How Can I Make You Pay for This Post?

In an article earlier this week explaining why she won’t be self-publishing anytime soon, Edan Lepucki paused to enumerate the hurdles facing traditional publishers. The last in her list was “how to make people actually pay for content.” The phrase suggested to me one more challenge she might have added: “How to stop thinking of your customers as peons and thieves.”

It’s troublesome enough that media should be so concerned with how to make people pay. But the phrase implies something worse: that if people aren’t paying for content, they must be stealing it.

I have no issue with paying for content, nor do I think content should always be free. But I’d rather think of the challenge this way: how to create content so good, and a distribution mechanism so simple, that people want to pay for it.

The content market is no longer about control, but collaboration, about equal exchange. The longer traditional media thinks in terms of how they can make their customers do things, the closer they are to extinction.

30 Lessons from 30 Blog Posts in 30 Days

Twenty-nine days ago, I set out to write a post a day for this blog. Somehow, despite a couple of late nights, I managed to achieve my goal. Though no one’s going to hand me a blogger’s version of their badge, I feel something akin to the mixture of pride and relief all those successful NaNoWriMo writers must be experiencing today.

Sophie

My less-than-helpful blogging companion

In writing 30 posts, I more than doubled my previous most productive month, way back in October 2009, and far exceeded my usual average. Though I didn’t manage to limit myself to a half-hour of writing time per post, I’m certain I was more efficient than in the past, when I could linger over a single paragraph for several hours.

Moreover, I discovered that my writing was none the worse for the time limits and daily quota I imposed on myself. What I feared might turn out to be a month of sub-par blog posts ended up at least as good as my average work, and possibly better.

But aside from hitting an arbitrary target, have I really achieved anything?  Can I, or you, for that matter, learn anything from the experience?

I think so. In fact, if I set my mind to it, I can come up with 30 things I’ve learned from my month of daily blogging. It makes, admittedly, for a rather longish, slightly punch-drunk, tl;dr kind of list. But if I’ve gained nothing else from the experience, dear reader, I now have a new appreciation for the value of perseverance. Make it through the following list and you might feel it too.

