Like most of my fellow digital media practitioners, I have a lot of reading every week. Reading is as big a part of life for a digital consultant as understanding community management best practices or understanding audience need states and how to relevant to your target communities. The digital space changes fast — faster than the rest of communications; there are always new players emerging, new developments from existing players, new brand experiences that will end up being case studies to learn from… keeping up on all these changes is absolutely necessary if you want to maintain your ability to keep your clients informed, and to keep providing the strongest and most up to date counsel.
I also am responsible, along with Chris Thilk and a couple of other colleagues, for our weekly PNConnect Weekly Reading newsletter. This pretty much means that one of my responsibilities is to tell other people — colleagues, clients, and other observers — what they should be reading. That comes with additional pressure to be thorough and complete in my reading; I have to see enough each week to be able to identify and promote the most significant content that week.
It can be tough, however, to do your job and do all the reading you need to do. Clients need counsel; they also need execution from you. And of course, that’s why we’re all in business: to support our clients. So in order to keep up with everything going on in the digital space while still supporting clients, I’ve had to sharpen a very important skill: skimming.
Call it skimming, call it speed-reading; whatever its name, the skill involves learning to glance at an article or post, be able to go over it quickly, and identify and understand the key points and main thrust of the article. It’s kind of like drawing up your own Cliff’s Notes for everything you read. The only way to get good at it is to do it again and again; like training yourself to pick up a ball leaving a pitcher’s hand and knowing by release point and arm angle what he’s throwing, it takes practice and repetition to get it right. Ultimately, what you’re training yourself to do is to read only the words or lines that will increase your understanding of the text, and avoid the excess words that don’t help you.
One of the ways I’ve trained myself to do this is to skim several articles about the same topic; if I come away from all of them with the same takeaways, it’s a decent bet that I’ve really grokked it. I did an awful lot of this as I was learning; if you’re trying to master the skill, you should identify three or four stories on the same subject. When you’re drawing similar conclusions from each article, you’re probably doing it right. If you’re drawing different conclusions, re-read everything more slowly. (Try not to read opinion pieces as you’re doing this; you really need to train yourself on reporting, not columns or opinion posts. With opinion pieces, you’re reliant on the author’s conclusions or perspectives for your own coming out of the read.)
Don’t read every word on the page. I tend to read the lead graphs first — good reporting still includes getting all the keys in the lede. It also helps me to look for quotes in the story; if the author has interviewed or cited a third party in the piece, that’s usually good for providing color and adding depth to my understanding. Looking for names, dates, percentages or other data, and that kind of thing also tends to help identify when something’s going to make you “get it” better. Finally, the first few words of each new paragraph give you the sense of what the graph is about; reading the first sentence more thoroughly or carefully than the rest can be an effective tactic.
Now that we’ve talked a little about how to skim articles, I should probably tell you what I skim on a regular basis to keep current and make my counsel as effective as possible. I should first admit that I read a lot more publications than individual perspectives. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t always want to see someone else’s opinionated perspective as the first exposure I get to a topic. I want the “just the facts, ma’am” version of the subject, so I can develop my own opinion about it. I’ll then gut-check my developing opinion by reading the perspectives of the people I respect in the field. If they come to a different conclusion than I do, it doesn’t necessarily make me wrong, but I do tend to go back and re-read about the subject with greater care than at first, to make sure I understand the topic as well as I thought.
The other reason I don’t read many individuals is that I think there’s a dearth of good counsel and genuinely good opinion out there in the digital media world. There’s a lot of self-promotion — much of it from people who haven’t actually been in the trenches executing programs, but just fancy themselves “experts” — but I find that many of the voices that are still considered most prominent in this space haven’t had much original to say since about 2009.
That said, there are a handful of people who I think are really smart and whom I read regularly. My former competitor when I was at GM and he at Ford, Scott Monty always makes me think, and points me to stories that I should probably “learn up” on. Gini Dietrich and her team at Spin Sucks are a good resource both for pointing out stories of importance and for making me aware of professional development resources (as well as being a professional development resource in their own right). Shelly Kramer and her team at the V3 Blog are a good read. And Geoff Livingston challenges conventional wisdom and makes me really consider my own positions on digital marketing when he posts about marketing.
The rest of my reading is accomplished through Feedly. Feedly is like any RSS tool, in that you have to tell it what you want to follow and what you want it to present to you. But it makes it a lot easier for me to see what’s being published by my sources of choice. I look at Feedly several times a day to see what these sources are running with — and to see if more than one is covering the same story (a good indication that it’s an important story that I ought to get smart on pretty fast).
I’ve got a couple of different categories of reading to check. For General Reading, I have mainstream news outlets — the New York Times, Washington Post, the major broadcast networks’ websites. First, if these outlets are covering a digital story, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s a story of significance to the “real world” of people who don’t specialize in digital for a living. But I also just want to be up on what’s going on in the world, to provide context to some of the digital stories I cover.
I have a category dedicated to Marketing and Social Media. These outlets help me stay up on the broad field of marketing, and especially digital marketing. Some of the outlets I seem to find most useful in this category include Marketingland, AdWeek, ClickZ, MarketingProfs, eMarketer, Ragan’s PR Daily, and the eConsultancy Blog. There’s others in that feed, but these seem to be the outlets that make me smartest. Like I said, these help me stay up on the developments that will impact my job the most.
I have a category dedicated to Tech. Voce tends to focus much of its business on the tech industry, a lot of our clients are in tech, and often when either the major digital platforms or emerging competitors are doing something new, the tech media cover it. Among the sites in this category most useful to me are Quartz (which I especially find useful for smartening me up on global digital developments), ReadWrite, Re/Code, the New York Times’ “Bits” blog, The Verge, VentureBeat, Fast Company, and Wired. Again, there are others — but I do find myself gravitating to these more often.
From a Journalism standpoint, I like looking at the Columbia Journalism Review — they often have pieces that provide depth to how the emergence of digital has impacted the pursuit of journalism and breaking news — for both better and worse.
Finally, every now and then, I confess that I will check out BuzzFeed. The snob in me wants to pretend that I don’t, but every so often, in between the articles on 37 First Sex Mistakes That Will Make You Cringe, they have a story on a brand or company that’s using digital in a creative or interesting way. They’re also pioneers in the area of native advertising, which is something every digital practitioner should rapidly be gaining expertise in — and I learn from some of the brands who do native ads on BuzzFeed.
Now, do you see why I’ve had to learn the art of skimming?
Filed in Voce People