Content quality it only matters if your delivery is flawless
Apr 3, 2013
Content quality matters, but distribution and value determine the success of publications in the digital age.
When I started working as a journalist, a colleague and I had a project and we were looking for investors or partners. We were referred to speak with another journalist who had made the same type of venture: to create a publication where the differential was the "quality" (quotes here are due to the difficulty of defining such a concept). His prediction after hearing our idea: "Quality is the worst argument for selling content". He was right.
Fast forward to this week. A very interesting discussion began with a post by Marco Arment on his blog, talking about platforms, quality and what really matters in a publication. Arment argues that, at the end of the day, what counts in the success or otherwise of a venture is the value of what is published. He received a response on another technology site with a relatively aggressive tone, but in the end, I think I also disagree with Arment. As much as I, a journalist, want to think otherwise, publications do not succeed because of the content. As McLuhan said, the medium is the message - today more than ever.
To summarize Arment's post in one sentence, he says that new publishing platforms like Type Engine are not the invention of the wheel and that what really counts is the quality of the content that, for example, he and The Magazine are doing. Despite the criticism of Arment having been published on PandoDaily (a somewhat sensationalist techsite that, sometimes, publishes some good insights), the pointed out caveat is fundamental. Looking from the business side (which in the end, is what determines whether the publication continues or closes its doors), the quality of content matters only up to a certain point. This may sound like heresy to content producers who brag about producing quality content - like journalists, but it is an irrefutable reality.
Today, the number one item in the priority of importance in a publication is distribution. Although it is not a pleasant finding, it is not difficult to reach it. Publications with miserable content abound in the digital medium, while those that make a really differentiated product in this regard, are rare. Among the miserable and admirable survivors, one common point unites 100% of them - an appropriate distribution channel for the type of content, for the target audience and for the necessary revenue capture. On the other hand, exceptional publications are disappearing, have disappeared or will disappear despite their value.
Over time, capitalism has shaped the market and the consumer according to its needs. Very, but very rarely a publication survives because it has the best content and, when this happens, it is because in addition to having the best content, it also has a minimally adequate distribution and revenue model. It is much more frequent the success of the exact opposite: a publication that provides mediocre content successfully because it manages to package and sell its product efficiently.
I remember a lecture at USP in which the then vice-president of Editora Abril, Thomaz Souto Correia, said that interviewees for product opinion surveys always lie about what they want. A few years later, Steve Jobs completed the speech of the former executive of Abril: people do not know what they want. And on top of this lost consumer is that the market has taught to buy following only one standard: the cost-benefit ratio. The consumer says they want quality content and it's true, but they prefer to spend less or nothing to receive a product a little or even much worse, as long as they understand that the relationship is beneficial to them.
It is no coincidence that the end consumer prefers a more generic content offered for free along with a service (email or a social network, for example) instead of a careful analysis and carefully written for which he will have to pay. The process of devaluing the "quality" of content has been going on for decades. With successive cuts in newsrooms after the 70s to optimize costs of publicly traded companies, newspapers had already realized this and increased their profits for many, many years by depreciating quality as a factor in the purchase decision - they reduced the quantity and care in the production of content, using material produced by agencies, paying less to employees and demanding more work for increasingly higher values in their advertising spaces. The problem is that this scenario left the traditional industry vulnerable and the web's gratuity and the avalanche of content offered made the spell turn against the sorcerer.
Instapaper is a very promising platform in relation to the future of publications, as is Type Engine promises to be, Wordpress and many others. In reality, this myriad of alternatives is what offers some chance for the production of quality content to flourish amid the unviable business models of the traditional industry - among them, The Magazine which is the bone of contention between Arment and other bloggers.
The content consumer cannot understand how the content paid for by him can benefit him for being "better". They already feel informed and entertained enough by content offerings that cost little or nothing and that - more relevant than everything - reached them in a more efficient way, with less friction, with the correct timing and in the appropriate format. In this race, the competing content, of better quality, is not even compared with the mediocre free because, during the journey, it succumbed, victim of problems with distribution, format, price, audience and timing.
It is possible to argue that big journalism brands continue to sell well because they have better made content. It's a half truth. The great icons of journalism that manage to keep themselves do so either because in addition to having excellent content also found ways to do the correct distribution with the correct costs (like the NYT and The Guardian), or because they are really producers of content at such a high level that they can charge higher prices from specific audiences, or because they have attached to their newsrooms other ways of revenue (as is the case of the group that manages The Economist). The quality of content is the last deciding factor in the choice of a consumer and only comes into the discussion if aspects related to distribution and price have been equated.
Simple to handle, feature-rich, low-cost and versatile publishing platforms are fundamental to the future of publications. Journalists and other content producers may hesitate to admit, but the final quality of what is produced only guarantees a place in history as good content (after all, a well-written text will be seen as such forever), but they will not be able to justify themselves economically, unless inserted in an appropriate context of distribution. The channel through which information reaches the consumer has become as fundamental as the message it carries and, from what it seems, the situation should not change in the near future.