On Content: less is more

I’ve been experimenting with Tumblr lately.

It’s half curiousity, half my fascination with online content delivery1. Tumblr’s CMS allows users to easily share links, pictures, videos and text treating them all as its own content type with its own front-end design. The content nerd in me loves this.

After my initial glee at receiving followers and likes,2 I’ve discovered the majority of Tumblr blogs are just whimsical collections of animated gifs and irreverent one-off blogs. Even worse, I felt a sudden need to constantly have fresh material on the blog. I kept almost sharing pictures and links without adding any value just to keep it “fresh.”

And then I realized: something is horribly wrong here, and we’ve been thinking this way for far too long.

“Most of them are bullshit”

I’ve seen a similar phenomena in other projects I’ve been involved in throughout my life on the web. It’s easy to demand a post every day, a blog post responding to every twist and turn of the industry. You’ll hear editors say things like “we HAVE to have something on that or we’ll look ridiculous.”  People like Mashable, Bleacher Report and Business Insider make a living on the intellectual equivalent of these empty calories.

This post was, in part, inspired by M.G. Siegler’s breakdown of the recent Path privacy fiasco and the way the tech press handled it. Formerly a TechCrunch writer, Siegler now sees how laughable the system we’ve created can be:

As one of the most prolific tech bloggers over the period of a few years, I was just as guilty of this as anyone. I had a job to do, and I did it … I was wrong.The problem with the content rush is twofold. First, no one — and I mean no one — can possibly be an expert in all the things they’re attempting to cover…. And yet, we often see bloggers writing 7 posts a day about 7 different companies and/or topics. And people read these stories as if they’re definitive posts full of insightful information. Ha. Most of them are bullshit.

We need to finally acknowledge that most people aren’t digesting online content in a vacuum. My local news paper doesn’t need a slideshow or a story on Whitney Houston’s death. We don’t need to react to news with faux outrage just to “have something” on the topic. “Breaking a story” rarely matters any more. I don’t need 15 recaps of the Eagles game I just watched. If we don’t post anything on our site,  the world won’t end and I bet most of our readers would hardly notice.

Creating lasting content

Somewhere there’s an editor craving more, an entrepreneur creating another content farm to sell SEO’d keywords against and a old-school newspaper holdover that all think we always need to “feed the beast.” But we need to change. Instead we should try and create content that possesses as many as the below characteristics as possible:

Withstand the test of time – Let’s create content that doesn’t have an expiration date of hours or days. Let’s optimize for not only the initial release but the long term. The moment we hit “publish” content is forever available online. Never in the history of humanity has there been a medium with the longevity of the web.

It’s okay to be quiet - Never publish anything “just to have something.” Everything we write does not need to be perfect, but it does need to contribute to a conversation in an intelligent way.

Be a resource (or at least be hilarious) – With reading services like Instapaper, long-form content consumption devices like the iPad and our various bookmarking services it is incredibly easy for readers to “archive” what we write and draw on them at a future time. Joshua Benton called this “TiVo for News.” Produce compelling and useful content and the return rate of readers skyrockets. See this Read It Later data boiled down by the author. Among the most time-shifted authors is Drew Magary of Deadspin and Bill Barnwell of Grantland. One writes lengthy humor pieces centered around his child-like urges in adult situations and the other offers incredibly detailed analysis of professional football games, respectively.

The more useful our content becomes the more people will link to it, and the longer it will last. Google will always be moving to reward quality content creators. Just ask Demand Media what happens when you try to game the system.

Don’t sell advertising – At least, don’t sell pageviews. Your revenue sources should be as closely alligned with your reader’s interests as possible. Chasing pageviews means gaming Google and writing sensationalized stories to get a click on Twitter or a top 10 list that offers no value.
Chase a small, but sustained audience – Chasing pageviews creates an audience of drive-by visitors. Not only does this lead to empty calorie content, it’s the hard road. The key to providing value and building a business is to have a dedicated group of return visitors, people who trust you and your message.

Curate with context and your expertise – One of my favorite example of smart curation is Dave Pell’s NextDraft newsletter. I get it everyday and its 10 links to intelligent stories in the media with loads of context by Pell. One of the smartest things ever said was “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” Don’t be redundant.

The most important reason for putting more thought into our content boils down to our humanity. We shouldn’t force writers to churn out eight blog posts a day. Writing should never boil down to a SEO formula and we should give quality writers with something interesting to say and incentive for doing so. Writers should never feel like a monkey.

After all, no one ever remembers the guy who was really good at writing Google bait.

  1. I’m a hit at parties []
  2. They need a name for the crack-like high that comes from someone interacting with content you’ve posted. It’s the real reason people check Facebook multiple times a day. []

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