My personal list of things to read if you want to work in online media

I was busy clearing out some old folders and discovered this list of resources I put together for a friend of mine who wanted to get into digital content (she’s now an editor as a world famous digital publisher). Most are a few years old but a lot of the points are still valid so I thought I’d share them in case anyone else is interested.

Essential reading

Use of a technique called multivariate testing, in which myriad A/B tests essentially run simultaneously in as many combinations as possible, means that the percentage of users getting some kind of tweak may well approach 100 percent, making “the Google search experience” a sort of Platonic ideal: never encountered directly but glimpsed only through imperfect derivations and variations.

Remember what I said about easy not giving you a competitive advantage? Easy is easy to copy, but big builds barriers. I’m not conceited enough to think that no one can ever write about the topic again or that someone won’t do it better someday, but expectations are higher now, and that makes the competition’s job tougher. These barriers even become self-building — big content that gets links and social mentions climbs the rankings, getting more links, and on and on. It builds traffic, it builds brand, and it builds walls that people who are stuck on easy will never be able to climb.

I will repeat this because it’s important: YouTube nor Facebook or any of these other companies aim to be an alternative to journalism and much of what they facilitate or do doesn’t look like journalism at all. A good chunk of it contains written or spoken words, but sometimes not even that. It’s not journalism. But you’d be naive if you thought their services aren’t often consumed instead of news. It’s the same kind of functionality in a different package, after all, and that new package happens to be rather attractive a lot of the time.

“When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

More than just that, we are witnessing the emergence of a class of media company that relies on technology, not just its founding editorial mission, to determine what it publishes. By harnessing what search data says about what web users “want to read”, publishers can create articles to satisfy that need. It is an efficient system to make a geek proud; journalism as platform, an audience for everything — no article goes to waste. Publishing begins to become a perfectly matched supply-and-demand game, and that minimizes losses.

Silbermann suggests that collecting online is a form of self-expression for people who don’t create. “If you walk around Brooklyn and ask people how they express themselves,” he said in a speech at New York University, “everyone’s a musician or an artist or a filmmaker. But most of us aren’t that interesting. Most of us are just consumers of that. And when we collect things and when we share those collections with people, that’s how we show who we are in the world.”

When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, his focus was not on making money — “His observation was that the products weren’t good enough. His resolve was to make better products.” This was a different approach from other attempts to turn the company around, which had focused first and foremost on cost savings and revenue generation.

As the traditional media industry continues to struggle with the disruption caused by the web, some sceptics argue that a “digital first” approach isn’t the answer — but the reality is that focusing on digital is the only hope the industry has.

Are readers suffering from a lack of paywalled content for which they can submit their credit cards? Probably not. It’s also interesting that the newspaper that gets the most praise from Christensen is the Post, which remains adamantly opposed to a paywall.

A quick look at the thriving content markets at Amazon, iTunes and elsewhere shows this notion is bunk. All of these sites are competing with free very successfully. As Smith points out, the lowest cost (including free) is not the only determinant of consumer purchases. Factors like reliability, convenience, service and quality also have a very big impact on how we buy content online.

So how are publishers and media companies supposed to deal with this problem? Madrigal’s solution is an appealing one, at least for those who create content — he says the only dependable way of generating real traffic and engagement is to actually write things that people care about or are interested in. In other words, the “content is king” approach.

If the Guardian is the canary being sent down the free, ad-supported news mine, is it still singing? Guardian News & Media yesterday announced a £44.2 million loss for 2011 — worse than the £31.1 million loss in 2010. The losses look worse thanks to investments and writedowns across the business — but where does the business go from here?

Counter intuitively, the “nicer” the brand, the more rude their customers seem to be. The squeaky wheel gets the grease for sure, but there’s so much its become a slipping hazard.

Users have decided they want streams, but most media companies are insisting on publishing more and more pages. And the systems which publish the web are designed to keep making pages, not to make customized streams.

Case studies

“BuzzFeed is unique in that we are equally obsessed with 1) entertaining content, 2) substantive content, and 3) social advertising. The teams that focus on each of these areas are equally important which is a key part of our success. We want our cute animals, humor, and animated gifs to be the best of their kind on the web — they aren’t just a cheap way to generate traffic. We want our reporters to have the best scoops, the smartest analysis, and the most talked about items — they aren’t just a hood ornament to lend the site prestige. And we want our advertising to be innovative, inspiring, and lead the shift to social — and not just be a necessary evil that pays the bills.”

