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

The Commodification of Publishing & Media

Yesterday I talked about “the magical elves” of new media – how some publishing & media companies are confusing “strategy” with cost cutting. Today I want to give an example of what I mean from another industry, and another time. Inherent in this discussion is the exploration of how we value a brand and the trust it has built over the course of years.

Let’s talk about two events in 1970, and how each illustrated different approaches to treating the value of a brand’s assets. The companies are MGM and Disney, the former sold some of its most precious assets to fund the building of a Las Vegas hotel. The latter spent money to archive and preserve it’s history.

(note: huge thanks to Jim Hill for his blog post covering this topic.)

Okay, let’s dig in:

  • The MGM Auction of 1970
    In 1970 MGM auctioned off its entire history of costumes and props. Warehouses of items including costumes from The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and countless other items worn by stars such as Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Susan Hayward, Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, and others in some of their most famous roles. Dorothy’s dress? $1,000. Cowardly Lion’s costume? $2,400. They also sold off their historic back lots, and flattened sets used in classic MGM films. That land is now filled with faceless condos, turning history into real estate.

    Stories of the auction are scattered across the web. One person describes that a friend of his bought a large container of unknown costumes in the sale. Within it were two of the Lollipop Guild costumes from Wizard of Oz. This was not historic preservation, these items were sold in bulk, unmarked. How many treasures were lost in this manner? What if the person who bought it didn’t recognize them as Wizard of Oz costumes?

    There is an entire website dedicated to tracking what happened to the famous Time Machine from the from the 1960 movie of the same name. One of the flying saucers from Forbidden Planet turned up in someone’s garage, considered lost for years after the MGM auction.

    These items were not sold off to preserve them better or to make the MGM brand stronger – they were done so to raise funds for a hotel. The new owner of MGM had no real interest in the movie studio or its history.

    Further reading on the MGM sale here.

  • Disney Creates an Archive in 1970
    That same year, Disney did the opposite of MGM, they created the Disney Archives. Now, it should be noted that 1970 was not necessarily Disney’s heyday, they were still building their empire. Check out the list of movies released during that time period.

    Disney hired Dave Smith as archivist, a position he still holds today. Jim Hill describes Dave’s role:

    “Back in 1970, Smith’s duties involved regularly prowling around the studio looking for things that actually needed preserving. Which often meant opening up janitor’s closets and then finding maquettes that had been used in the production of “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” & “Fantasia.” Or – better yet – actually fishing animation cels from “The Aristocats” out of the studio’s dumpsters.”

    In 1970, Disney was funding something else entirely, actually something not too dissimilar to what MGM was doing: the Walt Disney World Resort, which opened in October of 1971. 30,000 acres of swampland converted into a theme park, a project Disney worked on since 1963.

    The difference is that Disney saw it’s past as something to covet, to fuel their future, not something to commoditize and offload to fund other ventures.

MGM Auction

MGM Costumes and Props

MGM Back Lot

Why am I obsessing over these two events, and why should you care? Here are a few lessons I am considering from the examples above:

  • It Takes Decades To Build a Brand, Moments to Destroy It
    Today, many companies talk about their valuable “content assets” and the “communities” built over the course of decades. Media and publishing companies change hands constantly, often based on the value of their content and reputation. Like the MGM sale – one result of this is that the most valuable aspects of these brands are slowly dissipated over the years. Yes, some gems are cherished forever, but many others are lost into the ether, a shadow of what they once were – a hollow brand, existing in name only. For instance, we all know that the Gourmet brand will resurface again and again in the future as its brand name is “leveraged.” But will that name represent the expert content and authority it once did? Or is it just a label on a can?

  • If You Don’t Respect the Past, You Can’t Respect the Future
    Many businesses that are created by passionate experts in niches are later bought by larger companies and managed by business people who only understand the financial aspect of what has been created. What can happen in this case is a shortsighted understanding of value of community and content, and short-term decisions on how to “unlock value,” where the “value” always means money. That’s fine, until that precious content and community is exploited again and again, and the reputation of the original brand has little social capital to leverage further.

  • Hire Leaders Not Managers
    Many of the brands we covet were created by passionate experts – oddballs who knew how to take an idea and make it a reality. As time moves on, it is important to put those brands into the hands of leaders who will extend those creations, not exploit them. Who will allow them to grow, not be “managed.” Again and again, we see great brands sliced, diced, bought, sold, and merged. Sure, it’s a reality of the business world. But it shouldn’t be confused with truly creating something new. Sometimes the value of the parts are greater than the whole.

  • Create Something That Grows in Value Over Time
    Paul Carr has been talking about this in terms of new media: questioning how our efforts online create long term value. He framed this discussion in terms of social media vs long form writing, with a great title: Thnks Fr Th Mmrs: The Rise Of Microblogging, The Death Of Posterity.

