Understanding Quality vs. Quantity

“What would it take to broadly improve the state of online content?” Our definitions, findings, and ongoing hypotheses.

Creating a shift to more quality online will require a strategic chain reaction. This article is our outline. Julian Howard via Unsplash

To understand why we wrote this, we need to start with our team’s humble mission:

make it easier and more valuable for publishers and audiences to create quality, instead of quantity.

Why? We think it can save the internet. So…

“What do you mean by quality?”

We are not in the business of — nor do we believe it’s possible— judging the journalistic gut and intangible touch great journalism and writing requires. Our focus is outcomes and encouraging them: what are the general attributes that we can use to identify quality, and how can we encourage content and engagement of this nature across the internet?

With that in mind, these are our underlying definitions.

Content

✔️Quality content: meaningful, helpful, honest.
Quantity content: superficial, distracting, misleading.

Engagement — Attention

✔️Quality attention: sustained, focused viewing. E.g. carefully reading a long-form piece.
Quantity attention: fleeting, distracted viewing. E.g. clicking into a clickbait piece and leaving shortly after, or quickly skimming a listicle.

Engagement — Participation

✔️Quality participation: specific, nuanced, thoughtful participation.
Quantity participation: vague, simplistic, crude participation.

Audience Data

✔️Quality data: captured by looking at the overall behaviour throughout the page view, resulting in many simultaneous data points on a single article, let alone across a whole visit. When processed, context is important, including consideration of “why” and “how” an action was taken.
 ❌ Quantity data: binary observations without context. E.g. they clicked or they didn’t; they shared or they didn’t; either they hit a time or depth threshold, or they didn’t. There is minimal consideration of “why” or “how”.

*Engagement is not a singular thing. It is a spectrum, spanning attention and participation, as we’ll explain in our next post.

GIF by Lily Padula

3 Reasons Why ❌ quantity won until now:

  1. Attention online was defined poorly. Quantity attention (impressions, clicks, views) was all that was needed to be deemed successful and earn money. Since that’s all that mattered, traditional online analytics tools didn’t let you measure anything else anyways. Optimization efforts were automatically focused on quantity attention, and reliant on quantity data.
  2. With simple, poorly defined metrics, came lots of opportunities to game the system. It was highly lucrative to optimize for quantity content and quantity attention. It wasn’t lucrative to focus on quality of any sort — none of the existing metrics and tools backed it up, and doing so would actually hurt your revenue. Everything was about short-term, micro performance. Clickbait, pumping out 100 articles/day, splitting articles into many pages, etc. When people bemoan the decline of journalism, they should look to this faustian bargain that most publishers were pushed to make by this early internet: quantity for success.
  3. Superficial content was paired with superficial feedback tools. Rudimentary, often anonymous, bottom-of-page comments detached from the content. Predictably, quantity engagement thrived, including trolls.
source: https://www.reddit.com/r/gifs/comments/2qdtwo/clickbait_oc/

3 Reasons why ✔️quality is now a necessity instead:

  1. The deluge of quantity has drowned everything, including itself. The Law of Shitty Click Throughs now applies to the internet itself. Not only this, but people now use myriad tools to literally block out the noise: ad blockers, clickbait blockers, and reader apps (to manually pick what will get their attention). Even governments are clamping down. Quantity production is becoming useless and irrelevant.
  2. The easy-to-game, quantity-based system was exploited past its breaking point. After years of steady declines, the business of it has been exposed and is fully collapsing. As a result, the business of the online ecosystem has shifted toward focusing on audience revenue: making money from memberships, subscriptions, events, and partnerships. It’s no longer effective or profitable to optimize for quantity attention. Even Facebook now says that reduced time on its platform is good, in the name of quality.
  3. This has resulted in broad interest for tools that can help encourage and generate more of this quality. Macro performance — long term value — is taking the place of micro performance/ short term value across the content ecosystem.

Which brings us to what we’ve found…

Source: giphy.com/stefanieshank

Our Findings

We’ve spent the past years having thousands of conversations with the people who shape, support, or depend on the online content ecosystem:

  • bloggers, freelance writers, content marketers
  • publishers (including executives, editors, journalists, community/audience engagement leads)
  • advertisers (buyers/brands, agencies execs, campaign managers)
  • active readers

We tried to identify what was limiting them from creating or experiencing quality over quantity. Here is what we’ve discovered:

For those creating the content…

You can’t optimize what you can’t measure.

  • This is the most obvious and significant issue limiting quality: there are still extremely limited ways of measuring quality data. There are virtually no tools that make it clear and easy how you can optimize for quality, using quality data. If you’re a blogger or publisher, the tools you have are one or all of: simplistic (shaped by quantity data), tailored to other purposes like general website optimization, complicated to use, and/or too expensive. The entire ecosystem is affected, but this is especially true for solo content creators and smaller publishers.

Quality is a hard idea to sell when it means headaches (and “analytics” is a dirty word).

