Talking with TKO
This week Brandon Lewis, Editor-in-Chief of Embedded Computing Design, shared with us his thoughts on utilising platforms, journalistic integrity and getting out of your comfort zone...
The world of electronics media has moved away from print and into a multitude of new platforms in the last 15 years. How do you think that change has shaped the way that the community engages with content?
No one could have known this, but the rush to capture revenue from digital offerings in the early 2000s ended up being the media industry’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and no one could have foreseen exactly how things would play out because the Internet was still essentially brand new. But as we now know, the Internet became an equalizer for media companies’ prospective advertisers, and even their audiences.
On the business side, the traditional notions of “prime” real estate and value that you would find on magazine covers or across from the table of contents eroded on websites. In parallel, advertisers realized that they could now track the ROI of their ad spends in ways that they couldn’t before. Media revenues plummeted, particularly as readers became programmed to avoid the entire right third of web pages. Obviously, I’m biased, and I personally think that many of the purely data-driven analyses of click-through rates discount the value of branding campaigns (I mean there’s a reason that billboards still exist, right?), but that’s the world we now live in.
All of this had an impact on the community then, and we continue to see it unfolding today. Like I just touched on, the ad dollars incentivized digital publishers to provide clicks, and the best way to get the most clicks is to get more eyeballs on your site. Many outlets chose to accomplish this by creating click-bait, and that type of content doesn’t benefit anyone.
Meanwhile, there were a bunch of new players. The advertisers started creating their own content. Large, tech-savvy organizations realized that media organizations had captive audiences (or, in their eyes, customers) and gobbled many of those publishers up, then crammed platforms with more self-serving click-bait and ads.
Finally, sick of all of this, and with the Internet at their disposal, the audience took their interests into their own hands and began creating their own communities in the form of online discussion boards, forums, blogs, and so on. Some even took it a step further and built platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube that let the community produce and distribute their own media.
And that brings us to now. Audiences have options. Maybe too many of them. They can go to a vendor’s website for a datasheet, check out the latest news in a publisher’s newsletter, Google an answer, watch a YouTube video tutorial, check out their LinkedIn feed, post a technical question to Stack Overflow, browse a flipbook, download a podcast, register for a webinar or white paper, page through a print magazine, and scroll through a parts aggregator, all in an hour.
They engage with content wherever, whenever, and however they want. And in a lot of ways they have the media establishment to thank for it.
What do you think will be the biggest change to the way in which electronic components are marketed in the next ten years?
It’s sort of like network television. In the U.S. in the 1960s you had ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcasting programs they chose based on data from a couple thousand Nielsen boxes and a few focus groups. That’s what I call a dumb pipe – it doesn’t really take into account what is happening on the other side of the broadcast channel.
Fast-forward to today you not only have broadcast TV, cable, satellite, streaming services, and a bunch of other options, but on many of them you can choose whatever programming you want, whenever you want it. Many of these platforms are even designed to automatically customize themselves to your unique preferences and experience within that environment.
In other words, the users now dictate the pipe and what comes through it rather than the other way around. And that’s not going to change because the pipe managers, content producers, and marketers have more to lose than the audience.
Something similar is happening in electronics marketing. The trickle-down effect of the dumb pipe is that it forces advertisers into “spray and pray” marketing tactics that push passive messaging out to large audiences in the hope that someone bites. That’s not to say that such marketing doesn’t have its place, but it’s much more effective if you’re marketing more commonplace products or solutions like candy bars or running shoes. In the electronics marketplace, the analogues to these items would be things like capacitors or resistors or low-cost microcontrollers or PCBs, not licenses to proprietary operating systems or EDA development tools.
You have to consider what you’re trying to market and to whom.
CRMs are powerful enough now that marketers and publishers have the opportunity to track user behaviour, not only in terms of the topics they are interested in but also by how individual users consume content on those topics. The challenge – and opportunity – here is that it introduces the need to serve multiple audiences across the multiple mediums I mentioned in the previous question.
Unfortunately, especially for small-to-medium-sized marketing departments, this means turning the one article you used to submit to a publisher into potentially five or six different pieces of content in order to reach your target audience across multiple target platforms. Your core audience may (and probably does) exist simultaneously on YouTube, social media, iTunes, engineering forums, an email distribution list, and in a print circulation, so you have to create assets that will perform well in each of those unique environments. And, obviously, the content parameters are different for each.
On the other hand, the opportunity this presents is an alternative to dumb pipe, spray and pray marketing that enables marketers to target “the right people” instead of “the most people.” By creating and deploying targeted content to targeted audiences, you can more effectively measure audience engagement and hone in on the most active members of your community. From there you can create more complex campaigns based on multiple assets and asset types to get a precision gauge on those who are really interested in your company, products, and services; those who can be nurtured into significant interest; and those who may just be web surfing to kill boredom at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon.
For some marketers, this is a scary proposition, and not just because it’s new and different from what they may be accustomed to. It’s scary to think of a world where you provide your boss with 50 percent fewer leads than last quarter while trying to argue that they are “better” than before. But the truth is that this approach helps optimize your advertising and marketing spend, maximize ROI, and comes with the added benefit of flagging the highest quality prospects for the sales department to pursue. Really, everyone gets what they’re looking for, from the audience to marketing to sales.
That, or a lot more sign spinners on the street corner.
Your academic background was in literature and business rather than electrical engineering. How do you think that changes the way in which you carry out your role?