  1. More content means more blog traffic. Yes, I know it’s obvious. But seeing is believing. November, not yet concluded, has already witnessed more visitors and page views than any previous month. I may have almost as many regular readers now as Rex Hammock.
  2. However, content without marketing is like a cart without a horse. No matter how good it is, content can’t go anywhere by itself. It needs to be marketed. When I tweeted about my content, it clearly got more page views than when I didn’t.
  3. There’s nothing like help from people in high places. By far the most visitors I got on any day this month was when The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal retweeted one of my posts.
  4. Writing every day makes you a better writer. To quote Jeff Goins quoting Frank Viola quoting T.S. Eliot, “Writing everyday is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.” Whatever you may think of my writing here today, I can assure you that it’s improved from a month ago.
  5. Writing short is hard. If you’re Seth Godin, you can blow a reader’s mind with a three-sentence post. However, all but one of us aren’t Seth Godin, and it usually takes many more sentences to make our points convincingly. Aim for brevity; be satisfied with clarity.
  6. Scheduling a time to write is a good idea that rarely works in practice. I tried to follow Paul Conley’s advice, but reality kept intervening.
  7. Set strict rules for your writing. I couldn’t have written a post a day without the rules I set at the beginning. Arbitrary restrictions and goals spur creativity. That’s why good sonnets are easier to write than good free verse.
  8. Break your rules as often as necessary. To be honest, my rules were more honored in the breach than the observance. If I had followed them religiously, I would not have met my goal.
  9. Good comments beget good posts. The best comment I had this month essentially accused me—in a nice way—of idiocy. It led me to reconsider my ideas in another post that, if it didn’t rectify my errors, put nice polish on them.
  10. Write about other bloggers. Not only does it give you something to talk about, but it’s what the social web is all about. Share the links!
  11. Do Q & A interviews. Even better than writing about other bloggers is asking them to speak in their own words, as I did with Mark Schaefer.
  12. Encourage contributors. It would have broken my rules, but if you want to fill your blog with good content every day, well-chosen guest bloggers can be a big help.
  13. Get used to repeating yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most of us are driven by a few idées fixes. Repetition is a way of developing those ideas.
  14. Now and then, try something completely different. Such as saying the opposite of what you just suggested.
  15. Accept your imperfections. Perfection is something you work towards. Though you may never get there, the only way you can get closer is through your mistakes.
  16. Make bold statements. Your readers, too, will accept your imperfections. It’s all right if you don’t completely understand or believe what you’re saying. It’s a blog. You’re testing out an idea, not writing legislation.
  17. Don’t wait until after supper to start writing a post. Especially if you had a bit too much wine.
  18. On the other hand, consider writing your post the night before. No morning is so glorious to wake up to as the one when you’ve already written your post for the day.
  19. Keep your pets well fed. One of my cats prefers to eat small amounts of expensive canned food every half-hour or so. I can’t leave her food out, though, because my other cat will eat any amount of any food at any time. So my picky cat likes to remind me to feed her by standing on her hind legs and tapping me gently on the arm with her paw. Inevitably, she does so just as I am about to break through my hours-long writer’s block.
  20. Use an editorial calendar, but don’t make it a fetish. It can help to know days in advance what you’ll write about, but sometimes when you start on it, you realize it’s a terrible, boring subject. Always be prepared to change your topic at the last moment.
  21. Go on a Twitter diet. I don’t mean stay away from Twitter altogether. It can be a great source of inspiration. But it can also be an enormous time-suck. Limit your Twitter time strictly when you’re on deadline.
  22. Get personal. That’s the point of blogging, isn’t it? But if you’re the self-effacing type—shucks, no one cares about me—you have to keep reminding yourself of this obvious truism.
  23. Repurpose content with great care. If you think it’s easier than writing original blog content, you’re doing something wrong. Your blog is a different context and audience than whatever you originally wrote for. If you don’t adapt your content accordingly, it will fall flat.
  24. Don’t let the mechanics of blogging waylay you. Need to finish your post? Then this is not the time to worry about SEO, to rethink your site taxonomy, or to install that plug-in you’ve been researching for the past month.
  25. Artwork is nice but not essential. Yes, adding an eye-catching drawing or photograph probably does increase the page views your post gets. But don’t make yourself crazy trying to come up with something. Ultimately, the writing must stand on its own.  And if you can’t think of anything else, you can always use a photo of your cat.
  26. Split your posts up. If you tend to write long, consider whether you might better serve time-challenged readers by spreading it out in smaller chunks over two or three days.
  27. At a loss for words? Take a walk. If it worked for Dickens, why not you?
  28. When all else fails, quote somebody inspiring. Thank you, Mr. Perelman.
  29. Always Be Composing. If you’re serious about your writing, you should be thinking about it all the time. In everything you do throughout the day, you should be wondering, “Say, could I write about this?”
  30. If you’re going to write a numbers post, stick to single digits. Five lessons would have been so much easier.

-30-

Open vs. Closed: Six New-Media Principles, No. 4

One of the key distinctions in the digital world is between closed systems and open ones. One example of a closed system, from the early days of the online experience, would be the original America Online or Prodigy of the 1990s. These “walled garden” systems restricted who could participate, and relied on custom-built, proprietary systems that could be difficult to use and impossible to adapt. The internet, by contrast, is an open system, built on published standards and accommodating a wide range of modifications.

Another example of closed and open digital systems comes from software. Proprietary software programs, like Microsoft Windows, are closed. Their source code is hidden and cannot be legally modified. Open-source software like Linux, by contrast, exposes its source code to the world, and not only allows modification by volunteers, but is built on such voluntary involvement.

From the user’s perspective, closed systems are generally expensive to buy and to implement while open ones are free and can cost less to put in place. In theory, closed, custom-built systems can more directly address the needs of the users who pay for the service. Open systems may be more difficult to adapt to individual use, but allow for interoperability with other systems.

This distinction between open and closed is useful to understanding and participating in new media. In general, old media prefers closed systems, allowing entry to some but excluding others, whether through paid or controlled subscriptions, copyright, or professional restrictions on content creation.

For legacy corporations, acceptance of openness is difficult. But given that, as discussed in yesterday’s post, new media favors the personal, individuals should find the transition easier. In fact, individual journalists stand to gain much more from open systems than do their employers.

Learning an open-source CMS like WordPress or Joomla, for instance, is more likely to benefit individual content creators as they change jobs than would a proprietary or custom-built system. Similarly, while restrictive paywalls may increase revenues for some publications, editors will often find more value to their reputations and careers in having their content accessible to all.