    “A million blogs withered and died as their authors stopped taking the time to process their thoughts and switched instead to simply copying and pasting them into the world, 140 meaningless characters at a time. The result: a whole lot of sound and mundanity, signifying nothing.”

    Publishers and media companies are at similar crossroads – choosing between cheap aggregation vs the cost and creating high quality original content; between relying on social media vs building an expert marketing team.

  • Don’t Turn Art Into a Commodity
    The art world is a bizarre place- judged by auction prices, not the inherent revelation of art. In the end, we spend millions on paintings in order to buy transcendence. It’s well worth your time to check out the documentary “The Art of the Steal” which covers this topic in an incredibly compelling manner. When you commodify something unique, you rob the world of something. It’s a complicated topic, I don’t want to simplify it too much, but I do think it’s worth discussion.

Overall, I think I am sensitive to the tradeoff we make with success, or more specifically, revenue. Sometimes, success truly creates something that never existed before – it is a skill, a gift when that works out. But other times, there are hidden costs. In a world where quarterly numbers seem to be valued more than anything, when you take the long view, you notice what is – AND ISN’T – being created over the course of years and decades.

There is a great term – “unlocking value,” which many people use to justify a new strategy that turns art into a commodity. Be careful not only in what is created, but what is lost.

-Dan

The Magical Elves of New Media

Last week I made mention that USA Today’s new media strategy includes a staff reduction of 9%, which is a common headline. Jenni Spinner responded with a great phrase: “New media is produced by magical elves that work for free.”

Dan Blank
Now, I realize that there are realities of business economics. Staff reductions are a fact of life in today’s world, I’m not going to pretend to be surprised by that. But I do often wonder about the decision process that lead to the pairing of a new strategy with a staff reduction.

Are these new strategies chosen because there are sophisticated business models behind them? Because they have done extensive research with their audience, gone through experiments in the wild, combed through metrics to distinguish perception vs reality? And after the result of this research and insight, came up with a solid plan to preserve the best of the past, and leverage new technologies to extend that value?

Or, are these new strategies and staff cuts enacted because, by traditional metrics, those businesses can reduce costs? In other words, are they choosing new tactics based on old measures, and calling the difference between the two numbers a “strategy.”

Too many new media strategies rely on the following ideas, among others:

  • An algorithm that “aggregates” relevant content.
  • Leveraging non-employee content contributors.
  • Hoping the social media and “viral” marketing efforts will drive traffic.

Now, each of these items can be very effective, and media companies would be smart to pursue them. But it can also be a dangerous road if chosen for the wrong reasons.

For example: if a company suddenly embraces social media simply because they don’t want to hire more marketing directors, and can find savings by reducing their existing marketing staff by 9%.

Why does this concern me? Well, recently I have been considering how many current day brands have such power and esteem because they continue to leverage the quality of the work they created over the course of decades. Their brands are extensions of that quality, and it grows in strength as time moves on.

The flipside of this is cutting the quality of ones content to save costs; Of making their product less unique in the marketplace in order to follow immediate trends. To rely on those outside of the brand to create the content, to create the buzz. In the end – whose identity is it? How deeply etched is it?

I definitely understand the value of leveraging a network of content creators; of the power of a distributed social channels to drive attention and engagement. But I also think that brands are wise to keep an eye down the long road ahead. Where do these decisions lead beyond the next quarter, the next bonus cycle?

When we dilute the quality of the content, and the strength of our marketing skillset, we are not building the future, we are putting the very pillars of our companies at risk. Clearly, I am a huge fan of the world that new media has given us. But I am also appreciative of what have built publishing and media brands into well-known names: quality content, and a deep connection to their industries. As these companies move forward to reshape the economics of what they do, I simply hope they keep an eye on who they are becoming, and the lifetime value of their investment – measured in years, not days.

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

Profit Is Not the Best Measure of Serving a Community

“Without community, none of us feel accountable to anyone else.”
-Colin Beavan

I found that to be a compelling line of dialogue from the movie No Impact Man.

This has me considering the current state of publishing and media. As I watch companies look for sustainable revenue streams that ensure their survival, I often wonder if decisions are made in order to be accountable to shareholders (profit) or the communities they serve.

Dan Blank
I do not mean this in any sweeping anti-corporate manner, nor that anyone at any publishing or media company is intending to do harm within their market or business. I consider it more in terms of how do we measure and value the effects of our actions. And how often does profit overshadow other benefits at a company, within a community, and within our culture. Is that how one becomes a part of the fabric of a community, because they drive more dollars through it than anyone else?

Every day, we read headlines about big negotiations over ebook pricing, partnerships and acquisitions, new product launches, and the like. And often, they are framed in business jargon.

“Community” has become a catch phrase in media and marketing. I discussed this the other day in a post titled You Don’t Sell To A Community. You Support A Community. It is always tempting to believe that revenue equals properly serving a community. That if dollars are flowing, if product is moving, that the community must be happy, and the company must be a linchpin in that market. But I think that’s a dangerous measure.

