Since the Great Fake News Elections of 2016, the media has often been said to be in crisis, but it’s not just quality of news and journalism that has been affected by the emerging technologies that allow ideas to spread faster than they can be fact-checked. It also stretches to brands trying to get recognition for their business, as described by Daniel Hedlund, co-founder of Zeqr, in his article for Home Business Mag.
But to understand how we’ve dug ourselves into this hole, and find a way to climb back out, it’s important to first understand the forces driving content creation in the direction it’s been heading.
Technological advancements have progressively been pushing the general public’s preference towards digital mediums for nearly a decade now. As happens during industry disruption, publications found that the old ways of doing things weren’t cutting it anymore. As earnings from adverts and hardcopy went down, the stress introduced to the system meant that publications needed to increase internet traffic in order to fund their news operation and turn a profit. But the internet was a new platform, and editors and publishers really didn’t know how to operate in the new media, so an experimental approach was necessarily taken.
After a bit of tinkering and collecting of metrics, the industry came to the conclusion that likes, shares, speed, clickable headlines and SEO were everything. And the new methods for operating were founded on these concepts. This makes sense, as more traffic means more eyeballs which means more can be charged for advertising, and publishers get to keep the lights on. But with each pillar of the new publishing philosophy, there is actually a bit more to consider than one might first think. Which is why I decided to take a closer look at each and flush out how over focusing on superficial metrics may be devaluing content, not only for readers but for publishers as well.
SEO & Clickable Headlines
It would be a little silly to pretend these two didn’t matter but they can’t be everything. After someone has found your article because it’s well placed for SEO and clicked on it because they’re interested by the headline they will then go on to read it. If they read it and it’s boring they will probably think a little less of the publication and be less likely to visit it again, and they may well click away from it much sooner than if the piece was interesting which will mean your advertising or PR revenue will be worth less over time.
So, make content interesting first and foremost. The last thing you want is a viewer who feels deceived into clicking on something they didn’t want to waste time on. Once it’s interesting then figure out how to tweak it for SEO and clickability. Pretending these two things aren’t important would be folly, nothing will be successful without them. But if you assume they’re all that’s important then you’ll lose sight of the ultimate goal which is still a person reading your content. So the end event must be catered for.
This one is interesting, when the deputy head of the BBC’s Newsroom gave a speech in 2011, speed was the only virtue cited as vital to their news operation which would not necessarily be considered part of traditional journalistic integrity. Speed is important but there are three other things to consider here.
Firstly, in order to be quick onto an issue, it may well involve a pretty serious infrastructure, like that of the BBC or CNBC. So it’s not always going to be possible and you may just have to count yourself out. Secondly, most content operations haven’t got the infrastructure to be among the first to break pretty much every story. So it’s not like speed is vital to every content-based business model. Thirdly, speed has consumed itself. It’s become so important that publications will often produce content which is the first to have been produced, but being so quick has meant that there is no context, no thought, no… nothing.
So, the same point as previously made is true. Ultimately a person is going to read your content. They’re going to need some guidance about how to digest it, what else is important – is there any previous, relevant issues or is there something about the flavor of current reporting which is worth considering? Again, if people don’t spend much time on your site your advertising or PR revenue isn’t going to be worth anything. And all the considerations beyond an initial piece of introductory information make up the story which readers will be interested in.
As with SEO and clickable headlines we can’t pretend shares aren’t important. However, we don’t need to. I think people share things basically because they want to associate themselves with the content they’re sharing. It might be that the headline is enough, they don’t care if people read it. But that’s no good for you because if people don’t click on it then, again, your advertising and PR revenue isn’t worth anything.
But people also share content because they’ve read it and they think other people should read it. So, again, if stuff is going to be shareable then it has to be interesting, so interesting that people feel compelled to introduce other people to it. So, again, a person is going to read your content, content doesn’t get shared because it’s 100% SEO optimised. The more interesting it is and the more people think other people will be interested in it then the more likely it is to be shared.
Content needs likes, this is basically just the social media version of SEO, it’s the method by which your content gets introduced to more people. And, again, likes are people associating themselves with content. But, also again, if people ultimately don’t spend any or much time on your page then your advertising and PR revenue won’t be worth anything. So no matter how many likes your content gets, it’s still going to need to be interesting to the human who will ultimately read it.
All in all, the metrics by which people judge success on the internet and social media are very important. But they are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. They are considerations in order to drive traffic to your content, but without good content, the traffic will arrive and dissipate. If this is repeatedly true then it may dissipate never to be seen again. People are used to dealing with people. Your brand should have its own character and personality so as to make it familiar and comfortable enough to deal with. It should create interesting content so that other humans find it interesting. And in order to introduce the interesting content created by your characterful brand you can use some social media tactics, for example. But just using the latter by itself is a hiding to nothing.