  • Let’s say a platform or tool could help you produce higher quality content. Well, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t usable. That’s what the general feedback seems to be around the promise of analytics tools. The reality most describe is that they are complicated to use, and the data often too abstract or imposing. As a result, outside of the resident data enthusiasts, most people just don’t bother with them — and those that do, often do so at least somewhat begrudgingly.
  • As a result, there is significant fatigue and skepticism around data tools. The general attitude is 1) “I am very busy, I don’t have time for this extra work.” 2) “These metrics are useless / misleading” 3) “I don’t want data. I want answers.” 4) “General insights aren’t enough. I want specific insight into what my audience really cares about / what I should produce next.”

Cold, hard truth: quality-based initiatives need to make you money to matter.

  • Old habits die hard. While most publishers are shifting into the audience revenue mentality, there lies head a significant transition period where traditional advertising will still matter. As a result, anything that tries to dramatically shift efforts toward quality over quantity — i.e. at the expense of traditional advertising — needs a compelling revenue justification to give it any chance of catching on. Without this, solutions for quality inevitably fall down the priority list for publishers who are in an existential struggle with their revenue streams as it is.

Some good news: there is indeed an emerging, newfound obsession with ✔️quality engagement.

  • It’s led by those embracing audience revenue, and is motivated by the following value chain: a visitor who finds quality content and is given quality participation options for engagement, is much more likely to give quality attention ➡ ️they are much more likely to perceive overall value (quality) ➡ they are much more likely to return and be supportive — including financially — of the team behind the content.
  • Advertisers are beginning to influence the above as well. More and more are desperate for transparency (“what am I actually getting for my $?”), safety (“where are my ads appearing?”), and dependable data (“is this data I can dig into? Does it make sense?”). All of those questions point to quality content and quality data, not quantity.

For those consuming the content…

It’s hard to focus on quality when you’re drowning.

  • Readers are almost universally overwhelmed by the volume of information coming at them from all angles, and are increasingly looking for ways to filter it using trusted sources. The rebirth of email newsletters speaks to this.

When it comes to engagement: “why bother?” or “all in!”

  • Most readers don’t bother with comments sections or threads at all because they assume it’s toxic nonsense. They will instead share the content, sometimes with their notes, to people and groups they feel comfortable sharing opinions with, through direct message and private groups/threads. Both actions are strongly supported by the skyrocketing rate of “dark social sharing”.
  • Conversely, when it is a source they feel is quality content, some readers jump to the comments, using them as a sort of preview, before reading the full article. Others are active, sometimes even competitive, commenters who take pride in their consistent activity and/or having the highest rated comment (not unlike a common underlying motivation found on Imgur or Reddit).

These are the findings we’re confident about. As a result, we have a number of hypotheses we’re working with, both today, and further along our roadmap.

Source: Home Alone 1

Our Hypotheses for empowering ✔️quality

… For those creating the content:

Better measurement will lead to more trust.

  • If we create technology that is all about quality data, and thus can measure quality attention just as easily as you can today measure quantity attention, content creators will be more willing to give it a chance.

Assume everyone is very busy and they might come around.

  • If we make an analytics tool focused on answers (helpful, specific insights and suggestions), instead of data, more people will be more likely to use it — both the tool, and the insights.
  • If we make an analytics tool that is friendly looking, personalized, and simply organized, people will be more likely to spend time with it — whether delivered as a dashboard or as an email.
  • If we make the analytics tool actionable — e.g. answers provided can be immediately acted on to improve content and engagement — people will be more interested in trying it.

Give people a better reason to care and they just might.

  • If we make it so that this tool can produce more revenue because of its focus on quality — whether for advertisers or subscribers — publishers will care about quality and focus more energy producing it.
  • If we make an analytics tool that is more affordable and flexible in its pricing, more people will be willing to invest in it.
  • If we add personal utility in the analytics tool — something that addresses individual performance, and makes it appealing and fun, it will be easier to get everyone in a team to use it.

If we can figure out your “recipe for success”, you’ll cook up better content.

  • If the answers we provide are based on identifying the patterns that work with your audience, applying these insights across your content will cause your average visitor to give you more quality attention.

… if we do all of the above, the standard of content online will shift toward quality content instead of quantity content.

For those consuming the content…

Better recommendations = less is more.

  • Using quality data to more specifically filter recommendations for users will reduce distraction and dissatisfaction while increasing quality attention.

If participation is more personalized, and also filtered, earned, and rewarded, it will improve.

  • Providing readers with the ability to participate in the content — whether suggesting direct edits, contributing content, or personalizing content before sharing — will produce more quality participation engagement.
  • Filtering engagement features by quality of attention and participation — limiting how they can participate, accordingly — will reduce quantity engagement, and build trust to participate with quality engagement.
  • Rewarding readers for their quality attention and quality participation will lead to more of both.

… if we do all of the above, the standard of discourse online will shift more toward quality engagement instead of quantity engagement.


What do you think?

It has been incredibly interesting for us building our product while working with the ecosystem. We have made a lot of adjustments, and we’re excited to make more. If you have any questions or ideas about the above, we would love to hear them.

To follow along as we share more insights — both ours and those of the leaders we work with and learn from — be sure to follow The Content Zeitgeist here on Medium.

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