Great Post! Who’s Reading It? The Problem of Discoverability in the Age of Content

by Aviva Cuyler
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If you care about visibility for your content online (and for the purposes of this post on this platform, let me say: your professional content), there are two types of readers you should think about: those who make it a regular habit to read you, those who discover you for the first time. Each type takes a different path to your work and both are valuable to you. The first, because they’re engaged. As the pundits and consultants say, they “trust your brand.” The second, because there’s a lot of them, and as each person discovers you, that’s an opportunity to earn an habitual reader.

You can frame one existential challenge for mainstream media in this light. As technology has made it exponentially easier for readers to discover other sources, other pieces of useful and entertaining content (on blogs, YouTube, new media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth), the pool of habitual readers for stalwart media brands has been eroding.

Occasionally there are signs, big and small, that the more forward-thinking news organizations are trying to address this challenge. (I think of the recent, much-discussed New York Times innovation report as one big sign. Smaller: I remember hearing a few years ago, during the webcast of a conference on new media models, that multimedia editors at the Christian Science Monitor wrote headlines specifically with SEO in mind. In other words, the Christian Science Monitor, a global news organization over one hundred years old, was now writing news headlines in order to be found in the long tail of Google search.)

Not a bad idea, but the problem is: discoverability in search does not scale well for everyone. Just look at the habit of web searchers to understand this. If you’re not within the first ten results (out of a pool of perhaps hundreds of thousands), you don’t really exist. In the Age of Information, we now know that Content is how we reach the people we need to reach. Problem is, at any given time, on any given issue, there’s usually more than ten entities who’d like to be reached (aka discovered) via the content they’ve produced.

As we shift from a digital landscape dominated by desktop browsers and Google search to a social and mobile landscape dominated by conversations, “sharing,” and smaller (but ever present) screens, it’s interesting to watch the shifting response to discoverability as well.

We’ve seen the rise of the type of eminently shareable content that my colleague, Adrian Lurssen, characterizes (when he is being kind) as cultural strip mining, a mile wide and an inch deep. Led by the likes of BuzzFeed (a news organization that may well have larger aspirations) and others, this is content of very little actual consequence to us, packaged nonetheless to elicit an emotional response and be shared. Well shared. It’s a trick, a formula, and I believe over the long-term it may well be the undoing of those organizations who have built their readerships by using it. (Additionally, it won’t help the old media organizations who’ve adopted this formula to re-grab landshare.)

We’ve also seen the rise of algorithms that turn habit into discovery. I’m thinking of apps like Zite and others - mobile windows into news that give you content based on what you’ve read and who you’ve followed previously, learning what you like as you go along. Zite is among the best of these, but apparently couldn’t find a home for itself at CNN — despite the fact that for many, the Zite platform seemed like a smart purchase for the news giant.

And now we see the rise of LinkedIn as publisher (and here’s my first post on the platform!).

It’s an inevitable progression (one we anticipated in the days we were an InApp content partner on LinkedIn). As someone put it recently: come for the conversation, stay for the articles.

Alas, what we have yet to see in many places, even on this new content publishing platform for professionals, is visibility for the type of information you need, versus the eye-catching fluff pieces written to stand out, to be discovered, to - frankly - game a system in which clicks beget clicks beget clicks. In a quick scan of my stream this morning, I see an article by a LinkedIn Publisher advising me that my career begins with what I wear. I suspect I already know what the writer has to say, without even clicking to read the piece, and I suspect I could have made it through my career without ever knowing it. Months ago, I would have seen a series of posts on first jobs for CEOs - and, before that, a series on office chairs. I can see why people might be compelled to read one or two of these pieces now and then, but - with rare exception - I don’t see much content of the need-to-know variety.

As extraordinarily broad platforms such as LinkedIn continue to grow — and as the content produced by its new publishers grows — I suspect the problem of discoverability will increase, not decrease.

The current tricks and formulas used to float good content up create what amounts to an all-or-nothing proposition. I’ve spoken to early users of this new publishing platform who tell me that when their posts are amplified by LinkedIn (featured in some capacity), they do very well. If they’re not featured, they’re not read. I don’t know if that’s typical, but either way it will be interesting to see if this amplification can scale, especially when the type of information professionals really need is of a different stripe.

I am thinking of content whose usefulness is not measured by whether hundreds of thousands read and share it, but whether or not it was read by the right people (likely a smaller pool), and whether it helped them or not. In all of the industries represented on LinkedIn, there are developments and issues that require analysis and understanding as professionals do their jobs, operate their businesses. As I’ve seen in my own line of work, this is content to do with, among others, issues of privacy, regulatory compliance, and other legal matters. (This is also content that, when read by the right readers, is shared into engaged LinkedIn groups, and discussed in worthwhile exchanges between LinkedIn members.)

Need-to-know content of the sort that amounts to high-value Business Intelligence probably does not stand a chance against a post that cheerfully informs us: if you want to have a more successful day, less is more. (And that’s almost a verbatim quote.) However, the true test of LinkedIn’s new platform will be, to my mind, whether or not it is able to help professionals discover the former, the need-to-know variety of posts and updates. If not, the site has a danger of becoming a BuzzFeed for people who wear ties.

Written by:

Aviva Cuyler
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