Media businesses may fear open systems, but individual journalists shouldn’t. Openness is their future.

Three Ways to Make Media More Personal

MUD day 20:

Back in the late 90s or early aughts, one of the hot topics in the Web 1.0 world was personalization. On the industry portal site I ran for much of that time, we had what seems now like a pretty lame concept of personalization. We wanted to let our registered users select their interests from a predetermined set of categories, then present a customized home page when they logged in.

We never implemented our plan, but it hardly mattered. The onset of Web 2.0 and social media, along with the impact of Google search, would have rendered our efforts irrelevant.

But the need for publishers to think about how to make media more personal is, if anything, more important now than ever. There are many ways to go about that, but here are three that should be at the top of every publisher’s list for consideration.

1. Aggregate. Personalization means giving readers the information they want. And they don’t just want your own, original information—they want all the relevant content they can find, regardless of where it comes from. So you must point them to it by identifying and aggregating good content from other sites—even from competitive sites.

2. Treat your editors and other content creators as publishers. The old editor-in-chief, top-down, command-and-control approach to managing a content team doesn’t work in an era of personalized content. To make your content more personal, you have to empowever every person on your staff and give them a bigger role in deciding what content to create and curate. You need to encourage and promote their Twitter accounts and other social media outlets, even at the risk of allowing their personal brand to outshine your own media brand.

3. Treat the readers as your staff. The people formerly known as the audience aren’t just your readers anymore. They are participants in creating and disseminating your content. They are in some ways functionally indistinguishable from your own editors and reporters. In practical terms, this strategy means encouraging and responding to comments and highlighting them when appropriate, offering readers platforms for their work (as the Huffington Post has done for its commenters), and even perhaps hiring them are fully-fledged, paid staff.

As I’ve suggested, these three tactics are neither the only nor the required ways to make content more personal. But any publishers who aren’t thinking hard about how to make media more personal are putting their futures at risk.

More on Destination, Identity, and the Future of Content

Thanks no doubt to a helpful boost from Alexis Madrigal, my November 8 post, “The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity,” found a passel of new readers this week. One of them was constructively skeptical of my argument.

What does it really mean, he asked, to say the future of content is in its identity? Or that content must be imbued with the brand? However people find content, he argued, they “always wind up back at the brand to read it.” He also took issue with my suggestion that the container—the original site of publication—doesn’t matter anymore. As he pointed out, it does matter “if you want to keep people hanging around on your site reading more beyond the link that brought them there.”

Because his objections are too good to leave in the obscurity of a comment on a week-old entry, and because my MUD obligations limit the amount of time I can spend on this blog, I’m addressing his comment in today’s post.

It’s possible, of course, that I overstated my case considerably, which one is wont to do when blogging. But people don’t always wind up back at the brand to read content. Like my commenter, I read a lot of content in my RSS reader. But unlike him, I don’t go back to the source to read most of it. Thus, for me, the experience not only divorces the content from its original container, but also strips away much of its original formatting. Others may read content through Instapaper or Flipbook, which can similarly deracinate content. And I think this way of reading will only grow more common with time. (UPDATE: That should be Flipboard. And reading through it just now, I realized it actually does a good job of preserving original branding.)

It was certainly rhetoric more than conviction that prompted me to say that containers don’t matter anymore. Done well, they can still lure readers in and keep them hanging around. But containers are not nearly as good at containment in the digital era as they were in the analog. Because it is so easily copied and transmitted, content (not to mention readers) now can much more readily drift away.

When I suggested that, in response, content must be imbued with brand, I was again, no doubt, overstating. Publishers are obviously free to let their content wander off like wayward dogies without any identifying brand on their flanks. But a publisher concerned with promoting and propagating its brand would be wise to ensure that the content carries some form of brand identity. That can be done in a variety of ways: instilling a brand voice into the content (The Atlantic was once superb at this—you could always recognize its voice, no matter the author), incorporating brand references (Wired‘s Wired vs. Tired, for instance), or employing an identifiably distinctive point of view (Reason, perhaps?).

It used to be that publishers and their editors didn’t have to worry so much about this problem. When an article was contained within a print magazine, the context was enough to brand the content. But online, that context is much weaker. To me, at least, infusing your brand directly into your content seems like a smart response.