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Digital Publishing: Curation vs Collection vs Experience

Content curation can be a powerful way to serve those in your market, and establish a unique brand position that differentiates you from your competitors. Today, I want to explore that challenges of curation, and compare how it differs from merely ‘collecting.’ (Note: by curation, I mean to care for, and carefully select which content is shared, with the idea that removing something can sometimes make a collection even stronger.)

Curation has been a big buzz word in online publishing for a long time now. While the word implies many great things: selecting only the greatest content for your audience – it can be a challenge for media companies to do this. With unlimited server space and free distribution, the temptation can be too great to share AS MUCH content as possible, with the theory that they are better serving the many sub-niches of their market. In other words, you may often see less curation, and more collection.

Dan Blank This can be easy to justify. Many brands serve multiple markets, and within each, there are many niches and subniches. So it’s easy to “unlock value from a content asset,” and these “assets” are easier to collect and store and repurpose than ever before.

This holds true for B2B media companies serving chicken farmers, for a consumer magazine brand serving parents, and for a range of other media brands from music to books.

This reminds me of a behavior pattern I have seen before: collections that people have as hobbies. I grew up in a family of collectors, and I have my own personal collections too. Here’s a quick history of my life growing up:

  • In the 1970′s my family had a stamp business, with and an extensive collection.
  • In the 1980′s we had a baseball card business, with different family members collecting in different things on a personal level: my brother had an incredible autograph collection from the old players; my dad had a Willie Mays collection that took up much of his study; and over the years, we went through thousands of rare items. Weekends were spent immersed in the hobby, and it has always been interesting to consider how the behavior of many individual collectors have shaped how the hobby evolved.
  • We had various collections around the house: hat pins (yes, seriously), toby mugs (yes, seriously), things with ladybugs on them, hot wheels (my dad’s collection, not mine), stamp holders, depression glass, and others.
  • Clearly, I’ve had my own collections over the years, most recently vinyl records and I am a huge fan of LEGO toys.


My family and I at our first baseball card show as dealers, 1982. Left to right: my brother, father, mother, and little me.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with different collectors recently: people who collect very specific items. What I am finding again and again is that their collecting behavior is to collect AS MUCH of something as possible, and not curate or edit their collection at all. Some examples:

  • A guy who was bummed that he missed out on an old Fisher tube amplifier at an estate sale. When I chatted with him about it, he eventually let on that he has a basement full of old tube amps, including the model that was available at this estate sale, and he would likely never have time to restore them all. So they are just collecting dust in piles in his basement.
  • I visited the home of another stereo collector a while back, and noticed his basement was filled with piles of vintage gear too. But what was more interesting was that in every nook and cranny – such as the thin space above the air conditioning ducts, were thousands of boxes of new radio tubes. I asked about them, and he told me he had more than 5,000 tubes squirreled away, including a shed full in his backyard. He just kept buying them and buying them.
  • I picked up an old school BMX Bike at a yard sale recently – it was a sentimental purchase of a bike I wanted as a kid. Once the nostalgia wore off, I listed it and sold it on Craigslist, and had a nice chat with the guy that bought it. I asked what he was going to do with the bike, and he said “Just store it.” He has a garage full of them, plus a storage unit he rents. He just buys them and buys them.
  • Finally (I meet a lot of people), I had a nice early morning chat with a guy who collects all kinds of things. We began talking about records, and told me of his enormous collection. Thousands and thousands, which he too stores in a rented storage unit. He told me that he has multiples of many of them, so he is paying to store multiple copies of the same record in a location that he clearly can’t listen to them.

This is not how I remember collecting growing up. I remember focusing on quality; on being very critical about what to add to a collection and what to keep out; about creating a collection that wasn’t just a bunch of stuff, but a reflection on the tastes of the curator, and the needs/desires of the audience.

In my personal collections, I am constantly whittling things down. Choosing which records should leave my collection, not just which should be added, and resisting the temptation to begin collecting something new, merely because I have an affinity for it.

How many people do you know like this: a car collector who loves 1960′s muscle cars who has 6 of them in disrepair in their backyard, awaitng restoration, but none that are drivable. None that have been cared for and brought back to life. Instead of objects of beauty, they are objects of rust. This, compared to a person who has a single Dodge Challenger that they drive every weekend with the kids. Perhaps this is what separates the desire to COLLECT INSTEAD OF EXPERIENCE.

And this is the challenge that publishers and media companies face. With unlimited bandwidth and free distribution channels with digital media, it can be sooooo tempting to post more and more content, aimed at more and more target markets. Plus, the temptation to seem as large as possible, and to give Google as much content as possible to crawl for all of those searches.

You see this desire for ‘more’ is in many ways:

  • Too much content on their website.
  • Too many products to sell you.
  • Too many email newsletters.
  • Too many sessions at conferences and events.

