The Future of Content Part 4: The Return to Pure Blogging

Today’s topic is the question of “Pure Blogging”.

I’m seeing more and more content creators push back on the Buzzfeed Economy and actually want to create, and partake in, meaningful content and discussions. Focusing on content, not shares; interactions, not reactions, making people think, not thinking for them.

In essence, returning to pure blogging when it comes to their content.

Sharing their thoughts on this topic are Amy Vernon, David Kutcher, and Tonia Ries.
The Future of Content Part 4: The Return to Pure Blogging
  • Hi everyone, and thanks so much for agreeing to take part in this special ReplyAll-powered "Future of Content: Pure Blogging" panel. Before we start, can you just introduce yourself, what you do, and why content matters to you?

  • I'm Amy Vernon and I spent 20 years in daily newspaper journalism. Over the past six years, I've moved more into social media, social media marketing and related fields. I've also finally been able to indulge my love of tech & data and have been involved in a couple of data-focused startups, including, a predictive analytics platform for news publishers.

    Content matters to me because it's what I've spent my whole life doing. It's the way we communicate with one another and how we share information. When done well, it inspires, amuses and educates.

  • Hi - I'm Tonia Ries, and I manage intellectual property at Edelman. I grew up in the publishing world, and ran my own agency for 13 years, during which time I also hosted a series of social media conferences, and ran The Realtime Report, a blog on social media in business.

    Like Amy, content is what I have always been involved in. Storytelling is one of the most basic human needs. The whole topic of how the economics of content are changing is one that fascinates me.

  • I'm David Kutcher and I'm the co-owner of Confluent Forms LLC, a boutique firm providing web design, web development, branding, graphic design and custom software development services. We incorporated in January 2002 and have worked with over 200 clients during that time, a wide mix of small businesses, large businesses, non-profits and startups.

    My professional career has evolved from being a graphic designer to a web developer to an information architect... to something that now combines all three as I work with clients to formulate strategies that empower their businesses online.

  • Thanks, guys, and welcome aboard! For this conversation, I'll prefix each new question with its number - if you could reply with A and then number (much like a Twitter chat), that'd be great! So, off we go.

  • Q1. Part of the genesis of this topic stems from what I call the BuzzFeed Economy, where headlines and virality seems more important than the content itself. The proliferation of sites like Upworthy and Viral Nova would seem to enforce this. What's your take on this trend?

  • A1. I think it's necessary to separate Traffic from Traffic Quality, as well as Visitors from Readers. Sure, Buzzfeed, Upworthy and the like get lots of visitors, and sure, they might be making lots of money from the advertising generated by those eyeballs. But for a business that's not advertising-funded and not deriving its revenue from aggregate eyeballs, the valuable proposition needs to be deeper. And it can't get to that deeper engagement if it needs to resort to click-bait strategies to draw visitors to it.

    At some point the Brand needs to be recognized for Value.

  • A1. It's easy to make fun of listicles and click bait. But they work because there is an entertainment value there for the the reader. I look at these things as being not an either-or issue, or a question of which is good or bad, but as an additive thing. There have always been new platforms and new forms of content.

    But, popular as these sites are by the numbers, they will never fill the need most people have for deeper, thoughtful content that answers questions, provokes conversation, and informs thinking. 

    Yes, it is easy to fit snack-size pieces of entertaining content into a busy day. But at some point, I also want a content "meal" and get real information.

  • A1. Tonia makes a good point: the intent of the content needs to be strongly considered here. Is the intent for 60 seconds of quick entertainment, or is the intent for a 5 minute meal? Bowls full of cheese puffs can be quite tasty...

  • A1.  I think the real problem here is that once others see the Buzzfeed model working, they jump on board with no care for the quality. The thing is, no one does a Buzzfeed list quite like Buzzfeed. They are enjoyable and funny generally because they're well-done. (Are all? Of course not - no one is always on.)

    Ditto Upworthy - They do one thing and do it really well. Then others see this, decide it's the way to make tons of money and just copycat it. 

    We're all responsible, in a sense, because we share these with no regard for the original source. Sometimes it's because we're lazy. Sometimes it's because we prefer this source. Sometimes it's because we don't even think twice about it.

    The rise of sites such as Five-Thirty-Eight and The Verge shows that there's also an interest and a desire for deeper, more interesting content. However, the death of Gigaom also shows that quality will only get you so far.

    For the sites where the virality is more important than the quality, they won't last in the long term, because that can only last so long. Buzzfeed branched out into some really excellent journalism, to give some of that meatier content to those zillions of eyeballs who come their way each day.

    I guarantee, however, that most of those eyeballs aren't very interested in the high-quality journalism that happens there.

  • Q2. Amy raises an interesting point about the eyeballs and the quality factor. If BuzzFeed produces high-quality journalism, but they don't get the traffic or buzz (no pun intended) that other, more entertainment-driven content gets, does this send a message that quality is no longer required? GigaOm tried, and failed (although monetary factors played a key point too).

  • A2. I think it instead points to a different story: that Buzzfeed might perhaps box itself into being known for a different type of content, and have a hard time being recognized for serious journalism. Many people, even non-marketers, would say "how serious could it be if it's being published by Buzzfeed?"
  • A2. But isn't it all monetary factors? GigaOm didn't make enough money to pay its investors. Its high-quality journalism didn't do enough to make the money it needed. Now, perhaps they overreached, but maybe they didn't. I don't know that answer.

    But David makes a great point about Buzzfeed. A lot of people were all, "I kind of have a hard time going to Buzzfeed for major political news."

    Thing is, aren't we being told all the time now that it's about the quality of the content, not the source?

  • A2. Your Content and your Content Marketing should all align with the Brand Messaging that you wish to promote. Are your lead-ins click-bait or humorous? How does that style of introduction reflect on your content, as well as reflect upon your brand?

    That framing of your content might have short-term gains in terms of visibility through social sharing, but it might have long-term negative effects on your Brand Perception.

  • A2. This video offers an interesting addition to the BuzzFeed "phenomenon", and complements Amy's point about the source issue (note: NSFW).

  • A2. Amy brings up an interesting point about the quality of the content vs the source. It's true that reader are much more agnostic about where they get their content. But once the content becomes controversial, or if they are looking to base a decision or form an opinion, then the source does matter. And when it comes to media brands, people still do define their identity in part based on what web sites and magazines they read (or what TV news programs they watch).

    David keeps bringing us back to owned content, and he is absolutely right that brands need to be very careful about the issue of content quality, even at the cost of eyeballs. Nothing will tarnish your brand faster than content that is poorly-written, presented, insincere, condescending or tone-deaf. (The list of possible content sins is quite long!)

  • Q3. So far, the overriding feeling from your thoughts is that there's a time and place for BuzzFeed, Upworthy, et al, and if they didn't deliver on their premise, people wouldn't visit.

    How do you feel the success of these viral sites is impacting the user expectations of how content should be presented and consumed? I'm thinking of David's recent post about The Slow Web, and how content is being reduced to soundbites and bullet points to ensure attention is held.

    To David's credit, that post has shown that long, thoughtful content can still generate traffic, buzz, and conversation (as evidenced by the multiple Google+ conversations around it).

    But is this type of success for long-form an anomaly, sandwiched between short bursts of cats in frat house memes, or are you seeing evidence of slower content consumption happening elsewhere?

  • A3. I think there are a lot of factors at play, namely:

    a) companies unsure of the quality of their content, little faith
    b) companies unsure about their audience(s)
    c) investment in deeper content experiences requires a more sophisticated marketing direction than fast-food marketing/advertising

    It's hard to move an organization that's been doing fast food for so long to re-branding themselves as worthy of stopping in for a five-course meal. But I do believe that there are those organizations that never jumped onto that fast-train and are re-establishing themselves as worthy of a reader's investment.
  • A3. I do think there's a general cultural mood change happening. People are tired of the frenetic pace, and looking for ways to connect more deeply with experiences that feel more authentic--the slow food movement, the popularity of Etsy, even the Maker movement are all examples of a new generation embracing a deeper experience.

    From a content perspective though, we are only now starting to put some of our best thinking to how we can use all of our shiny new digital tools to re-imagine how to best present "slow content." David lists some good examples in his article; the one that first captured my imagination, and that of a lot of other people, was the NY Times Snow Fall piece. It was such a revelation--using images, video and audio to enhance a written story, but doing it so that the additional material didn't detract from the enjoyment of the words, but rather enhanced it.

    Yes, we can simply put longer-form written content up on a web page and present it in a way that's pleasing and easy on the eye. But how can we re-imagine the whole story-telling experience with the tools we now have available? 

  • A3. Remember when TV was destroying our brains? How all these shows were rotting our brains? How shows appealed to the worst common denominator?

    Guess what? I would argue that TV is producing its highest quality ever right now, because there is room for the niche show for the niche audience. And then other people discover these shows aren't so "niche" after all.

    Whenever any medium spreads to general audiences, quality suffers. That's because it tries to be all things to all people. And that never works.

    This is the time where the Internet is really spreading to the masses. All sites that are just trying to get a bigger piece of the pie as opposed to a specific, engaged audience are going to suffer this loss in quality.

    Those that say, "This is what I do, and I want to do it better than ANYone else." - those are the sites/brands/whatever that will continue to grow and thrive.

  • Q4. That's an interesing point about how TV would ruin us. There's a really interesting research paper from 2006, produced by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that looks at the impact television has when introduced at a young age.

    Since the topic up for discussion here is based around "pure blogging" - distraction-free, content-focused, quality-driven - it was a little surprising to see Medium announce its new changes the other week. Instead of just being known as "a platform that provides a superior creation and reading experience for meaty content", as co-founder Ev puts it, now Medium will make it easier to create short-form content.

    I've always regarded Medium as the site for pure blogging (my own blog's design takes major pointers from Medium's) - does their announcement of enabling shorter posts mark more than a style change, and a sign that while we as content creators might prefer longer, more thoughtful posts, readers are moving away from that?

  • A4.

    Oh, trust me - I do NOT believe very young children should be stuck in front of the TV.  And it definitely can rot your brain.

    I'm not as concerned or surprised by the changes to Medium. They seem more about creating a way to decide what you want to read or write more quickly and easily - I don't think that it's going to turn Medium into a home for listicles. It will make it less intimidating for those who come to the site and don't know what they might want to read.

    I love the parts of the Medium experience that you've incorporated into your blog, Danny - I definitely noticed those changes (in a good way). And I think if Medium can keep innovating in the realm of making pure, attractive blogging more accessible to more people? I'm all for it.

  • A4. Ok, I can't quite get off the TV subject just yet, nor Buzzfeed for that matter. I don't know about anyone else, and while it's not entirely because of the content, the method of binge-watching entire seasons of TV shows is certainly something that has developed over the last few years. Sure, it could be because of services like Hulu and Netflix, but just like long form content, being able to watch the episodes, one after the other, with so few distractions... and people will pay for the privilege!

    And with Buzzfeed, there is still hope for us yet: Buzzfeed might attract 18 billion impressions per month, but is only getting 420 million clicks back to their website. A paltry 2.3% click through rate.

    More and more we are choosing the format of our content that we wish to consume, when and where we want to consume it, and slowly but surely (IMO) realizing that we need to slow it all down.

  • A4. David's find on the Buzzfeed click rate is telling. You can't build a relationship via snacks; at some point you need to sit down to a meal. So if your goal is big traffic numbers, great--serve bite-size content candy. 

    But if your goal is to build an enduring, long-term relationship, then at some point you are going to have to engage readers with a longer, more thoughtful piece of content. That is true whether you are trying to become a respected author, a trusted media brand, or if you are a brand managing an owned content strategy.

  • A4. I'm glad you raised the metrics of BuzzFeed, David. Amy and I both commented on a recent blog post, that shared a case study of mobile geo-fencing by Dunkin Donuts, and how it was exciting to see the success.

    Yet its "success" was 3.6% conversion - less, actually, when you realize that 3.6% was in itself a percentage of a secondary action. So, the click-through rate was actually something like 1.9% - and this campaign was being lauded as a major success story.

    If we're celebrating snack-sized content in the same way, and looking at the cover metrics versus the deeper dive metrics, then is it any wonder so many sites are trying to emulate the BuzzFeed approach?

  • A4. That's such a huge thing to me, Danny.

    Everyone is applying all the same conversion metrics to these new methods. But I thought everyone's been crying out all this time saying how amazing social media and blogs are, how the engagement and conversions are so high and so much better than the old ways, and how we can measure it all!

    Then they get excited about 1.9% conversion.

    Look - if 1.9% is good, then great! I guess it was a success. But if that's good, doesn't that still mean that someone's doing something wrong? Aren't we supposed to be able to laser-focus our efforts instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall?
  • Q5. Moving away from BuzzFeed and "snacks as content", in my own little circle of friends on the web I'm seeing push-back, and a determination to create meaningful content instead. Doesn't even have to be long-form (though much of it is) - just real stories, real thoughts, real people, real questions. A couple of examples:

    Gaming the Bestseller Lists: How Business Book Authors Might Cheat the System

    - My Greatest Escape to Vancouver

    Are we seeing a renaissance in "pure blogging", where the content is driven by the need to challenge? Challenge oneself? Challenge the reader? Challenge what's accepted?

    Or is this just a small "movement" and the content machines are always going to be the platforms leading the way?

  • A5: I think that's a really interesting question, and I don't know if I can properly answer it.

    I think there are some who have tired of the grind of churning out copy for the sake of churning out copy. But there are others who will never tire of that or who work for platforms that require that, and that will never change.

    I think there's room for both. But I do think that some people have decided to pull back some and concentrate on true quality, even if that means they're not writing as much as they once were.

  • A5. I agree there is room -- and appetite -- for both. I do hope we see writers continue to get back to offering longer, more thoughtful content. We need to keep innovating around business models to support that.

    We also need to be stretching our thinking about how we can use new digital tools to enhance long-form content. I never stopped reading long New Yorker articles, but I still read them the old-fashioned paper way, because the digital reader just hasn't won me over, and the long reading experience just isn't as enjoyable to me on a screen. How do we take advantage of digital tools to make long, immersive reading more enjoyable for Luddites like myself?  Medium and sites designed with a cleaner, more open feel are a great start, but I think there is more we can do.

    So part of it is the renewed interest from writers to produce longer pieces, but we also need more thinking from a user experience point of view, too.

  • "I do hope we see writers continue to get back to offering longer, more thoughtful content. We need to keep innovating around business models to support that."

    And I think that's a perfect way to bring this chat to a close.

    Since beginning this roundtable a couple of months back, I've seen more and more people - bloggers and readers - hark for a return to "pure blogging". It's encouraging to see, and perhaps a hint of where we're headed as the "content marketing" dust settles...

    My sincere thanks to Amy, David and Tonia for their time and insights, and be sure to check them out online.

    In the meantime, if you want to continue the pure blogging discussion, jump over to Pure Blogging and I look forward to seeing you there!