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How to Make Content Work Harder
Think more about format. The List is the new pageview. Support independent media in Ukraine. What's it's like to work at a DAO and more.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 21.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
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Part 1: The set up
Does anyone read this? An anecdote:
“Perhaps this is a contrarian take,” he said, “but does anyone actually read all of these emails. I mean I get so fucking many. I had to set up a separate email account to manage them.” Sounding a bit defensive, I replied, “I read a bunch of them. It’s where I find some of my favorite content. Have you checked out Dirt or Not Boring or Chinese Characteristics. This Reverse Idiot Funnel post was good.”
“Maybe you just don’t like to read much,” I joked. He agreed, but shot back, “Check the time spent metric on your email. That will tell you.”
It was a bright, West Coast winter morning. We were walking in San Francisco, a city I lived in for many years. These were credible observations from an accomplished, product-minded friend. He is not nostalgic about media or writing. He likes things that work.
“You should just rip on Twitter. Why waste your time with email.”'
“I suck at Twitter.” I replied.
We moved on to other things. But I kept thinking about it.
This newsletter just kinda happened. I did not labor over format. I was curious and I wanted to keep my eyes open. Substack made it effortless. Try to send one thought a week. Thursdays are a good day. String a couple of concepts together. Offer the perspective of a lifelong operator. Make it personal but not indulgent.
I do not have a good grasp on what the audience thinks. Maybe I should play with my format and ask them.
Part 2: Reality check
It’s always been hard to get people to engage with media.
It doesn't matter if you are New York Times, Netflix or a newsletter writer, everybody has to work hard to sell media. The thought reminded me of this infamous magazine cover, the 1973 National Lampoon “Death” Issue.
Magazines had to resort to kinds of aggressive offers to get people to buy. If you think selling a subscription online with a click of the mouse is tough, try getting someone to mail in a check. Which is why magazines were defined by $1 offers, multi-title bundles, gift-with-purchase and the emergence of the subscription underbelly of the magazine world, “agents”, who found all kinds of nasty ways to get you to buy.
Aside, in many cases, the cost of making and distribtuing the product was much more than the price it was sold for and, therefore, heavily subsidized by advertising. Which was fine until sharp declines in the print ad market forced a reckoning.
One might resort to something more creative like threatening to kill a dog. A few fun facts:
Voted #7 in the Top 40 Magazine Covers of the Last 40 Years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Sadly, the dog, named Cheeseface, was killed in 1976, shot by an unnamed hunter on a farm in East Charleston, Vermont. Identity and motivation of assailant unknown.
The cover was art directed by Michael Gross who once worked at Cosmopolitan and went on to art direct the animated movie Heavy Metal and collaborate on many major films including Ghostbusters.
Comedy format hard sell in magazine format due to lack of natural ad adjacencies. Still National Lampoon magazine published from 1970 to 1998. Began life as a spinoff of Harvard Lampoon.
While the magazine was not a particularly good business, the brand spawned minor media empire in movies, radio, music, books.
NL also made spoof ads like this rather tasteless riff on the famous Bernback VW ad, for which they had to recall the magazine and ran the retraction “Even if Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen he wouldn’t be president today.”
It’s best when topic and media type fit neatly together but it really doesn’t matter if you’ve got passion and an idea. Keep experimenting. Good brands and good ideas find new life in new formats and media types.
Part 3: Inflection point
Shift from pageviews to people.
Post print, the world got high on pageviews. They were already high on advertising. Big audience numbers made the future look very exciting. In some cases this worked out fine, but with a perverse consequence — a dependency on Google distribution and an audience disconnected from the product. And, intensely low ad yield that made the system dependent on bigger and bigger numbers. You know the story.
Last week I started to contemplate the contours of a post pageview world. I will be more succinct this week.
We can simplify the amorphous world of digital media into three primary modes. For alliterative convenience let’s call them Live, Library, and List
Real time feed like Twitter, Discord, even Reddit;
Blend of communication and media;
Subscriber model. Active engagement. Often used to promote other stuff, like things in the Library (see below).
Repositories of content. Basically websites and Youtube;
Discovered primarily through search;
Web is library. Google is card catalog.
Discrete content distributed to a list of people that sign up to receive it or subscribe to it in an app;
Email and podcasts are good examples;
Social apps operate on a follower model. Similar but format and experience controlled by platform;
Expectation of certain content type.
We are seeing a shift of energy from Library to List (and from Library to Live, but that’s for an other time). Here’s why:
Clear, opt-in connection to an author who has hand-built a list;
Author typically brings deep category expertise;
It comes to you;
The media format is a finite media object (ie: weekly missive);
Often much more personal and informal (like email itself, a personal communication medium);
Now can be supported by high-yield content marketing (especially in B2B categories) as well as subscriptions;
Quick comment on email and its renaissance. At Hearst we had a large email database, but we had a tough time getting editors to embrace the medium as a true authors’ channel. So we basically exported our homepages to email. The most trafficked stories were programmatically selected by SailThu (an email personalization vendor) and automatically spit out to the list. It was expedient, but I think it undermined the virtue of the medium.
Market is seeking a new intimacy and simplicity. List is rising. Formats are best when they play to the strengths of media type.
Part 4: Experimentation:
What’s in a format?
First, it’s useful to distinguish between a media type and a media format. They are different, but they do blend into one another. Let’s connect them:
Formats are most closely associated with TV, referring to the general shape and structure of the program, like game shows, reality concepts, etc. Video is a media type, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire“ is a format. Vice innovated the news format. Twitter is arguably a media type and format. Twitter Threads are formats.
