Can Journalists Really Make the Jump to Content Marketing?

Does it make sense to hire an experienced journalist for your firm’s content marketing efforts? Maybe. But maybe not.

As illustrated in a new book by Dan Lyons, success may depend on your company’s culture, generational mix, and management style.

To see what I mean, read “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” by Dan Lyons. In this hilarious book, the laid-off technology editor for Newsweek chronicles his disastrous foray into content marketing for HubSpot.

When Lyons joined the company in 2013, HubSpot was a Boston-based start-up with $100 million in venture capital to develop and sell marketing automation software. It had a super-fun workplace for hip young professionals and was an early advocate of using educational content to attract qualified leads. HubSpot is widely credited with coining the term “inbound marketing.”

At age 52, Lyons was more than twice the age of most HubSpot employees. In addition to writing about technology for Newsweek, PC Week, and Forbes, Lyons had written as the “Fake Steve Jobs” in his viral blog “The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.” Lyons also wrote for HBO’s satirical series Silicon Valley.

In his book “Disrupted,” Lyons says that “nothing I ever dreamed up in fictional accounts could compare to the ridiculousness I encountered when I took a job at an actual tech company.”

Reporting for Duty

When HubSpot’s co-founders hired him as a “marketing fellow,” Lyons admits he knew nothing about marketing. But he thought he would be writing articles for the blog, advising executives on media strategy, writing speeches for the CEO, and attending conferences as a brand evangelist.

But when he reported for his first day of work, no one seemed to expect him.  After the receptionist makes a few phone calls, a friendly young guy in his 20s (who turned out to be a supervisor) showed up and gave him a tour.

“The office bears a striking resemblance to the Montessori preschool my kids attended: lots of bright basic colors, plenty of toys, and a nap room with a hammock and soothing palm tree murals on the wall,” writes Lyons. “The office-as-playground trend started at Google but now has spread like an infection across the tech industry.  Work can’t just be work. Work has to be fun.” The office conference room doubles as a game room, the cafeteria refrigerator is stocked with cases of beer, and the “candy wall” holds dispensers of nuts and candy.

Eventually, Lyons is ushered to a desk in the “content factory” – a cramped room in which about 20 young women seated on rubber balls are staring at laptops and creating content for HubSpot’s blogs and e-books.

Forget Critical Thinking

During training sessions, Lyons said he was expected to abandon the skepticism and critical thinking of good journalism and adjust to the peppy, rah-rah work culture of HubSpot. He was also expected to accept the Orwellian double-speak of brand-journalism and marketing.

“Online marketers have invented euphemisms to make the work they do sound less awful,” writes Lyons. “For example, we’re told that our email campaigns do not involve badgering people, or pestering them. Rather, we’re ‘nurturing’ them. ‘Lead nurturing’ is a big thing in the world of online marketing. If someone doesn’t open our first email, we’ll nurture them again and we’ll keep on nurturing them until they finally cave in and buy something.”

“The weird language and relentlessly chipper attitudes of both the polar opposite of the world I know,” said Lyons. “Reporters are trained to hate corporate jargon and to eliminate it, not engage in it. We’re expected to be cynical and skeptical, not to be cheerleaders.”

Frustrated by the banality of the content he is expected to write day after day, Lyons pitches an idea to the company’s founders for a more substantive online publication that would be separate from the blog. The founders approve the idea but fail to tell anyone on the content staff. Having annoyed his supervisors by going directly to the founders who hired him, Lyons finds himself banished to a new desk away from the content factory.

Banished to Call Center Hell

Lyons’ new desk is in the noisiest room in the building—the telemarketing call center. Here, the company’s “business development representatives” wear shorts and T-shirts with baseball hats on backwards and drink beer at their desks.

“Officially, HubSpot’s products are supposed to be stamping out cold-calling, just like we’re supposed to be stamping out spam,” observes Lyons. “Our sales pitch is that if you buy our software you won’t need to hire an army of outbound sales reps who spend their days blindly calling thousands of people, day after day. Yet here we are, operating an old-fashioned call center with a bunch of low-paid kids calling thousands of people day after day.”

In the lead up to HubSpot’s IPO, Lyons says the pressure to show growth was relentless. Sales employees who couldn’t hit their monthly sales quotas mysteriously “graduated” out of the company.

“Except for the free beer, the job of a HubSpot business development representative doesn’t seem much better than the job his great-grandfather might have had when the building was a furniture factory,” observes Lyons. “The old sweatshop has just been turned into the new sweatshop. In some ways the new one is worse. You spend your day tethered to a desk, with software programs tracking everything you do, counting how many calls you make, reminding you constantly that you’re falling short of your quota and could be out of a job next month.”

Lyons also took issue with the homogenous, all-white workforce and the refusal to listen to advice from experienced ‘outsiders’ such as himself.

To a certain extent, Lyons understands HubSpot’s bias against older, experienced workers. Journalists like himself suddenly found themselves unemployed because so many well-established publishers had scoffed at the Internet and were very slow to adapt business models that had served them well for decades.

Nor did Lyons want to be the old curmudgeon who gripes, “Back in my day, we did things this way.” But he writes that “Even if your last company was Google or Apple, no one at HubSpot wants to be told that there might be a better way of doing things.”

In Lyons’ opinion, the HubSpot leaders weren’t heroes or innovators, but “a pack of sales and marketing charlatans who spun a good story about magical transformation technology and got rich by selling shares in a company that still has never turned a profit.”

Late-Stage Career Reinvention

On one level, “Disrupted” is a humorous memoir about the humbling reality of having to reinvent yourself after age 50. But it’s also a cautionary tale from a reporter who chronicled the first dot-com boom and bust in Silicon Valley.

Just like the first dot.com boom in the 1990s, many start-ups today don’t build their companies around a great invention. Instead, they are sales and marketing operations in search of products that will enable the company to scale quickly. The goal is more about getting big fast than being profitable.

Lyons believes a lot of venture capital money today is going to companies that will never make a profit. Some investors are just spreading money around everywhere, hoping that somehow some of their money will land on the next Facebook. They presume that finding the next Facebook will generate enough payoffs to make up for all the duds. Many investors in start-ups are just as inexperienced as the entrepreneurs they fund.

“It strikes me that this cannot end well—the combination of magical thinking, easy money, greedy investors, and amoral founders represents a recipe for disaster,” writes Lyons.

Been There, Done That

As a journalist who has worked in content marketing, I was fascinated by Lyons’ experiences and candor.  I was trained in “old-school” journalism and worked for magazine publishers when the Internet forced them to rethink their business operations. I also wrote about technology during the dot.com boom and bust of the late 1990s.

From my own experiences, I know that the workplace culture depicted in a company’s PR materials doesn’t always match the realities of their internal operations. And brand journalism and content creation are far different from old-school, old-media journalism.

Still, I think some experienced journalists can succeed in content marketing. A lot depends on the journalist’s own background and whether the corporate workplace culture is truly open to people with different perspectives.

Company leaders must also understand what journalists really do. We listen to multiple sources, observe with a critical eye, and raise questions we think readers might ask. If our writing helps readers make more informed decisions about complex subjects, we’ve done our job.

Before interviewing a journalist for a content-marketing job, you might want to read Dan Lyons’ book. In its own weird way, this book shows why bringing in an older journalist could be beneficial to your content marketing efforts.

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons