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Content is king – well, it depends…

September 21, 2011
HMS Hood Exploding

The death of HMS Hood - a classic example of what happens when companies fail to invest in quality

Fail to invest in product and await disaster. For years, thought leaders in the publishing and information sector have been spouting the tedious mantra that content is king. Apart from a general dislike of this phrase’s lazy metaphorical value and its ugly linguistic structure, my main concern is that phrases like this disguise a number of inherent evils in the publishing industry – the main one being an inability to assess the value of content itself.

Editors and publishers for years have safeguarded their right to “editorial independence”, a weary phrase which gets rolled out whenever trouble – or questioning – arises. If the police want to question a newspaper about its sources, editorial independence is the barrier erected. If marketing suggests new product direction, editorial independence is flagged as a badge of territorial ownership. If questions are raised about a product’s performance, editorial independence is used to deflect blame elsewhere.

But the trouble is, much information trailed by magazines, newspapers, websites and more isn’t very interesting to its target market. It has little inherent value save as a camel to carry advertising across the desert of failing desire. Marketers, too, become complacent. If I were given £10 for each time I have read the words “comprehensive”, “up-to-date”, and “must-have information” in a marketing piece in my career I could retire now. A combination of lazy editorial and uninspired marketing delivers nothing but a battle cruiser without armour plate – an HMS Hood in a world of Bismarcks.

A friend of mine showed me a three-stage approach to content trailed by the Financial Times and which, I think, highlights many of the problems in the publishing sector today. And which, frankly, are a blunt admission of lazy management techniques across the business. Here, in this hierarchy of knowledge retail, there are different levels of information:

  • Work-flow (essential to the user in doing their jobs)
  • Preferred source (not essential but “best of breed”)
  • One of many (spot the difference readers and win a trip to Disneyland for 2 weeks – caveat: there are no differences)

Any B2B publisher can look at the above list and, I would argue, place perhaps 20% of their product range in the top category. The rest will fall in the other two categories. And, using the Pareto Principle, the top 20% will deliver 80% of the revenue.

So what happens to the other 80%? Boards will encourage more marketing, more advertising sales, more controlled circulation. But rarely will boards say “this product is rubbish and must be improved”. Editorial independence comes to the fore again – how many times, for example, have we heard this dreaded phrase meted out: “I know my readers and they tell me this is what they want“?

The challenge facing publishers in a world of “free” online information is how to audit their own information to leverage value. The standard response to falling sales of a product is a “relaunch” (usually the same old content in a new design). If a relaunch is not considered, the other stock responses are: more pressure on advertising sales; more pressure on marketing; more pressure on product sales. None of these solutions, however, looks at the core failing: customers don’t want the information.

So it is that content is the most crucial element and yet complacency and territorialism conspire to outwit anyone who dares challenge the received wisdom that the “editorial” is inherently perfect. Yet wait, in world of online algorithms and visitor statistics, there is now a way of reviewing success. Of auditing editorial for its efficiency. After all, if no-one visits half the pages churned out in an online site, what does this tell you? What should it tell you?

It should tell you that if subscriber levels are to be sustained, content must be subject to continuous development and assessment. If people aren’t visiting pages of a website despite the best sign-posting in the world, it’s because the information isn’t wanted. If visitors land on a page and exit immediately it’s because information isn’t wanted. If search terms used by readers end up at curious pages in your website it’s because information isn’t wanted. Analytics packages, therefore, are the way to audit editorial quality and to drive revenue. Analytics can also improve editorial performance and quality output.

Publishing is not some hallowed centre for aesthetes in search of a purer life. It’s a business. Believe it or not, editorial output is the equivalent of screw manufacturing, or nails, or tanned hides. Once quality begins to fail, customers melt away. Content needs to be viewed in the same way as metal alloys: the wrong mix makes for catastrophic component failure elsewhere in the value chain.

It’s no longer acceptable to craft a product, divide it into segments, and deliver content to fit those segments. It’s about the search for consistent relevance. If content developers consistently churn out materials which are causing subscribers to ebb away then the fault lies with them and cannot be remedied by emergency measures.

HMS Hood was the outcome of a complacent design policy where the ship’s defects were known from the start. Without consistent development of content, your product range too will fall prey to a competitor’s shell arriving on some unprotected upper deck plate.

And there won’t be much left when the shell lands.


Image courtesy of Maritime Quest.

For more on the battle between Hood and Bismarck, click here.


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