Over at the site of my new business, we’ve been having fun with the seven deadly sins. Nothing sordid, mind, all very tasteful. We’ve been listing the various downfalls we’ve seen befall sites and matching them up against the classical vices. (Of course, being a business, we then offer ourselves as the solution.) It’s part of our radical strategy of making clients’ content interesting.
Tag Archives: content
For eight years I plied my trade as an online journalist. My mission, should I have no choice but to accept it, was to attract readers to pages where adverts were served. For every 1,000 page impression a piece of content received we could expect something like £10 (plus any sponsorship for the relevant section).
That’s a lot of work to get a lot of traffic for not much cash. That’s a key problem for commercial publishers online. Another key problem is the way that online has moved in the past two years or so.
Thanks to the phenomenon known as Web 2.0, the focus has shifted to individual items of content not to where they are displayed. Blogs, RSS feeds, widgets, wikis, social network and umpteen other phenomena take content out of its context and share, manipulate and distribute it in more ways than seem possible. If the content is interesting enough, that is.
This presents a bijout problemette for commercial content producers. While it’s great to have lots of people reading their stories or watching their videos it’s hard to generate revenue unless you can drag those users under an advertising banner or beside a sponsor’s logo. This mission is not impossible but it is damn hard.
But this is all great news if your aim is not to make money from attracting people but simply getting a message to them. And this is where the public sector wins big, especially when it comes to delivering public service messages.
Online is now about distribution and content. If you can embed your message in interesting content then the natural flow of the web will take it to the people for you.
For those of you who are still struggling with what this Web 2.0 thing is, I’ve some bad news (though really it’s great news): Web 3.0 is just around the corner, according to the man who invented these tangled Webs.
“Wow,” I hear you say. “Web 3.0. The Semantic Web. Great … Err, what the **** does that actually mean?”
Well, the sainted Sir TBL puts it this way:
Web 2.0 is a stovepipe system. It’s a set of stovepipes where each site has got its data and it’s not sharing it. What people are sometimes calling a Web 3.0 vision [is] where you’ve got lots of different data out there on the Web and you’ve got lots of different applications, but they’re independent. A given application can use different data. An application can run on a desktop or in my browser, it’s my agent. It can access all the data, which I can use and everything’s much more seamless and much more powerful because you get this integration. The same application has access to data from all over the place.
Now in my view all data is content. What we are looking at is a future where you will be able to access all data (or content) from any device or any application anywhere. But that does not mean that the Facebook Vampires application will stalk you to the toilet or “private personal enhancement medication” emails will start tumbling out of your iPod. One of the key characteristics of what’s known as Web 2.0 has been the organising of data (content) to enhance relevance. As technology allows the universal sharing of data this trend towards completely targeted relevance will become even more pronounced.
It’s good to know that TBL believes William Gibson’s oft-quoted dictum: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”
(Also posted on w00tonomy.com.)
I have long had reservations about the hype surrounding user generated content. Let’s be very clear here that I’m talking about the hype surrounding UGC here. Along with the flight to “hyperlocal” it has been touted as the salvation of journalism (in conjunction with “hey, let’s do video”). It’s not.
My reservations do not spring from my not trusting my user but from my experience of achieving success by following the user. And in my bust-to-boom experience of online journalism I’ve not seen much in the traffic figures that suggests that the users are interested in pure user generated content in the journalistic context.
Some important caveats: Of course, there’s a huge appetite for pure UGC elsewhere on the web (yes, I’m aware of YouTube) and UGC can be a potent ingredient in the news-gathering process (yes, I’m aware of the footage of the London Tube bombings: nothing beats video from somebody at the scene of a major news event). And UGC in terms of carrying on a conversation about the news on a news site is a wonderful thing.
UGC is most definitely a vital part of the answer. But it has been for centuries. What newspaper has not relied on readers calling/writing in with tip offs? Without journalistic input UGC is not the answer for news sites. And I’ve always been suspicious of ventures that claimed it was.
This last belief has not always made me popular. At the ONA conference in New York a couple of years ago, I mischeviously asked a panel of worthies if they would like to be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon. There were gales of laughter from the audience and I got umpteen beers bought for me (score!). But I got an online slap in the wrist from none other than Sir Jeff of Jarvis. And the representative from pure cit-j play Backfence dismissed me as patronising.
I note with interest that Backfence is now in the toilet. And in some ways that is not surprising. At that ONA session, Susan DeFife (FaeFife?) kept banging on about a wonderful financial investigation that proved their whole concept. Everyone nodded sagely at this great breakthrough in Cit-J – apart from one very experienced US journalist who sought me out afterwards to point out that he had looked at this article and it was “totally unreadable”.
Backfence died because the content was not strong enough. And the secret truth of strong content is here: the skills required to uncover and identify important or relevant information and present it in a way that is coherent, ordered, interesting and grammatical are restricted to a tiny proportion of the general population – and not enough journalists.
News sites live or die by the quality of their content. By and large, with some honourable exceptions (such as OhMyNews), such quality content comes from (some) professional journalists and (some) bloggers who are so good they are effectively professional journalists. (EDIT: Actually, as Neil McIntosh points out below, OhMyNews employs dozens of professionals.)
