Why Content isn’t King

You hear it a lot on the internet, and even off, “content is king.” “Why isn’t my blog making money?” “Because you’ve got bad content” is the pat — which is hardly to say correct — reply. This argument doesn’t make a lot of sense though. Some of the most well-known and profitable blogs are essentially lukewarm summaries of other people’s content or worse yet, warmed-over platitudes. Something else clearly matters.

Perhaps the simplest and most useful analogy for how content matters on the internet is offline publishing. Although both magazines and books have ever-increasing online presences, they still live primarily in an offline world, as any publisher can tell you. And though the analogy isn’t perfect, it demonstrates a few of the essential reasons that content isn’t king.

Publishing Offline

As any publisher can tell you, distribution is the most important component of selling a book. A great book in a well-designed jacket cannot sell if the only place you can buy it is the publisher’s warehouse. Distribution, to brick and mortar stores like your local bookseller, Barnes & Noble, or Walmart is still the best way to make sure a book is visible. Being listed on Amazon.com certainly adds to a book’s visibility as well, but when the majority of books are still purchased offline, it’s not enough to be available there.

Having a visible presence for a book in a brick-and-mortar store is the first step toward selling a book, but it’s not the only one. Once a book is visible, it needs to be looked at. If being visible is analogous to being seen, being visually interesting is the first step toward being looked at. In an offline bookstore, the number of bound pages you see is astronomically larger than the number you actually look at. Being looked at means that, at least, your eyes linger long enough to read the title and author of the book. Perhaps you’ll pick it up and thumb through it, but that’s often a step beyond being looked at.

And as any book publisher or customer are Border’s will tell you, the most important thing in getting looked at is being visually interesting. Imagine a book called Pooh and Eeyore. One version of the book merely says those words and lists the author but is otherwise blank. The second version has a colorful picture of a half-eaten Pooh coming out of Eeyore’s mouth, and the subtitle, “A chilling tale of lies, deceit, and revenge.” There’s little doubt that even if the second book’s cover is a little sensational, it’s also going to be looked at more than three times as much, and bought probably twice as often.

Once a book is seen and looked at, its contents finally matters. Once you’re looking at a book, you’ll read the book jacket and figure out if the topic really interests you, you’ll flip the pages and maybe even read a few. But it is only here that content matters. In the process of determining if a customer buys a book or not, content comes in third, hardly a kingly position.

Some Caveats

Having just told you how “content is jack” is more true, if less elegant, than “content is king,” I’m now obligated to tell you a few of the reasons that my story fails.

The first problems is that a book’s contents determine if a publisher buys a book from its author. That is, publishers — though it may sometimes seem otherwise — usually make content king in the first place. They then make sure that the distribution network, and the visual impact of the book’s jacket, matches the good content inside.

But for the self-published, both in books and blogs, there isn’t a publisher to take care of the distribution and design for you. So they are, again, very important for you in the dual role of “author” and “publisher.”

The other important caveat for the above story is that search engines are meant to negate the seeing→looking at→reading process. Google should — not to say it does — tell you the best article about any given topic, and if you’ve written the best article, you’ll be seen. So ideally, Google would assure that even for the self-published without great distribution or design they get seen.

But this fact underestimates that Google evaluates what is the best by how many links it has. And the number of links that content gets is driven, at least a little, by how easily it moves from being considered “unkown” to “great content,” the essence of our story.

What to do

So you’ve got a blog that you want people to read. You think its content is great but you’re not seeing the type of traffic you’d expect. What to do?

The best answer is that there really is no solution but that pat suggestions you’ll find all over the internet. There is no single thing that will get your blog seen, looked at, and read by the masses of people you desire. But there are many things you can do to help. I’ve listed a few of the more novel ideas below.

  1. Have a unique design that highlights your content. This is crucial for moving people from “seeing” to “looking” and onto “reading.” When someone arrives — via Google, Digg, or StumbleUpon — they’re likely to leave if the content looks like “Just another WordPress weblog.” If you blog looks novel and well-designed, they’re much more likely to stick around.
  2. Comment on other people’s blogs. When someone sees that you’ve read what they’ve written, they’re more likely to read what you’ve written.
  3. Advertise. I say this fully aware that the average blogger loathes the idea and that the average list of “improve your blog” sites thus don’t give it. After all, this list can’t just become a grouping of what I called “warmed-over platitudes” at this article’s outset. But advertising is great way to drive traffic you’re willing to pay, and thus get more eyeball a chance to see your content.
  4. Join blog networks. When you join a blog network, either explicitly or implicitly (with a blogroll) you assure that people with interests in similar content as you will see your content.
  5. Highlight your best work. I’ve sort-of addressed this before, but the newest-first mentality of blogs can easily mean that your best content is missed by new visitors. It’s useful to have a list of some of your best stuff in an easy-to-find place, perhaps the sidebar or your archives page.

Follow all of that advice and… something might happen. I’m not going to make any hollow guarantees. The fact is that content matters more than my iconoclastic title allowed (even if it also matters less than the conventional wisdom allows). No new publication becomes suddenly popular. It takes time, word of mouth, and in the case of books, magazines, CDs, and movies, millions of dollars worth of advertising. It’s good not to forget that fact.

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