Last week, I explained why the traditional ways of judging “quality” in published content are useless in the digital age. Judging by readers response to that piece, those dated values (which I labeled credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship) are still sacred to many people. But here’s the problem: They simply aren’t enough to win audiences, drive financial success, or, for that matter, ensure viability. The demise of institutions like Newsweek proves that—and shows that publishers that don’t move beyond these anachronistic measures of success will perish.
So this week, I’m offering part two of my take on the changing definition of quality in published content. Here are the four new rules of quality that publishers must obey to flourish. The biggest difference between the old and new definitions of quality are who’s doing the judging. In the era of Publishing 1.0, when production costs were high, alternatives low and time ample, the editor deemed something quality or not. But today, content isn’t scarce at all—in fact, it is in oversupply. And it is the audience that judges quality directly, dozens of times per day.
So, according to the audience, what is quality? It comes down to these four characteristics:
—Relevance. When users are skimming thousands of pages from a hundred sites per month, without question the most important factor is whether your content is relevant to the audience. Relevant often means timely, as TMZ demonstrated when it covered news of Michael Jackson’s death hours before others, or when Janis Krums tweeted his photograph of Captain Sully’s US Airways flight 1569 on the Hudson. (As he said in his blog a couple of days later, “it is incredible that anyone at any point can have such an impact by simply posting a picture online.”)
But more than that, it means that it matches what’s interesting to the audience. Increasingly, relevant means focused – and the modern web model that works is highly fragmented, addressing niche audiences with a whole deep site about every topic under the sun. Engadget had earned a huge reach of 6.2 million users a month for AOL (NYSE: AOL) by covering all the insider details of edgy devices and inventions for its tech-forward readers, while thebachelorshow.com gets millions of pageviews by garnering the audience that just can’t get enough of another famous pilot, Jake Pavelka. Regardless of what you personally may think of these sites, they are high quality because they’ve got the right goods for their audiences.
—Make experiences, not content. In old media, the editors made the content and that was the product. Not any more. Technology and content today are fused like peanut butter and chocolate in a Reese’s, and together they go by the name of “experience.” Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Maps literally redefined its category, adding interactivity and features like street view and traffic that make it far superior to the same content available elsewhere. In good, old-fashioned text content, Twitter’s 140-character limit has created an experience that is all about freshness and scanability, and in the process become a destination that relies 100% on third-party content. The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) makes incremental steps in this direction, with innovative applications and interactive graphics. Even Wikipedia – with its driest-of-dry content and lack of interactivity – did its part to improve experience over other web pages by offering an experience of endless exploration through massively hyperlinked pages and a comprehensive collection. Just as with consumer products, the packaging of content is part of the experience.
—P.O.V. information is proprietary for a few minutes, and then – if it’s valuable – it spreads like a cold in a grade-school. While a minority of publishers build a business around sourcing proprietary information, the vast majority offer something far more valuable and ownable: perspective. In digital media, that is far more important, as the same information appears in hundreds of places. The Huffington Post has a paucity of proprietary reporting, and yet earned an audience of 23 million monthly U.S. users by offering points of view that are meaningful to its progressive audience, while ABC (NYSE: DIS) News has tons of original reporting but less than half the online viewers. And Sugar Inc. has expanded its network to over 15 sites by offering points of view to its female audience. Over time, it’s the POV – and how effective that perspective is with the audience – that creates a publisher’s brand relationship.
—Distribution. In the old days, content was assigned and written to appear in one place. Now, it appears everywhere—in blogs, in Facebook, in Twitter, and in search engines. This distribution ability is built-in to the content itself. The words in the writing determine whether it will show up at the top of Google or on page 10. The names you drop in the content determine whose vanity Google Alerts will be set off, beginning a chain reaction of tweet and retweet. And the style and hook of the content and its headlines will determine its virality. Content that has no destination draw, no passalong, and no search indexability is plain and simple dead-end content. And like a tree falling in the forest, even the most beautiful content is irrelevant if it’s unseen and unheard.
The social game publisher Zynga recognized the importance of distribution by weaving its games like Farmville into Facebook’s distribution network for phenomenal success. And famous-for-being-famous celebrity Julia Allison has mastered the art of building promotion into her content: her bio devotes as many words to where she has appeared as to who she is. The content is the network.
When publishers adopt this framework for quality, amazing things can happen. Huffington Post exemplifies POV and relevance for its audience by using its entire home page to say what’s important right now for its audience. With affiliated contributors and great outreach through the social networks, it takes its experience to where people already are – and reaches 40 million users per month.
Cheezburger Networks (disclosure: I’m an investor), which publishes Failblog and ICanHasCheezburger, creates fun, light content that makes its way through the internet virally. It delivers content that puts a smile on viewers’ faces, and has a ridiculously strong and unique point of view on what’s funny. Its content – largely pictures of cats who can’t spell so good – flies in the face of any old-school rules of quality. But the audience loves it—to the tune of 340 million page views a month.
In every category, ranging from humor to opinion to video, there are opportunities to create new and successful digital media properties like ICanHasCheezburger, Huffington Post, and YouTube. But these new-media empires are dependent on letting go of the old rules of quality and adopting a new mindset: that quality is in the eye of the beholder.