Vice has found its road to success lies elsewhere. “We work with brands to create legitimate content that talks to their consumers and their audience in the most appropriate way,” Hewitt explained. “We don’t think about branded content, we think about telling stories and making content that relates to brand messages or products.”

“Condé gave it enough rope and left the people there to their own devices. I don’t know whether it was a brilliant strategy or accidental neglect, but the founders did not leave, the community stayed intact, and the site grew beyond anybody’s expectations.”

Indeed, for many, Sandy was an eye-opening moment for Tumblr, prompting some to wonder, might the social media platform become a full-scale content management system (CMS) tool for publishers, particularly when so many in the digital media world are crying out for a total Web rethink?

And then the important part: create value. Right now, a digital subscription gives you access to a stack of print content. Meh, there’s nothing cool about that. Membership to Club NYT (and let’s do better than that name) could be so much more. It should give you access, it should give you a sense of pride, it should give you value. You should tear the zipper off your purse while yanking the card out to show to friends.

Shaping, structuring and arranging Olympic content for many different contexts and devices was a big challenge but hopefully the end result is an overall experience that feels joined up and cohesive, and most importantly something that you enjoy using. I also hope I’ve been able to shed some light on the design process involved in the first truly digital Olympics.

So is it ever possible to write a headline that can turn an eye or raise a smile despite my SEO strictures? I like to think so. A favourite recent example of mine manages to get the best keywords at the front of headline, includes a proper name, and gets a groan-worthy joke in there. Hats off to our Norfolk team for “Bald hedgehog faces pointless existence in Yarmouth”.

This is the idea behind what Wall Street Journal managing editor Raju Narisetti and author Jeff Jarvis have both called a “reverse paywall” — which provides benefits to loyal users and readers instead of charging them — and it seems like a much better fit if what you want to do is build a relationship with your community.

He talked about needing great content to punch through, but also the fact that something like 96% of people who ‘Like’ a brand page only visit it once. What is important to note, he said, is that 66% of users have ‘Liked’ five brands or less. That means that your social media presence is unlikely to be competing for space in the news feed against other banks or insurers or whatever vertical you work on, but you will be competing instead with Lady GaGa and Coca-Cola.

Specific techniques

Viral and fractal content has the potential to reach and influence massive audiences, but in practice can be exceedingly difficult to create. By understanding your audience and the emotional drivers that motivate them, it is possible to increase your odds of success substantially.

Is there a magic formula for author profiles? No. You might be tempted to think that changing your background to yellow or red might be the answer, but the right photo depends much more on your audience and content.

The benefits of user generated content are obvious to most. Not only are you generating additional unique, (hopefully) on-topic content for your pages, comments may even contribute to your article’s freshness score. While it’s debatable whether the number of comments on a page is directly correlated with higher rankings, we all understand the value of having more fresh, relevant content on a page to say nothing of user engagement and community building.

Communication is at the heart of an effective content strategy, and we have to resist the temptation that some of us have to withdraw into a shell when we encounter confrontation.

But the main benefit of membership is the opportunity to get more involved with the site in other ways, including member-only discussion forums, as well as exclusive live chats and interviews with newsmakers and political influencers.

The web is littered with landing pages that convert, perfect buttons, and copy that clinches sales, but you’re skirting around the major issues if that’s where you devote all your time and energy. Focus on your customers’ emotions, and you’ll gain much deeper insights into who they are, what they think about you, and crucially, why they aren’t buying from you as much as you’d like.

You can see what specifically your fans are doing by checking out the “Lifetime Negative Feedback Users” and “Lifetime Negative Feedback from Users” tabs. Especially important is how many people are choosing to hide all of your posts based on just one — that’s the most dangerous.

While transparency can get bogged down with organizational hurdles, the lesson is to be yourself. Modern customers know better than to trust claims that everything you sell is made out of sunshine, rainbows, and Adamantium.

Without a clear understanding of how information architecture works, we can end up creating sites that are more confusing than they need to be or, at worst, make our content virtually inaccessible.

Too often, copywriting is an afterthought in Web development. No matter how attractive, clever or interactive a website is, its main purpose is to convey information. A great website is designed around the content.

Want to know more? Tweet me @tomhewitson or send me an email at

Conversation designer & founder of Previously @facebook and @gdsteam. Occasional posts about interesting things.