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.

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.

The Blank Family at a Baseball Card Show in Freehold New Jersey
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.