SWMS 20: What We Did and Why

Sam Whitmore's Media Survey was launched May 11, 1998. It was truly an accidental business -- you can read that backstory here. The original idea was to analyze IT editorial for PR pros and advertising agency pros and password-protect the content on a web site. The idea of a paywall was highly heretical back then. Google hadn't been founded yet but Alta Vista and Lycos were big deals, and many of our industry friends wondered why we would prevent search spiders from surfacing our content. We stuck to our guns. 

In 1998 we organized our analysis around publication categories -- almost exclusively IT trades. Our focus on reporters and what makes them tick was far in the future. We knew that B2B ad agencies worked hard to determine where to place clients' ad budgets. We knew their perspective was empirical, based on circulation and reach. IDG, CMP and Ziff-Davis sales reps all had axes to grind, so these agencies needed an independent means of judging what constituted effective editorial, in a context they understood. So we segmented the tech edit landscape differently -- the way product buyers see the world.

Ad agencies love focus groups, so we came up with the idea of The Listening Room -- a collection of audio clips that let our subscribers hear what readers thought about the IT trades. We'd cold-call the readers and ask them if they had a few minutes to share their views on what they read and what they liked and disliked. Most were afraid to talk on the record, but many did. Ad agencies loved The Listening Room. PR pros liked it too because hearing actual readers helped them understand an IT pro's problems and desires, and they fine-tuned their pitches accordingly.

Over time it became too difficult to serve both ad pros and PR pros; their needs were too different. Luckily, we bet on PR and that's why we survived.

In 2001 we introduced the concept of SWMS valet consulting services. You can see our first description of it in the left column above. Valet consulting saved us because it forced us to listen. As the requests started coming in, we realized that it was all about the targets -- as far as the AEs were concerned. The VPs and above also appreciated the analysis and other strategic content, so we began straddling both and continue to do so today.

In 2003 we introduced SWMS editorial teleconferences and SWMS PDFs. The latter came and went, but the weekly conversations with tech journalists became popular. In the early days we set them up like live radio talk shows. The journalist would call in at the appointed time. Subscribers could ask the journalists questions or simply listen in. We then would publish the audio as well as a synopsis of what the journo had to say.

As time went on, the journalists wound up saying many of the same things -- "read what I write" and "don't call me on deadline" or sometimes, "don't call me ever." Gradually, attendance for these teleconferences dwindled. Many subscribers told us that they'd sign up to attend but some client emergency would arise so they listened to the archived audio instead. So that's how we do them to this day: we schedule them at the journalist's convenience, not ours. And subscribers can listen at their convenience, too.

In 2004 and 2005 -- during the blog craze -- we experimented with a Drupal CMS. As you can see, it was ugly. It also made us lazy as it pretty much became a link blog. We wrote less.

In 2006 we returned to our teal-and-gold color scheme. We introduced coverage of industry analysts and launched a weekly audio report called Tech Media This Week. The biggest development back then was the arrival of CNET audio and video producer Christy Andrade (who later became Christy Whitmore). Christy brought huge value across the board, from sales to content to production. She remains the watchful conscience of the franchise.

In the new decade we simplified site organization into targets, trends and insight. We also got social with Tweets and a tag cloud. Not pictured above is SWMSTweet. That was a Christy idea. (So was our distribution on Slack, which we introduced in 2017.) She saw the importance of social to our business and to the relationships that make it possible.

We introduced our current web format in 2014. We've been looking at new templates but they tend to emphasize visuals (carousels, big art) and for all the change over the years, SWMS remains highly text-driven and that won't change anytime soon. That said, we always remain on the hunt to improve the SWMS experience, especially on mobile devices.

Thanks for reading all the way down here. It's subscribers like you that keep things fun after all these years. We look forward to many more and hope you'll be part of our continuing journey.

Journalists are leaving media brands every week. Read the fruits of 16 confidential interviews with journalists now working at tech brands or PR agencies, and five interviews with the executives who hired these journalists.
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