Strangely, I’ve recently heard the phrase ‘content is king’ a couple of times in one day from two different people. Once in regard to an advertiser looking at branded content; once in regard to publishing strategy. I can only empathise with Faris Yakob who spoke about his “annoyance [with] people, including myself, saying Content is King too much, as though it explained stuff”.
On the one hand it expresses something plainly obvious: content is good. People like reading, watching and listening to it. And it’s a fundamental pre-requisite for monetising through ads or subs, or something else entirely.
But I always found the idea that ‘Content is King’ a little glib, and got the feeling publishers keep saying it in the hope it becomes self-fulfilling; that someday soon a new business model will arrive for monetising their king-ly content. Sly Bailey gives a good example of this kind of thinking, in some very measured words to paidContent.org on the subject of paywalls:
“The important thing for us is to develop the brand with the right content that engages a passionate audience … and whether over time that gives you the opportunity to think about areas you can charge for, that’s an open discussion – but you have to create that content overall in order to have that option”
I think this a way of avoiding having to think about the ultimate doomsday scenario: that digital distribution has revealed the true worth of content (and it’s not very much); that the value of the newspaper business was actually sustained by a virtual monopoly of distribution rather than valuable content; that content without a distribution monopoly has ceased to be a stable basis for a profitable business; that it’s time, in other words, to get out of the content game!
Digital distribution has driven down the cost of producing content such that even your 14 year old cousin can reach 1m people through his Youtube channel, blog or Facebook group. By now you’ve quite probably seen this great graphic which shows that bloggers produce enough content every day to fill the New York Times for 19 years straight, and they do it all without asking payment.
With this limitless sea of content on the internet, how can it be considered ‘king’? The answer, of course, is that it can’t. The long tail of online content is so far from being king it’s ridiculous.
Critics of new media from the world of publishing often bemoan the quality of internet content – ill-informed blogs, inane twitter, narcissistic Facebook updates, dumb Youtube videos, ‘loser-generated content’. I actually agree with this – comments on Youtube are usually pretty idiotic – but it conceals an important point. The barriers to content production and distribution are so low that producing inane and stupid content of interest to hardly anyone has now become a relatively economic activity. It wouldn’t make sense to spend millions printing and distributing a national newspaper to tell someone ‘OMG u r gay’. But not on the internet.
And that’s why distribution is the real king – that’s where the competitive advantage lies. Being the best (or the only) distributor/aggregator/indexer of content is what confers value on content, since it enables your users to find the gems they do value in the functionally infinite universe of rubbish. Hence Google.
And distribution has always been king, even in the heyday of newspapers. Newspapers currently like to position themselves as virtuous content creators compared to Google’s piratical and parasitic content distributors. They produce content; Google just aggregates, distributes, and profits from it. What this ignores is that newspapers are in fact significant distributors of third party content themselves. TV listings, obituaries, sports results, crosswords, weather reports, agency and syndicated copy, and lots of commercial content. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever surveyed newspaper readers you’d know how important this third party content is. A surprisingly large proportion of buyers claim that TV listings, sports results or crosswords are their ‘must have’ bits of the newspaper, while the other stuff (i.e. the news) is very much secondary).
So what newspapers have really lost is their grip on distributing this third party content, since Google clearly does this better. Newspaper content without the benefits of a virtual distribution monopoly is worth almost nothing. So I really fear that keeping your head down and investing your content is a hapless strategy – you’re better off focusing on the real issue of the distribution and monetisation of that content.