the types of articles, especially when someone is really fired up on a topic and ranting. Sometimes even the back-and-forth in the comments section between the author and those with contradictory opinions can uncover deeper information.
- Outside your box: Some of the most educational posts are not even about this industry. I've read pieces on how to work in multi-generational workplaces, the best tips for business travel, or even life hacks to make you a happier person that have taught me more than any insider best practice guide. I recommend that you stay on the lookout for good sources of these posts and read any that catch your interest.
Tips on blogs
I have a separate free email account that I use for subscribing to blogs and newsletters. Some people subscribe using RSS readers, but I've found that if I miss a few days of feeds, the clutter can get overwhelming. I also have noted which writers I learn the most from or who, at the very least, entertain me while teaching. A few of those include Eric Picard, Avinash Kaushik, Tod Sacerdoti, Joanna O'Connell, Steve Smith -- all industry vets with unique points of view. These folks are absolute must-reads for me, along with about 20 other industry pundits. I urge you to seek out the thought leaders in your corner of the world and create your own must-read list.
Sometimes a blog post just isn't the right forum to explore weighty subjects, so long-form content such as white papers can cover complex ideas and present deep knowledge. I have a folder where I keep the very best white papers, and I find myself going back to them over the years as a great resource.
White papers generally involve multiple internal resources (writers, editors, graphic designers, promotion, etc.), so there's always a very specific goal in mind when these costs are required. Publishers might release them to drive traffic and newsletter subscriptions to their sites. Vendors might want to establish their strength in a certain area and tie back solutions to their product lines. Agencies could simply want to demonstrate their thought leadership in the marketplace. For research firms, these white papers are part of the packages their clients pay for.
Some of the types of white papers you'll find are:
Case studies and experiments
These can be the best sources of detailed, practical knowledge shared in our industry. Someone has an interesting premise and then attempts to prove or disprove that hypothesis via either analyzing historical data or setting up a test environment. A lot of interesting theories are presented in this industry, but we need the hard data to move those ideas from concepts to solid, actionable insights.
These white papers take third-party research from various sources and build new, stronger ideas from them. For instance, "Winning in a Social Media World" or a similar title might borrow data, stats, and charts from already published reports and try to find trends in the data to help understand the world around us or plan for the future.
Best practice guides
Yes, the blogosphere is filled with how-to articles, but the longer, white paper format allows content publishers to build out these guides so they're not just quick bullet points of best practices. They can actually go in deep and spend some time dissecting the nitty gritty. A great best practice guide can be something you keep at your desk for months and share with colleagues.
The following are three superb white papers that I felt had a major impact on my industry point of view. As a white paper author myself, these examples remind me how to present ideas concisely, make definitive arguments, and, most importantly, be timely.
- How Online Advertising Works: Whither The Click?" from 2008 by Gian Fulgoni and the comScore team. In this white paper, Fulgoni made an impassioned plea for online advertisers to move away from the click (especially the last click) as the most important success metric and cites research from its influential "Natural Born Clickers" study.
- "The Future Of The Social Web" from 2009 by Jeremiah Owyang from Forrester Research. In this piece, Owyang outlined his now-famous five eras of the social web that helped marketers like me wrap our heads around the social media revolution spinning around us.
- "The Combined Impact of Search and Display Advertising" [PDF] from 2007 by Esco Strong and the Atlas Institute. In the mid-2000s, the research being put out by Atlas was some of the most well-read and quoted pieces in the industry. This white paper gave many marketers the fodder they needed to drive channel integration within their organizations in a time before standard measurement practices were able to support these notions.
Keep your own white paper library
For the past 10 years of my career, I have kept a folder of the very best white papers that have most affected the way I view marketing. Some of these are a bit outdated by now, but this library is one of my most valuable professional possessions and has been with me through four job changes. Start building yours today. Use a free, online storage service such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box so that you can access them from anywhere and easily share them out with your colleagues.
With conferences, the ball is in your court. You get out of them whatever you're willing to put in. If you're very passive and expect to just sit in sessions and get smarter through osmosis, you might learn something, but you're not taking full advantage of the opportunity at hand. These events are your chance to soak up knowledge, ask questions, and build your professional network. Jump in head first!
It is absolutely crucial that you make the most of your time at these events. When you add up the registration costs, hotels, airfares, meals, cabs, and, of course, the lost time from the work piling up in your inbox, you've literally wasted your time and your boss's money if you only go to the sessions.
Planning is key. Use the agenda to plan out your schedule. Look for sessions that interest you and read up on the topic as well as the presenters themselves. Sometimes the title of the session isn't that interesting but the speakers are. Most conferences have numerous tracks in multiple rooms, so you might have to run across a conference center in order to make the next session. The bottom line is that you should have a plan. You can always deviate from that plan but at least have your day filled before you get there.
Conferences with exhibitor sections (i.e., exposition halls) can be a great way to get introduced to new vendors or check out how your competitors are promoting themselves. I like to walk the show floor systematically and hit every booth. You never know when you're going to stumble over the next tool or meet a great contact who can provide tons of value even after the conference is over.
