About A Big Fish in a Small Pond

This is a blog about taking an approach to content, business (and life itself) that is different, unconventional and perhaps even a little weird.

The approach is based on the old cliche about being a big fish in a small pond — a cliche that is often used in a belittling fashion.  But I see nothing wrong with being a big fish in a small pond.  On the contrary, I’ve made it the core of my business life.

I’m Paul Conley, a consultant, writer and executive who works in business-to-business (B2B) communications. I practice journalism, content marketing, marketing communications, internal communications and more in highly specialized areas. In other words, I make my living by communicating within “small ponds” of people who share interests.

The work I do is quite different from the mass communications model used in most of the media world. I specialize in reaching niche business audiences.  For example, I  work a lot in the food industry. But my work doesn’t involve reaching people who are interested in food (everyone on earth). My work is about reaching small pieces of the industry: bankers who finance agricultural loans, logistics specialists interested in tracking fresh produce shipments, marketing executives at restaurant chains, etc.

During the more than two decades that I’ve worked in B2B communications, much has changed. I was lucky enough to play a small role in driving some of that change through a blog I launched in 2004 about B2B journalism.

One obvious change has been the rise of the content-marketing industry (which today provides the lion’s share of my income) and a blurring of the lines between the various forms of marketing and journalism.

Another change has been the emergence, and growing sophistication, of the systems that target content at specific people. From ad-tracking to data mining to location-based marketing to microsites to news-feed algorithms, it’s grown increasingly easy to segment an audience.

The problem is that although it’s getting easier to target an audience, it’s getting harder to actually reach people. We’re all overdosing on content. There’s simply too much out there for anyone to consume.

More troubling is that media has begun to feel intrusive. This is particularly true for the “decision makers” in business, who face a never-ending onslaught of personalized and targeted emails, phone calls and mailings.

Spam used to be what we got from people who didn’t know us at all. Now it’s what we get from people who know us all too well.

So how can a business communicator function is this environment? As we learn more and more about the members of an audience, how do we keep that from feeling creepy? How do we get them to want to learn more and more about us, rather than to pull the shades?

I don’t know if I have the solution to all the challenges faced by today’s business communicators. But I do have a method of addressing those challenges.

I call it the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach.

During the decades I’ve practiced the Big Fish approach in B2B communications, I’ve come to realize the approach is useful in almost every aspect of  life. When I need to decide whether to accept a job or a new client, when I must select which charities to support, when looking for a way to serve my community, address a family crisis, choose a sport or physical practice to pursue, invest my money, or do just about anything, the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach offers guidance and insight.

So what is the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach?

In brief, the approach involves putting the majority of your effort into Small Ponds, i.e., places

  • where your authority is clear, even when you are not the sole authority or the leading authority
  • where you lead more often that you follow
  • where you are often responsible for others, but seldom responsible to others

In this blog I’ll write about what I’ve learned from practicing the Big Fish approach, about what I’m learning from it now, and what I hope to learn from it in the future.

If any of this interests you, dive right in. The Big Fish in a Small Pond approach is, itself, a very Small Pond. But it attracts only a particular type of fish — the curious, the searching, the ones who seek responsibility rather than shun it.

So there’s plenty of room here for you.