I have a very analytical mind, and that’s thanks in large part to my education. Both lit and business are about reading between the lines to solve problems and expressing those findings to others in a way that’s easy to understand. Those skills are obviously advantageous from a strategic and tactical editorial standpoint, and also help me apply what we’re doing in the content realm to endeavours like the cross-platform content delivery and analysis I described above.
Another area of emphasis during my collegiate career was journalism. It was actually my first major, and it’s ironic that I find myself in this field all these years later. Obviously, in addition to providing a foundation for developing questions, structuring interviews, and communicating information to large audiences, journalism serves as the backdrop for all of the content my team produces and keeps us focused on our primary objective of serving the audience first.
But more important than my specific background is the fact that I love learning in general, and there’s an infinite amount to learn in the EE, embedded, IoT, AI, and security fields. It helps that engineers are typically passionate about what they do, and more than happy to explain the “hows” of technology they use and create. My understanding of CPU branch prediction, arrays, mutexes, semaphores, cryptography, voltage analysis, circuit design, EMI, RF interference, and many more areas – both in and beyond your average engineering syllabus – comes from ten years of absorbing knowledge from professional engineers working in these fields to solve real-world problems.
And, as it turns out, with the migration towards multi-disciplinary engineering that’s been brought on by paradigm shifts like the Internet of Things, that breadth is, overall, more positive than deep vertical knowledge of a single topic. I owe that to my desire to discover new things and, at least early on in my career, the ability to just shut up and listen.
You’ve done some volunteering work with the AZ Lost Boys Center, an organisation that works with individuals from the Sudanese community to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become empowered global leaders who support South Sudan. How did you become involved?
For those unaware, South Sudan is less than ten years old as a nation and was founded in the aftermath of a horrific civil war that displaced millions of Sudanese people. Tragically another civil war broke out a couple of years after the country gained its independence, so a sizeable Sudanese population entered the U.S. as refugees.
One day I had some spare time on my hands and I started thinking of ways I could be productive. I found the Lost Boys Center online, and showed up one day asking how I could help. It was kind of funny because the people managing the Center thought I had been court-ordered there for community service or some sort of punishment, and didn’t really know what to do with me at first. But after we cleared up the confusion I had caused, they put me to work teaching English to Center patrons.
It was pretty rewarding work, because I operate under the “teach a man to fish” philosophy. The students were of all age groups and skill levels, so it was slow going for a lot of the time because I didn’t start with a curriculum and it’s surprisingly difficult to explain things about the English language, both verbally and written, that we take for granted. For example, subject-verb agreement exists in both English and Swahili, but it’s very nuanced in both cases. When someone asks you “Why is it this way?”, there isn’t really a good answer. It’s like trying to explain to someone why you have a first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, and then randomly a short stop in baseball. I’m sure there’s a valid reason, but I have no idea what it is.
But we did make a lot of progress. One of the young men I tutored actually earned a degree from a community college while we were working together, and I was able to teach some older women how to write their names and addresses. This is the type of stuff that actually changes people’s lives, and I’m grateful I got to be a part of their journeys and experience on some level what it’s like for a person to really have to start over.
I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone once in a while to remind themselves of what’s important. It’s a lot more difficult to be xenophobic or flat out ignore other people when you actually try to spend just a little time in their shoes.
The director of the centre is Jany Deng, a remarkable guy, and happy to accept help if you're willing to give it. His email is [email protected]
You run a series on Embedded Computing Design’s YouTube page called ‘Dev Kit Weekly’ in which you review development boards. Talk us through the idea and why you chose to do it on YouTube.
When you’re a trade media journalist covering the electronics space, and you’re at a tradeshow, people want to give you a lot of free stuff. One of the things that people like to hand out is evaluation kits or DIY development kits, which are basically customized Raspberry Pi or Arduino boards that feature the company’s own technology.
I would get home from every show with two or three of these and set them on my desk with the intention of building out a project. And although I have done several in the past, it’s a significant time commitment and the kits started piling up on my bench and collecting dust.
So partially because they weren’t being put to good use and partially because our office manager kept nagging me about cleaning up my workspace, I started thinking about the best thing to do with all of them. Then it dawned on me that the people who would know exactly what to do with them is our audience. Go figure.
Dev Kit Weekly was born out of that. Every week we do a quick, five-minute overview of the kit, it’s features, the tools it’s compatible with, the types of applications it’s designed for, and how an engineer can get started. Then we raffle the kit off to a member of our audience and ship it to them, free of charge. All we ask in return is a photo of them with the kit and a brief description of what they plan to do with it. To-date, we’ve reviewed 50 different kits and raffled off hundreds of actual boards.
The “why YouTube” question sort of brings this conversation full circle. YouTube is not only the de facto video hosting and sharing platform, it’s also the second-largest search engine in the world. Embedded Computing Design produces high-quality content for engineers. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, and YouTube is the best wheel out there for the purpose it serves.
But in addition to that, it’s also home to a different demographic of engineers. I’m not suggesting that all younger engineers use YouTube or that no one over 50 ever does, but analytics show that YouTube is a good channel for engaging the various personas we target in the 18 to 44-year-old age bracket. We periodically expose these audience members to other corners of our content universe, and gather more information about them and their preferences along the way.
This data helps us develop and deliver content that they want to enhance the user experience within our community, and also initiates a virtuous feedback loop of information that can give advertisers and marketers deeper insight into potential customers.
In short, YouTube is another pipe. It’s our job to use it like a smart pipe.