Be outgoing and don't be afraid to start conversations with strangers. Almost everyone is there for the same reason, and there's nothing like meeting people in person. You can build a long, professional relationship over lunch or coffee. My favorite ice-breaker is, "So, are you getting what you hoped for out of the show?" If it's a yes, then you can chat about what the person heard and what good sessions he or she attended. If it's a no, then you can talk about why the conference is terrible and that can be a great conversation starter too.
I also try to schedule meetings with clients or professional colleagues who I know are attending the shows. They don't have to be elaborate dinners. They could just be coffee in the morning or an invitation to sit together during lunch and chat. I have also reached out to presenters I find interesting and asked if they have any free time to meet up.
Special tip: Attend OMMA conferences from home
I'd like to personally thank MediaPost for the wonderful content over the last few years as it has begun streaming its OMMA conferences via Ustream. Folks, if you aren't hip to these free, live streams from the shows, I would make sure you're on the list to receive the notices of when these are taking place. I usually log on, put on my headphones, and keep working until I hear something interesting. Then I switch over to that window and watch for a few minutes.
More tips on conferences
A week or so before the conference, I usually print out the agenda and any relevant maps and materials. Get to the hottest sessions early to get a good seat, as you don't want to be one of the folks standing or sitting in the aisles. I don't need to be in the front row, but I like to be close enough to read small font on the slides. It's OK to work right up until the session begins, but when it starts, show respect to the presenters by closing your laptop and listening. Unless you have a fire burning back at the office, you owe it to yourself to give your full attention.
Make sure to pack a water bottle and some granola bars or other power snacks. Sometimes getting to food can be difficult, or you simply don't want to stop. Prices for food can also be outrageous inside conference centers, so don't waste your per diem on $10 hot dogs.
Miscellaneous sources of information
Your own network
Crowdsource it! Your peers and industry colleagues can share a wealth of information on news and trends. Over the years, I've created my own network of deep field experts to whom I'm able to ask very specific questions when I find myself stumped. I have about a dozen of the smartest pros with whom I've cultivated this kind of professional relationship. It includes a social guru, a video guru, a mobile guru, etc., and I have often shot out a quick text or email five minutes before going into an important meeting and had the answer arrive just as I needed it. It's a give-and-take relationship, as I make myself available to them whenever they have a knowledge gap in my areas of expertise.
Webinars are conference sessions that you can attend from your desk. They're almost always free as long as you are willing to give up your email address for their lead generation programs (yet another reason to have a dedicated email account for keeping informed). Try to find out before the webinar starts if the presenters will be sharing the slides after the presentation. If not, you might want to have a screen capture program ready if you see any visuals you'd like to download.
Industry groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), and the Digital Analytics Association (DAA) have major education and research initiatives in their charters. Even if you're not a member, there's generally a lot of superb content that you can access. However, they generally keep the good stuff behind the pay wall to entice new memberships.
If white papers can go deeper into a topic than blog posts, then books are the ultimate deep dive. A book author has the ability to explore every theme of a subject and then offer multiple solutions. The only downside with books is that they take months to write, months to edit, months to print, etc., which means the information might be outdated by the time it gets to you. However, savvy writers know this and focus more on complex concepts instead of time-sensitive subject matter.
A book that stands out in my mind as truly revolutionary is "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More" from 2006 by Wired editor Chris Anderson. I hear people frequently mention the long tail and probably don't know its origin even though the concept has become part of the industry lexicon.
If you are looking to go beyond just being informed on a subject, you might want to invest in one of the formal training programs offered by various educational organizations. Some even offer certifications. Some of the best training can be found with trade associations -- or at the very least they can refer you to companies that support these educational programs.
However, if there isn't any budget available for this, check out some of free (or nearly free) video training available out there. For software on-demand video training, there's no better deal on the web than Lynda.com. For about $25 a month, you have access to literally thousands of hour so of training for common software such as Microsoft Office products, graphic and web design applications, etc. The trainers are top notch, and the platform couldn't be easier to use.
My general industry reading list
This is just my top-level reading list for articles, blogs, coverage, and links to white papers and conferences. For specific channels, such as search, social, mobile, analytics, etc., I have certain sites that are my favorites. For example, Search Engine Land is amazing for search engine marketing news, and AdExchanger does a great job covering the real-time buying (RTB) space.
In alphabetical order, my daily reading list includes the following general knowledge sites:
As I mentioned above, I subscribe using a dedicated email address, quickly skim through the headlines, click the links that interest me, and then fill in the small holes in my daily schedule by reading these tabs.
I keep a curated feed of the very best quotes, news, and stats I find while scouring the blogosphere at my@MediaTechGuy Twitter account. It's nice to see that others find it useful, but I use it mainly as a bookmarking system so I can go back and find articles that I find interesting and contain useful information.
My final best tip on staying informed: Become an informant yourself
There's no better way of growing your knowledge than by sharing your own expertise. In order to explain an advanced concept to someone else, you have to really understand it yourself. Writing -- especially having a deadline with your own blog or for an external publication -- can dramatically develop and refine your point of view. It gets you thinking deep about topics important to the industry, which is valuable considering we are all busy in this industry and rarely have time to prioritize self-reflection.
So, if you have ever had any interest in writing, I urge you to take the next step and try it. Not only will you be able to teach others, but you'll also end up learning something yourself.
"A business man is looking down at his feet with a red race line" image via Shutterstock.