For that last one – I am always surprised at how many sessions are offered at some events. I mean – for every time slot (EG: 10am-11am), offering 10, 15, 20+ options. Multiply this out to all the time slots available in a 2 day conference, and you have an overwhelming experience for attendees. And what’s more – none of the attendees share a common experience, they are too busy rushing past each other. Sometimes I wonder, what is the role of an organizer to curate vs their role to offer choice.

The drive for offering ‘more’ is not always the best path. It does not always create something unique. It does not always better serve a target audience. It does not always differentiate you from the competition. It does not always offer something that can’t be found elsewhere. It does not always solve a problem, or fulfill a desire.

Sometimes, when media companies do feel they are curating, it is often trying to weed out anything but the biggest hits – the content that will lead to massive revenue. Something like whittling your author list down to Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling and Dan Brown. But is that curation, a content strategy, or simply a business strategy – a revenue strategy?

Curation and editing is about considering the primary goals of your audience and customers. It is about stripping away all the “nice to haves” to end up with only the “need to haves.” It is about identifying your own goals about identity and long-term growth. It is understanding the complicated behaviors of your target audience, and learning the difference between what they say they do, and what they actually do. It is about confidence – knowing that choosing to do one thing, means you will not do another – and that will make some unhappy, both within your organization and outside of it.

It is those hard choices that define what a brand is, and what it isn’t. And it is the first step in building credibility and engagement with those you serve.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

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  • http://www.adaptive-wireless.co.uk David Laurence

    Reminds me how Andrew Bond would always publish an A-Z of all his sources for Automation Insider newsletter an d invite his readers to link to them. He would normally say “…feel free to follow all the links – but I guess that's what you pay me your subs to do ” (or words to that effect).

    Another thought provoking post – Dan you never fail.

    • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

      David – thank you so much!

  • http://www.adaptive-wireless.co.uk David Laurence

    Reminds me how Andrew Bond would always publish an A-Z of all his sources for Automation Insider newsletter an d invite his readers to link to them. He would normally say “…feel free to follow all the links – but I guess that's what you pay me your subs to do ” (or words to that effect).

    Another thought provoking post – Dan you never fail.

  • http://www.adaptive-wireless.co.uk David Laurence

    Reminds me how Andrew Bond would always publish an A-Z of all his sources for Automation Insider newsletter an d invite his readers to link to them. He would normally say “…feel free to follow all the links – but I guess that's what you pay me your subs to do ” (or words to that effect).

    Another thought provoking post – Dan you never fail.

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    David – thank you so much!

  • http://twitter.com/RoryBrown Rory Brown

    Very interesting post – especially in the context of what we're doing with the new business.

    I suppose there are 2 ways in which you can look at the curation issues. One is to be highly selective in the articles or posts you curate. To have a high quality threshold which you judge on the basis of your 'extensive experience'. An experience which your readers trust.

    Another alternative route to curation is to collect from sources that you editors believe are credible and then provide tools within those sources for filtering and personalisation. If this is the route you go down (one we have with http://www.TheMediaBriefing.com) it is still an important curation job but the users inevitably have different needs and therefore develop highly personalised views of that content.

    The same is true for conferences when you get to a certain scale. There is a trust of the brand and a reason for people to come together with shared interests around that brand. However, within that community there are inevitably going to be lots of sub-sets of interest – that's where streaming / personalised programmes comes in.

    Nice post.

    • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

      Rory,
      Thank you so much, and you (as usual) make some excellent points! Hope all is well with you and The Media Briefing!
      -Dan

    • http://jaycollier.net Jay Collier

      Rory, I think you have put your finger on it: the new model of curation. It's no longer about what or how much to publish or collect — since publishing and collecting digital content is, basically, free — but about selecting and pointing to the valuable, meaningful needles out there in the content haystack.

      The new curators are those who use the filtering tools you mentioned to evaluate what is worth passing on. I then select from among a number of those digital curators and follow their pointers. I personalize, but I do so by building upon other curators, and my selection shifts as my interests change and as the curators change.

      Algorithms can't yet get to what is “meaningful” for me, since my past browsing doesn't always defie future interests. Only by exploring the streams of curators (Twitter is my favorite tool for this), can I build my own always-emerging view of what is important.

      • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

        Thanks Jay!

    • http://twitter.com/jeffgiesea Jeff Giesea

      Rory, TheMediaBriefing is one of the most innovative, highly leveraged B2B content models I’ve seen. I salute you and Neil. But as much as I love the sleek design and semantic technology, I look at my own usage and find myself turning to eMediaVitals more frequently, at least at this point. Their model is simple. They know their audience. They mix curation with unique content, but it’s not overwhelming. I like the linear, iPad-friendly design. To me, the question of content strategy boils down to a design challenge: what problem are you going to solve, for whom, and how will you do it. The question publishers should ask is: What does your audience actually want u2014 a “banquet buffet” of content, a more directed “less is more” approach, a highly personalized program, or some other approach?

