People are willing to pay for content, but only when they find value in it or in the experience of gaining access to it. With information so widely available and accessible, the quality of the content—its depth and breadth and the context it provides—is what gives it value. In our digital era, in which “information wants to be free,” much of what is available, online or otherwise, doesn’t lend itself to inspiring people to pay.
In this environment, some people have mastered how to consistently create must-read content. Even those who succeed, however, attract niche (not mass) audiences of people who are intensely interested in what they offer. There is little understanding of how to replicate their work, scale it larger, or transfer their efforts in a significant way to other projects. But there is a lot that can be learned from observing those whose content meets this threshold and does so consistently. Figuring out what factors contribute to their success—while acknowledging that there will be ones unique to each content creator—gives us clues about what can lead to success in this hybrid environment of social media and the gathering and distribution of news and information.
Here is how three people approach this challenge:
Scoble blogs at scobleizer.com, and his Twitter feed is twitter.com/scobleizer. Robert Scoble, a blogger, author and technologist, believes the best content begins in the community. Responding to this belief, he has built and cultivated a vast network of people throughout the world and routinely tracks and engages them online. Scoble takes a look at information flowing in from this network and then promotes on his site what he believes will be popular or interesting. The content he highlights has become must-read because it is drawn from sources that few other people have access to or have taken the time to share.
Kawasaki’s blog, “How to Change the World” is at blog.guykawasaki.com, and his Twitter feed is twitter.com/Guykawasaki.Guy Kawasaki, a blogger and entrepreneur, writes one of the most widely read blogs on the topics of innovation, startups and technology. For him, aggregation and context are key factors. Everything that Kawasaki brings to his blog pulls from a variety of sources and ideas; his role is to add perspective, insight or knowledge that those who come to his blog might not get from consuming the raw information on their own. In many cases, what he does is to transform information into action. “To add value, what I write has to help change people’s minds—that’s why I am always looking to deliver ‘the art of’ or ‘how to’ information,” he told me.
Heffernan blogs for The New York Times, and her Twitter feed is twitter.com/page88. Virginia Heffernan, who writes The Medium column for The New York Times Magazine and blogs about digital content for The New York Times, believes that the best strategy for creating must-read content is to look where others aren’t. “Shine the spotlight over here,” she told me, “when everyone else is shining it over there.” She examines what content people are already paying for and what these consumer decisions mean to us as a society. “We assume right now that people are willing to pay zero,” she said. “What is interesting is to explore what they will pay a lot for.” Recently, she featured the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences as an example. Directed by TED, a small nonprofit dedicated to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” the events sell out at a hefty price even though much of the content from the conferences—live blogging, video broadcasts—are available for free online.
There are many content creators who’ve carved out niches and created highly valued experiences for their audience. Each offers something unique. Yet, here are some threads knitting their efforts together:
Understanding your audience is critical. How does your potential audience use technology to get and share information? What expectations do they have about the news and information they’ll find? These questions and more along these lines are what define the individual’s media experience at a time when there is more information available and more options about where to go to find it than there is time to consume it. Answering these key questions becomes essential. Having this knowledge contributes to how a story will be presented; if the potential members of an audience no longer read long articles, then explore other ways to tell the story. Knowing this influences how reporting and content creation takes place from the start. A strong editorial voice and judgment are valuable: Help in finding the way through the overload of information is essential—and that’s where judgment comes into play, while acknowledging the value users ascribe to voicing their opinions and deciding for themselves how they feel about the news and information. “It’s a conversation, not a lecture,” is how some frame this change. Where the old media now fails is in covering a narrow band of stories and presenting information in ways that are too similar to how others cover the same story—and doing so without conveying a strong editorial voice. Such a voice has differentiated coverage and given audiences a reason to seek out this information.
Community is necessary. Bringing together people with shared interests is a necessary ingredient for any successful online venture. No person can know Anderson blogs at thelongtail.com, and his Twitter feed is twitter.com/Chr1sA.
everything about an issue or topic, so forming community creates a collaborative process of information gathering. It brings forth stories, presents a wider range of issues, adds voices, and the result is more information. Still, having the community contribute content and perspective does not mean ceding control to the mob. Without significant filtering of what comes in, quality will suffer. Value comes from providing people with the ability to interact and in finding ways to spur more and better content in partnership with community members. As the editor in chief of Wired, Chris Anderson explained, “social filtering is the way people will consume media going forward.” It also turns out to be the way to create content successfully.
Aggregation is happening. Success in the digital age revolves around recognizing that just about everything comes from other places, or at least starts somewhere else. With so many sources of content, aggregation can bring the best of related content into one place; once there, users can gain more understanding of a topic they care about and find a community with and from whom they can learn more. Still, aggregation requires more than knowing how to use the tools to make it happen. For news organizations, for example, it means a willingness to embrace the idea of featuring content produced by others, being OK with others featuring what they’ve produced, and devoting newsroom resources to guide the process so this becomes a value-added experience for their audience. As Scoble put it: “You have to stop thinking about being the person who defines what is important all on your own. No one person can do it all, but if you are tapping into the expertise of many different sources, and making connections deep into issues, you will be able to build something that is really good. The real skill is being able to make those connections.”
Good stewardship reaps rewards. In an article entitled “Can ‘Curation’
Save Media?” Steve Rosenbaum, the CEO of Magnify.net, argued that the role of media professionals in the digital era is in “separating the wheat from the chaff, assigning editorial weight and—most importantly—giving folks who don’t want to spend their lives looking for an editorial needle in a haystack a high-quality collection of content that is contextual and coherent.” He uses the word “curation,” but stewardship seems more appropriate. Beyond the responsibility of culling good content lies the commitment to growing the relationship with the people in the audience. The possibility exists for audience members to feel valued and to provide them with ways that they find value in what you offer. Being a good steward will reap the reward of loyalty, and along with that can come revenue since strong relationships make audience members want to buy or recruit friends to join them.
It’s always been this way—that content is key to the success of media companies. This has not changed in the digital age. Yet, there’s been no proven way found to bring in money so that news organizations—or other content creators—can sustain their efforts over time. As this financial side of the equation continues to be talked about—and experimentation takes place—there is no doubt that must-read content, embedded in a community experience, will be a critical element for all who achieve success. People will pay for content in which they find value. News reporting and other ubiquitous information does not seem to meet that standard. When it reaches the level of must-read content, the rest will fall into place more easily.
Brian Reich is the managing director of little m media, which provides organizations with strategic guidance about the Internet and technology. He is the author of “Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience,” published by John Wiley & Sons in 2007. Follow him at twitter.com/brianreich.