Philadelphia startup Crossbeam makes tools for partnership managers, the people at tech companies who are responsible for tech partnerships and channel partnerships. Director of Content Sean Blanda’s task is to build a publication for partner managers from scratch. He’s previously worked at InVision (Editorial Director), I Will Teach You to Be Rich (Editor-in-Chief), and Adobe’s 99U (Editor-in-Chief/Director). He told Wonder Shuttle about his new role and why he’s excited by the (mostly) thankless work of editing.
Why did you join Crossbeam? Why are they interested in investing in content this early?
One of the many reasons why I joined is, I love when the business interests of the thing align with the interest of content. Crossbeam is essentially a data escrow service. It has a profound impact on how quickly people can implement partnerships and choose which partner is the most effective. As a result, the more people on this platform, the better it is. That kind of network effect of people adding their data to the platform is hard going at first, but once it gets going, it’s great.
That kind of philosophy aligns well with content, right? You have to be really high quality at first, you have to take care of your early audience, you have to be useful, you have to serve them. You have to get them on your mailing list or some sort of distribution, and continually wow them and make their life better. I like that alignment, and that’s why they’re investing so early in content.
Talk to us about this new publication. You’re only a couple months in, how are you going about setting it up and building your team?
It’s like a B2B trade publication; it’s a magazine for people who are partnership managers. But when you look at it, it’s the Crossbeam blog. We’re not dressing it up more than that, but the objectives there are similar.
I have been fortunate, or unfortunate depending on your point of view, to do almost every job in the publishing stack. So I can kind of be the Swiss Army knife to start, and I view my job as setting the framework for scale. I wouldn’t quite know where to put new hires yet, because I don’t know where the levers are. My job is to figure out where the levers are, and what happens when we push them.
What do you do to actually get to know the audience better?
It’s kind of beat reporting. Whenever you’re going into a new beat, you find three or four buddies that will help you out. So I have a few, even in this early stage, where I’ll email them and say, “Hey, I’m writing a post about this. Does this make sense to you?” And they’ll give me feedback, and that’s how you build your expertise.
I have also gone on sales calls. We do these things called “jam sessions”, where we go onsite to the customers. And we say like, what are you having trouble with using the platform? And how’s your team organized?
Two months in, I still have a ton to learn. But that’s how it starts getting a little more clear.
What do you think about the tension between the craft of editing and the marketing interest that is so often a major part of the job now?
Things break when the business incentives don’t align with the incentives of the audience. What sells more newspaper subscriptions or what sells more ads isn’t necessarily what’s in service to the reader. Our [content] jobs now can be very aligned. The person who uses Crossbeam wants to be a better partner manager. The person who reads the Crossbeam blog wants to be a better partner manager. That is 100% aligned.
So to bring it back, there should be little tension. The tension is in your time, in that there’s so much to do. The tension shouldn’t be in what you work on and how you’re working. If I was just editing stuff that comes across my desk, my job would be much more singular. But content teams are one to five people, if they’re lucky. Everyone’s got to wear multiple hats.
You’ve had some interesting thoughts on search engine optimization, and there seems to be this resurgence of SEO lately. Tell us a bit about that and how to balance writing for people versus writing for the algorithm.
There’s multiple distribution channels and you’re not going to gain control of all of them, so balance accordingly. Where your audience comes from is a pie chart. Some will come from search, some will come from social. For the long-term health of your publication, you want more to come from email and direct, like word of mouth and events. But that takes a while, and the way you can kind of augment that is through organic traffic and through social media.
Where the keywords are ranking and how many people are clicking on the keywords is incredibly measurable, and what gets measured gets managed. A lot of people who have the pressure to prove value will default to that, and I understand why. That should be part of everyone’s toolkit, but it shouldn’t be the only tool.
You should know how to spin up a handful of keywords, but if you become obsessed with it or that’s your only path, you’re going to be limiting your potential.
There are also some immeasurable things that are really important. The word quality comes to mind. What are other elements that you look for? Have you tried quantifying them to make a business case, especially in the role of editor?
I just got off the phone with someone and she said, “I just started at this partnership manager thing. It’s really confusing to me; I had a hard time parsing it. I found the Crossbeam blog and I’m learning a lot. It’s very much helping me build my career.”
That’s a sign to me that we’re doing something, and you can bet I’ll relay that to my team. That is the mission of the company, to help those people. And one extension of the mission is content. It’s not the only one, it might not even be the most important one, but it’s one of them. The more you can kind of relay that and communicate that internally, I think that is one of the ways you can help reinforce quality.
So when someone’s coming down on you like, “Oh, I need to see these metrics move,” you can say no. The real measure we want is people actually getting use, actually becoming fans for life and becoming advocates. That’s your super power as an editor.
We’ve talked about how editing can encompass many things these days. It can also be a thankless job. Why do you enjoy editing?
I feel like editing is like throwing a party at your house. You aren’t the star of the show necessarily. You’re just making sure that the drinks are refilled, and everyone’s talking to each other. But when you throw another party, people will come back, because they remember what a good time they had. I feel like being an editor is like that, where if people find continual value out of the thing you’re making, they’ll keep coming back, and that’s the reward.
I think if you want a little more attention, you can also hop in and write whenever you want. But you gotta have that kind of curatorial, that publishing, that producer mindset, where arranging the pieces and planning the meal is enough. I understand why some people don’t find that exciting, but I find it incredibly exciting.
Any personal favorite publications that you’re admiring right now?
I’ve been reading Holloway. One of the founders of Mattermark just started writing and sourcing and paying for these massively comprehensive guides about different parts of starting a business. Incredible craft put into it; they’re taking this long-term approach. I really admire what they’re building.
The other sneaky editorial thing I kind of keep my eye on is: the Apple App Store has incredible editorial. I’m serious, load up the App Store on your phone. It has custom illustrations, they curate the best of the App Store, they make it timely. I find that extremely admirable and I know that’s really hard to do. They probably don’t get any credit for it, and those are some of the unspoken heroes.
[Wonder Shuttle note: Sean followed up with us to add 2PM, a newsletter that covers the intersection of media and commerce.]
Anything else you want to add?
There’s a lot of people who do this job and we’re all trying to figure it out. I think a beautiful part about it is, we don’t compete. There’s not too many publications that completely overlap in who they’re targeting. As a result, you learning something and telling me, and me learning something and telling you, that just elevates everything. I feel like it elevates the internet, because some of the content on the internet has been pulled down by the weight of lots of bad incentives.
I hope people are more vocal about doing these jobs, and I hope they find their people. And if you haven’t found your people, DM me on Twitter.