Check out my post on Medium:
The concept of the content stream is not new, but it has undergone a radical re-thinking in the past few years. For ages, newspapers and magazines were designed as basic content streams, with a table of contents and easily scannable layouts. As publishers migrated to the web, they replicated this same approach, pouring lots of time and effort into assembling streams of content on the homepage and channel pages. But in recent years, two major developments have totally altered the concept of content stream and contributed to the information overload many of us are experiencing today. First, platforms like like Twitter, Facebook’s newsfeed, and even RSS-readers like Google Reader (RIP) and Feedly created dynamic, endless streams of content to read. Second, as publishers observed how engaging (read: addicting) these dynamic, endless streams were, they began to adopt infinite scroll on their websites (pint of pride: Atlantic Media’s Quartz was among the trendsetter’s in 2012).
Like many of you, I find myself each morning, fully immersed in content, whether I’m browsing a website or scanning Twitter. Increasingly, however, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer velocity of the content and almost have a sense of FOMO–that I don’t want to miss an article for fear of not being a part of the conversation around it.
Not surprisingly, there are now a number of startups trying to help with this problem of content discovery overload. When it comes to the solution, there are two basic approaches. One approach relies heavily on human curation and is employed by companies like This. and Catchpool, which allow users to share just one link per day to their list of followers. The other relies on algorithmically surfacing content for a user based on her social feed and machine learning web browsing preferences. Kifi does this and has gotten quite a bit of press in the last few weeks.
Lately, I’ve experimented with both types of services, and neither is perfect. In the long run, I believe a technology that can successfully blend both features–a dialed-in hive mind with a “wildcard” feature that simulates human curation–will win. For every hundred articles surfaced that are spot on my interests, one has to be so far out there that I’m excited by its discovery.
Buzzfeed might be the most talked about media company among the tech community right now. For those of you who haven’t read Ben Thompson’s recent article at Statechery, I highly recommend spending ten minutes reading it. The title, “Why Buzzfeed is the Most Important News Organization in the World”, might be a bit over the top, and there are certainly other media companies doing what Buzzfeed is doing, arguably at a comparable level (think: Gawker, Quartz, and even The Onion). Nonetheless, most of Ben’s arguments are grounded in the realities of the digital media industry today, and many reiterate themes I’ve been writing about recently. Here are a few of my favorites:
On why sidedoor traffic (social, aggregators) is king and the concept of prime real estate doesn’t matter in digital media:
Because of the hyperlink individual stories can be accessed without visiting the home page; this means link distribution channels, particularly social, are far more important when it comes to raising awareness of a story
On why more content is almost always better:
Perhaps the single most powerful implication of an organization operating with Internet assumptions is that iteration – and its associated learning – is doable in a way that just wan’t possible with print. BuzzFeed as an organization has been figuring out what works online for over eight years now, and while “The Dress” may have been unusual in its scale, its existence was no accident.
On why native advertising isn’t a panacea, even for those like Buzzfeed who are really, really good at it (interesting it’s a footnote and parenthetical):
Specifically, BuzzFeed makes money by creating BuzzFeed-type stories for brands; in some respects they’re an advertising agency (and how they scale long term is an open question)
On how the traditional publisher’s concept of the competitive set is a false construct and, in fact, media companies are competing against the entire internet for attention:
Every single person on the Internet has the same addressable market – the entire world – as the New York Times; “news” can come from anywhere
I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking through what will determine the success of the next generation of publishers. No matter how I slice it, it’s all about the technology. Right now, publishers with their own social and content analytics platforms (think: BuzzFeed) have succeeded by understanding social distribution and viral content better than anyone else. Companies that have developed a premium brand and augmented it with matching distribution channels (think: Monocle) have also succeeded. However, as social platforms continue to gain leverage on publishers who are currently distributing their content for free and display advertising prices (even for premium audiences) continues to erode, even today’s most successful publishers will need to depend highly on technology to give them competitive advantages and find new ways to monetize their audiences. The way I see it, these technologies fall into several large buckets:
- Personalization: Consistently surfacing the most relevant (by subject, timeliness) content at the user level–all without being creepy will be critical as content becomes even more commoditized and the social network algorithms get better. (trying to do this now: SailThru)
- Payments: Publishers have lost a TON of circulation revenue as their audiences migrated from print to digital. The ability to frictionlessly accept micropayments from readers can, at scale, provide a viable revenue stream for publishers and potentially replace some of the display advertising decline. (trying to do this now: Tinypass)
- Measurement/Analytics: As new distribution platforms emerge, measuring ROI on the resources deployed against and revenue generated from new channels will be critical. Additionally, as the content-generation game becomes even more fierce, those that can deploy a Buzzfeed-like content analytics tool will be best positioned to scale. (trying to do this now: SimpleReach)
Look for much deeper exploration of these topics in the near future and for these themes to play out over the longer term on this blog.
A number of people have recommended that I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown. In short, McKeown defines Essentialism as “less but better” and shares with the reader why it’s important and how to go about becoming and Essentialist.
My natural instinct has always been to say “yes” to new things, whether they’re projects at work, contacts to meet, or hobbies to try. Although I’ve come to think of this “yes-first” approach as a key ingredient in many of my most important professional and personal accomplishments, I’ve been acutely aware as of late that this approach isn’t scalable. I also have no counterfactual to prove that those accomplishments wouldn’t have occurred at a larger magnitude had I undertaken a more streamlined approach, such as the one outlined by McKeown.
After finishing the book, I can’t say I’m ready to remove my bias towards saying “yes”. However, I’m left inspired to redouble my efforts to ensure that the things I say “yes” to are, in fact, moving me closer to my professional and personal goals. Following on from that, I plan to dedicate some time in the near future refining those goals so that the decisions I make about what opportunities to pursue can be that much easier.
Although I didn’t love the book, there are a few quotes that I plan to keep nearby:
- If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
- Focus is something we have. But focus is also something we do.
- If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.
- There is a difference between losing and being beaten. Being beaten means they are better than you. They are faster, stronger , and more talented.
My GoodReads Review
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Overall, an easy, clear read. Ironically, I found the framework for essentialism to be somewhat rambling and never really internalized a boiled-down version. That said, the intellectual exercises KcKeown suggests and the anecdotes he presents are helpful to understanding how the concept of “less but better” can be implemented in one’s daily life.