Content's New(ish) Context. #digitalpublishing #brands #media #economics #storytelling
I've had more than a few clients and prospects approach me recently about ways they can scale their content-driven businesses.
A couple of them are technology startups that have hedged their bets on curation, and have built up communities around the content they curate, and are now finding themselves in a struggle to maintain viable revenue models. In fact, they've spent so much time building up these communities, it seems like they may not be able to generate revenue from these same communities simply because these folks are interacting and sharing with content because it is "free", and it is content they themselves have curated.
On the subscription side of things, these same customers are often being offered less content for more money, simply because the platforms themselves have to generate more content to keep up with increasingly devalued inventory. And of course, quality suffers.
More recently, the native advertising and branded content movement has ushered in a new wave of efforts to generate journalistic pieces that are "sponsored" or "supported" by brands -- notable among the online publisher platforms facilitating this is Fortune.
Is this the answer to the complexities of online publishing? Not really. It is, however, a step in the right direction.
But amid all the proposed solutions, I think we need to be considering the bigger picture, which is to look squarely at what consumers, and ultimately markets, want, and more specifically, at what they do. It seems that in the mad dash to generate headlines, boost page rank and siphon ad dollars, we as industries are forgetting the fundamentals of audience engagement and sustainment, which can be reduced to a single equivalent: great storytelling.
What Makes Stories, and Therefore Content, Great
Telling stories -- at least in a journalistic sense -- used to be about digging in and reaching for those nuggets of truth and circumstance that would move a readership into deep introspection and fireside conversation. This also created a word-of-mouth ripple effect in which readers would advocate material and make recommendations to their peers, well before 'social media' entered the picture, and, arguably, even as social media channels have been widely adopted. Today, time and attention are commodities that have created a different cause and effect scenario, particularly as readers have become participants, and writers have become social or anthropological curators. The elements of great stories haven't changed -- theme, arc, archetype and outcome are ever-present -- but the telling of those stories has changed quite a bit.
And so goes a new(ish) construct around the context of content.
I like to establish the issues publishers and readers face as the distinction between a "media first"approach and a "story first" approach.
With a media first approach, essentially news pieces and feeds are generated and filtered according to artificial demand; in other words, content is treated as a commodity, not as a prized asset. Conversely, when we adopt a story first approach, news pieces and feeds are not only contextually relevant, but they have inherent scale because the readership determines their value.
Readers Are The Source of Innovation
A shining example of a big miss in this respect is how online publishers overlook comment threads; read any good article on a reputable site these days and chances are the comments section will match if not outdo the piece itself, and the fact that (most) pubs don't build off these threads -- i.e. develop new stories -- is unbelievable. This would constitute one instance of a story first approach.
I haven't covered off on a slew of other formats, but the point here is to demonstrate that causation and result are neither mutually exclusive, nor are they self-sustaining. In fact, our adherence to these dynamics tends to lean toward the continual fragmentation of markets, or more positively, the formation of them.
What are your thoughts and your own experiences regarding content's new(ish) context?