Cartoon Breakfast

That’s why we have 20 kinds of Pop-Tarts, 60 kinds of cartoon branded fruit snacks, and hundreds of sugary cereals available as breakfast food in a single aisle of my local supermarket. NONE of these products are adequate nutrition for a breakfast, and yet they are marketed and sold as if they are.

So, are the companies producing these sugary treats best serving their market? From a revenue standpoint, I suppose. But from a health standpoint, from a community standpoint of working parents trying to feed their kids nutritional items on a budget? Nope. They are failing by that measure.

Without a doubt, the kids won’t complain. They sugary treats are tasty AND they have Dora on them. What’s not to love? And shareholders at the food companies are happy because revenue is up.

Who complains? No one does until the cumulative effect of consuming this junk catches up with people in 30 years. But then it’s not a cartoon breakfast problem, it’s a health care issue. As if one has no relation to the other.

What does this have to do with media and publishing? Simply illustrating a point – because product moves, because revenue is up, it does not always equate the best way to serve a market and the communities within it.

Not All Cartoons Are Marketing Machines

Why did Bill Watterson never license his Calvin & Hobbes comic strip into products such as stuffed animals, bumper stickers and t-shirts? In the 80s and 90s it was a very popular strip, fans would have loved the merchandise, and Mr. Watterson would have made millions. Consider how much the Garfield creator must have made off of those suction cupped stuffed animals in everyone’s car windows back in the day, in the cartoon revenue, and in the 27 categories of merchandise for Garfield products on Amazon.com.

Why didn’t Bill Watterson follow this route? Because he knew it served the marketing machine, but not his fans. Because a market is not a community. That producing millions of products made in factories didn’t extend the Calvin brand, didn’t better serve his community, but merely lead to taking money from these fans, and filling our landfills with more plastic junk.

Sure, he would have profited, but he seemed to feel there is more to life than money. As Mr. Watterson states in a 1987 interview:

“With a lot of the marketing stuff, the incentive is just to cash in. It’s not understanding what makes the strip work. The motivation is the work itself and having a job I’ve aspired to since I was a kid. I wouldn’t be doing this if I were just in it for the money.”

Do publishers and media companies need products to sell? Absolutely.
Do they need to scale these sales across enormous markets? Absolutely.
Should revenue be the only way we measure how we serve our communities? No, they shouldn’t be.

Revenue is awesome. I have nothing against it, and am not an advocate of the “everything should be free” meme. I believe in paid content, in digital products, in the App economy. I believe publishers and media companies should diversify their product offerings and expand into being service providers as well. I think they would do well to expand the definitions of what their role is, the types of products they offer, and the markets they serve. And yes, publishers and media companies should strive to be VERY profitable.

But they should not confuse this with serving a community, and should consider what metrics do measure their effect within the communities they serve. These companies are a part of a complex ecosystem, one whose needs and health can’t be measured by profit alone.

Let me know if you think I can help you better serve your community.

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

Fear, Comfort, and the Future of Your Business

Do you need to change? Does your business need to change? Is success just slightly out of your reach because you are unwilling to question the basic assumptions of how you serve your market?

Often in business, we try to predict the future by looking at the past. And this is why established companies sometimes miss out on innovations. There was a great quote in this week’s episode of Mad Men:

Dan Blank

“A new idea is something they [the customer] don’t know yet, so of course, it’s not going to come up as an option. You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.”

For example, researchers studying the Class of 2014 say that students don’t use email because it is too slow. How could this present day behavior of these students change how we communicate in the future? Companies banking their future on email as the primary communication tool of their market may miss an opportunity because they didn’t even consider that email is “slow.”

Seth Godin talks about how we deal with fear by surrounding ourselves with what is already known:

“A lot of entrepreneurs get an MBA because they are afraid to go out into world without one. They are seeking the reassurance a credential will bring them, even though the cost is huge and there’s no data to indicate that they’ll be more successful as an entrepreneur as a result.”

How much does fear drive your career and business? How many decisions are based on an existing comfort level with the products or services, the sales process, the customer segment? Are new ideas rejected because they are bad ideas, or because they ask uncomfortable questions?

If you wait until you realize you need to change, it may be too late. The New York Times explored this with Netflix:

“Netflix tries to avoid creative destruction by experimenting with new models well before they need to, and well before the old model has lost steam.”

And Mike Masnick picked up on the theme:

“This is, of course, the typical Innovator’s Dilemma, but it helps explain why so few companies are able to survive the innovator’s dilemma. Even if they know about it, they think they can wait. They think that they shouldn’t invest heavily in those new technologies and new markets until there’s a clear path to profitability, or a clear plan for how it “replaces” what’s already there. The problem is that by the time they have the answers to those questions, it’s too late.”

As the media landscape continues to shift, each company, each employee will have to confront their own comfort level with new ideas, with whether the future will look anything like the past.

Let me know if you think I can help.

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