But don’t just take my word for it. The widely-respected US journalist Steve Outing believed so passionately in Cit-J that he put money where his mouth was and set up a business based on it.
It failed. In a brave and honest piece in Editor & Publisher, he explains why. Here’s what he has to say about UGC:
In hindsight, I think we tried to rely too heavily on user submitted content. Even though a lot of it was really great, the overall experience was weak when compared to, say, reading a climbing or a mountain biking magazine filled with quality professional content throughout.
We believed that having a core level of professional content –- from our site editors -– would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content — and I’d mix that in with the best user content.
I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.
It’s all about the quality of the content. It’s all about giving the users what they want. And here’s the rub: your economic circumstances do not affect the users’ demands. If all you can afford to publish is purely amateur reporting (or for that matter low-quality video produced by professional text journalists) it does not necessarily mean that there is any demand for that.
As one who believes in high-quality niche content, I’ve long been a fan of of the video game comic/commentary/community Penny Arcade. (In fact, I keep trying to slip John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory into presentations to clients curious about user interaction.)
I was therefore heartened and impressed by this post from the aforementioned Gabe about their attitude to advertising on the Penny Arcade (apologies for the lengthy quote, it’s worth it):
Other game site out there takes ads for whatever game they can get. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pile of crap, if the publisher pays for the spot IGN or Gamespot or whoever will run the ad. That’s fine but that’s not how we do it and the news posts you just read are part of the reason why..
No matter how early the build we tell the publishers that unless we can see it played in front of us or play it ourselves we won’t run ads for it. Obviously a lot can still go wrong during development but we make the best decisions we can. We do not think of the ads you see on our page as ads. They are recommendations and we try extremely hard to insure that anything we put over there is worth your time.
When Prince of Persia 2 came out and we saw that it was crap we said as much on the site. Ads for the game appeared right next to those news posts slamming it. Needless to say Ubi wasn’t very happy and Robert got some angry phone calls but our loyalty is to our readers not the people paying the bills.
We explained to Ubi that the reason our ads perform better than any other site out there is because our readers trust us and that means we have to admit when something we advertise doesn’t turn out as good as we hoped.
How great is that? How sensible is that? They regard ads as part of the content of their site and they vet products before they carry ads for them. If they then carry negative reviews, the games companies just have to suck it up. And why do these powerful organisations suck it up? They suck it up because ads on Penny Arcade out-perform ads on other sites. And why does that happen? Because Penny Arcade’s users trust what they see on the site. And they trust the ads precisely because the products are vetted and honestly reviewed.
Penny Arcade’s been around a long time and is a huge success. They really know what they’re doing. In that one post, Gabe and Tycho demonstrate far more commercial nous than many advertising people I’ve encountered.
Imagine similar conversations at a newspaper: “You want a full-colour wraparound advertising your ‘crack cocaine for kids’ casino open day? You want it to look like it’s the real front page of our paper? You want to spend £200? No way, we’re a respectable family publication. Oh, you said £2,000. Hey, sure, no problem. We’ll throw in the editor’s mum posing nude with a donkey as well.”
Let’s focus on Gabe’s key phrase: “Our loyalty is to our readers not the people paying the bills.” Maybe if newspapers had the spine to adopt that attitude their sales wouldn’t be going down the toilet.
Henry Blodget at the Internet Outsider has done some sums on the future of newspaper revenues and costs. Needless to say he paints a less than rosy picture. But, for a journalist, the most worrying aspect is this nugget:
Do you know why [newspapers are] screwed? It’s actually not the cost of paper, ink, trucks, printing plants, and other physical distribution expenses. Rather, it’s the cost of content creation.
Memo to hacks everywhere: when he says “cost of content creation”, he means “your salary”.
His calculations are solid and his assumptions valid. With very very few exceptions, online ad revenues generated by pieces of online content do not cover the cost of creating that content. That means when offline revenues fall (and fall they will), you’re – to use Blodget’s pithy phrase – “screwed”.
So what to do?
Hope current online ad revenues for news organistions increase enough to match offline ones? If you’re hoping like that, hope me a solid gold, eco-friendly Lamborghini Countach, the results will be the same.
Charge for content? In my experience this guarantees such a small audience that articles generate less revenue than if they were free and attracting ad revenue. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask the Noo Yoik Times.
Get a job stacking shelves and be a journalist part-time? To hear some people tell it, this is the future of journalism – amateur enthusiasts sleuthing through local issues, posting stories for prestige. There is a problem with this and not many people will thank me for pointing this out: the ability to collect information, sort it in a coherent way, present it an intelligent fashion that is entertaining, grammatical and spelled correctly is restricted to a very small segment of the population – and not enough journalists.
Amid all the (justified) excitement about blogging it is worth remembering that the vast majority of news-related blogs link to stories by professional journalists. So, after the economic meltdown of mass media, who will write the original stories for others to link to? Quis blogodiet ipsos blogodes?
The reader demand is clearly for quality journalism. Who will produce this if there are no longer professional reporters? The role of bloggers, citizen journalists and user-generated content is assured. But the current online economic models have no place for full-time experts who want to make a living out of content creation.