In print, there are good format examples at a brand level, like how a tight, dispassionate edit defines the WSJ or how the Economist is defined by “objectivity” and reporting rigor, reinforced by a policy of author anonymity. These are foundational concepts that define the product and make them unique. You might say these are just editorial principles. I would agree.
Certainly format goes beyond bold headlines or bulleted lists, little tactics that I have played with here. When format is a real differentiator, it runs to the heart of everything you make. When it’s not, it can be easily knocked off. (BTW, one might argue that the deep underlying “format” of a newsletter is the unique voice of its author. Hello... Why are we getting so fucking conceptual?)
Digital media blends all media types, with zero barriers to entry. The opportunity for format innovation is vast.
Note: when experimentation attempts to bend the nature of the media type we often get failure. A couple of examples:
Attempts to put too much into a email format to make it magazine like. Breaks simplicity of communication form;
Attempts to turn Twitter into talk radio with “Spaces”. Hard to blend live feed with a “stop and listen” mode;
Attempts to turn a timeline-based narrative medium like video into a text-based story medium. See many low-cost video experiments on YouTube.
In other cases we get wonderful innovations. Take for example, this talking head news format, tuned for Twitter. The Pocket Report whose adorable tag sums things up well: “Bringing you a sub par look at the news in a timely fashion.”
Below are a couple of other examples. The underlying concept seems to be:
Social media has changed a generation’s perspective on media and communication;
The best way to get content to people is to imitate a form they understand and embrace;
Dense, intimidating concepts can find a way to the audience in more approachable container.
Both are taking on dense B2B media categories with socially inspired formats — Out-Of-Pocket in health care, Litquidity in finance. Litqudity became infamous with finance-bro meme action on Instagram and quickly diversified into a rather helpful daily email called Exec Sum. They also make cheeky finance gear, like the hat below.
Successful formats define the media brand and offer a mental shortcut for the audience. They are repeatable, providing an efficient template for creators. When they are defining, they become insanely valuable.
Perhaps it’s easiest to think about it like this. Format sits at the center of media type, narrative concept and content packaging.
Take my approach, for example:
Conceptual media and cultural observations from an operator’s POV;
Five minutes of prose with cover art.
This week, I tried something slightly different. It’s not exactly a “format” but… I’ve broken up the structure, attempted to make it easier to scan and more actionable.
… Like ending with this advice:
Formats are important and there’s so much room to innovate and define a media brand.
Keep on the lookout for format creativity. Understand what makes them work;
Think about how a format idea might serve your communication goal and differentiate your brand;
Is it repeatable?
Try not to have your format clash with a media type’s real essence… unless that tension makes it memorable and useful.
Part 5: Help me understand
By answering a few questions. This will just take a couple of seconds.
Part 6: Support independent media in Ukraine.
Andrey Boborykin is the CEO of Ukrayinska Pravda, the leading independent news publication in Ukraine. Ukrayinska Pravda has continued operating since the Russian invasion, publishing in Ukrainian, Russian and English, even as staff has been forced to scatter throughout the country. Some staff in Russian occupied areas have been detained. Andrey and his family left Kyiv for Mykolayiv, in southern Ukraine, until the fighting reached there. They are now in Chernivtsi, a city in southwestern Ukraine close to the border with Romania. Andrey explained the challenges the independent Ukrainian news media business faces on top of security concerns for staff:
“The ad market is gone. Ukrainian media business relied on native advertising and programmatic revenue, and now they both are pretty much non-existent. Reader revenue is something the Ukrainian media have just started tinkering with, and obviously membership payments are now unlikely. The only viable option we have right now is to reach out to international organizations for donor support and to the international community. The only viable option we have right now is to reach out to international organizations for donor support and to the international community. Although the situation is pretty tough, Ukraine is going through unprecedented national unity in its stand against the Russian invasion. We have zero doubt Russia will lose this war. However, our question to the global community is at what cost for Ukraine.”
Other notable stuff:
1. A good podcast to understand the practical aspects of running a DAO. “What Is It Like to Only Work for DAOs?” from Unchained.
2. Premiering at SXSW, Casey Neistat’s new film Under the Influence tells the story of YouTube influencer David Dobrik’s fall.
3. A Twitter bot will now show you top 10 daily posts on Facebook. @FacebooksTop10
4 Universal identity is coming to the blockchain. If this works, it’s a very important step forward. From Lukso.
Blockchain-based user and company profiles enable permanent identifiers in the digital world. They allow for universal login's that make remembering username and password a thing of the past, while giving you full control of all your virtual assets.
6. A16 crypto wiz Chris Dixon talks to Brian McCullough about his book How the Internet Happened. Great stuff especially the observation about the importance of hobbyists to major technological shifts. They do it for the love and have the equivalent of long investment horizons. Worth a listen.
7. The Biden administration is trying to get in front of crypto. Enthusiasts are cautiously optimistic. Even Bankless: “Why the executive order is bullish for crypto".”
8. More audio innovation - Amazon wants you to build your own radio station with Amp:
Amazon's long-term vision for Amp is roughly the size of the radio industry. In the long run, Amp VP John Ciancutti imagines, Amp might be home to talk shows, call-in shows, “Wait Wait Don't Tell Me”-style game shows, and everything else you might find while flipping through radio stations. Just a modernized version of that. "If you created radio for the first time today," he said, "you wouldn't build radio towers and giant recording rooms that cost $50,000 to build, and go through this heavyweight process to pick the one creator who's going to get to run a show at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays. You'd build it so anybody with a phone in their hand could be a DJ."
Finally, a good vibration from 1973.