  • http://twitter.com/RoryBrown Rory Brown

    Very interesting post – especially in the context of what we're doing with the new business.

    I suppose there are 2 ways in which you can look at the curation issues. One is to be highly selective in the articles or posts you curate. To have a high quality threshold which you judge on the basis of your 'extensive experience'. An experience which your readers trust.

    Another alternative route to curation is to collect from sources that you editors believe are credible and then provide tools within those sources for filtering and personalisation. If this is the route you go down (one we have with http://www.TheMediaBriefing.com) it is still an important curation job but the users inevitably have different needs and therefore develop highly personalised views of that content.

    The same is true for conferences when you get to a certain scale. There is a trust of the brand and a reason for people to come together with shared interests around that brand. However, within that community there are inevitably going to be lots of sub-sets of interest – that's where streaming / personalised programmes comes in.

    Nice post.

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Rory,
    Thank you so much, and you (as usual) make some excellent points! Hope all is well with you and The Media Briefing!
    -Dan

  • http://jaycollier.net Jay Collier

    Rory, I think you have put your finger on it: the new model of curation. It's no longer about what or how much to publish or collect — since publishing and collecting digital content is, basically, free — but about selecting and pointing to the valuable, meaningful needles out there in the content haystack.

    The new curators are those who use the filtering tools you mentioned to evaluate what is worth passing on. I then select from among a number of those digital curators and follow their pointers. I personalize, but I do so by building upon other curators, and my selection shifts as my interests change and as the curators change.

    Algorithms can't yet get to what is “meaningful” for me, since my past browsing doesn't always defie future interests. Only by exploring the streams of curators (Twitter is my favorite tool for this), can I build my own always-emerging view of what is important.

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Thanks Jay!

  • Pingback: Social curation in the digital world | JayCollier.net

  • http://gearboxmagazine.com Brian Driggs

    The concept of curation clicked for me when it reminded me of a museum curator. Museums might own or have access to many different collections, but the curators have experiences in mind for their visitors, which directs the selection of items in the collections they ultimately display.

    Mere collection is akin to hoarding, which results in a depressing, miserable experience.

    What experience do I want my community to have, and how can I help make it happen?

    • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for the comments on the blog post, much appreciated. I'm trying to troubleshoot the RSS issues with FeedBurner now. Thanks for the heads up!
      -Dan

      • http://gearboxmagazine.com Brian Driggs

        No worries, Dan.

        I'm really digging the concept behind this collection/curation/experience piece. It's really helpful and I think ties into classic business concepts like knowing your audience and tailoring the product/content to their needs.

  • http://gearboxmagazine.com Brian Driggs

    The concept of curation clicked for me when it reminded me of a museum curator. Museums might own or have access to many different collections, but the curators have experiences in mind for their visitors, which directs the selection of items in the collections they ultimately display.

    Mere collection is akin to hoarding, which results in a depressing, miserable experience.

    What experience do I want my community to have, and how can I help make it happen?

    EDIT: For the record, I'd like to grab your RSS feed, Dan, but it appears borked. I've tried the link from a couple different pages and the result is always “Comments on: Blog,” with content dating back to August. Cheers.

  • http://www.danblank.com DanBlank

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the comments on the blog post, much appreciated. I'm trying to troubleshoot the RSS issues with FeedBurner now. Thanks for the heads up!
    -Dan

  • http://bookcalendar.blogspot.com BookCalendar

    There is an old fashioned word for this with media “acquisitions”– choosing what you are going to buy, in Baker and Taylor or Ingram which are the largest distributors for books in the United States, they might also call it “collection development”, selecting what you are going to buy, keep, and get rid of. A very nice rehash of an old concept packaged for new media. In libraries there is a collection development specialist. In bookstores, there is a “book buyer”. In editing, there is an acquisitions editor. It fits in with the newly minted title “content specialist.” Old idea in a new package.

  • http://bookcalendar.blogspot.com BookCalendar

    There is an old fashioned word for this with media “acquisitions”– choosing what you are going to buy, in Baker and Taylor or Ingram which are the largest distributors for books in the United States, they might also call it “collection development”, selecting what you are going to buy, keep, and get rid of. A very nice rehash of an old concept packaged for new media. In libraries there is a collection development specialist. In bookstores, there is a “book buyer”. In editing, there is an acquisitions editor. It fits in with the newly minted title “content specialist.” Old idea in a new package.

  • http://gearboxmagazine.com Brian Driggs

    No worries, Dan.

    I'm really digging the concept behind this collection/curation/experience piece. It's really helpful and I think ties into classic business concepts like knowing your audience and tailoring the product/content to their needs.