The Future of Content

Written by Michael Riley, and updated on October 28, 2014


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Editors and Content Strategists


Five experts came together to discuss the future of content in preparation for Content Camp 2014.

Emily McManus - editor
Sara Wachter-Boettcher - A List Apart editor
Kristin Thomas - Co-director of the Artist Revenue Streams Project at the Future of Music Coalition
Rashid Zakat - Filmmaker, art director and professor at The Art Institute of Philadelphia
Laura Moorhead - Former Wired and IDEO editor, currently working on PhD at Stanford

Content strategist David Dylan Thomas moderated the discussion.

What makes content attractive?

Content has always been the driving force of the internet.  Companies like Google exist mainly to connect people to it.  Online marketing and SEO are quickly evolving to focus more on content strategy. And content is now the major driving force behind traffic growth and developing a successful online presence. But what makes high quality content stand out and reach new audiences?

Editor Emily McManus stated "Emotional responses work better." The TED site features videos of their conference speakers' presentations.  Over the years they have experimented with the video rating system and analyzed all the resulting data.  Instead of the usual star rating system, users are given 14 descriptive adjectives to choose from, like fascinating, inspiring, unconvincing or courageous.  Somewhat surprisingly, the least selected descriptor is informative.  It's the emotional responses that move people the most.  Asking the question "How does this content make you feel?" is one of the best ways to understand how users will perceive it.  Content that causes a strong positive or negative emotional response is more likely to move them, and will provoke them to share it more often.



Is content ingrained in our culture?

Laura Moorhead's work at Stanford focuses on open access to information, and she is working with high school students in California. Part of her project was having students create their own textbook.  They were given free reign to come up with any concept design they wanted.  And what innovative textbook designs did they come up with? They actually all ended up being in the same format as their current textbooks without many differences.  Our exposure to standard types of content is subconsciously ingrained in our way of thinking, and it's very hard for people to think outside of these norms.  There's different preconceived notions of good quality content for each type. Fully understanding the structure of these concepts can give you an advantage in creating new content.



How do you establish authority?

TED has over 1,700 talks available on their site.  This huge amount of original content from experts in their field has had a big impact on the world.  And they have been working to answer the question "What does authority look like?". Their video presentation format has become the gold standard for conveying innovative ideas. One of the non-obvious results of their program is the 18 minute length restriction.  They found that presentations running any longer lost the audience's attention, no matter what the content.  And if you can't capture your audience's attention, it's not going to be a success.  Content needs to be packaged in way that's appealing, as well as fully digestible.

It's always a struggle to sell something.  To break through with something new and creative is not easy.  It takes talent to work through the process and make it all look simple. Having experts that can break down complex subject matter and make it understood to a larger audience is a great way to build authority. Teaching gives value.

Rashid Zakat stated that one of the latest innovations in story telling is choose your own video adventures.  Users are allowed to make decisions as the video develops to control the outcome.  Focusing on new user experiences is a powerful way to attract a larger audience to your original content. And new technology continues to bring down the cost of these experiments with new media.



What are the biggest challenges?


One of the greatest challenges is offering equal access to content.  Giving users the same great experience on all types of devices is something that can quickly become very complicated.  Making assumptions based on what device a person is using will frustrate more and more people. Concepts like responsive design and mobile first are great ways to mitigate these issues.


Another challenge for content creators is choosing what technologies to focus on.  Wearable technology is possibly the next big wave, but it's difficult to predict any particular outcomes at this time. Whoever picks a winner early could have a real advantage though. 

Complicated user interfaces for creating and viewing online content are also a huge frustration.  It's important to implement a CMS that people actually want to use. Having the ability to send content to multiple platforms at once would be ideal, but it's rarely implemented properly. A flexible and open ended system enables future growth. 


What's the future of a CMS? is the media company behind sites like The Verge and SB Nation. They have spent the last few years developing their own in-house  CMS named Chorus.  The engineers that built this content management system are required to use it daily to blog.  The company now uses this tool as a competitive advantage both for creating content, as well as attracting new talent.  The system is so powerful and pleasant to use that it's helped them recruit editors from other major networks like AOL's Engadget.  Vox executives have basically stated that their CMS is like a protective moat around their business, and it will take years for competitors to catch up with it.


What makes a great CMS? Flexibility is the main requirement.  Your CMS should allow easy updating of the design, so the site can easily receive a facelift.  It should also be able to interact seamlessly with other aspects of your business. NPR built a custom CMS to get content to regional affiliates. Their custom system enables easy integration with apps and other products.  They took the entire project very seriously and built out a custom system that would work far into the future.

Professionals are going to be frustrated by overly-complicated interfaces full of confusing blanks and check boxes. A clean usable interface allows them to do more work faster.  And having one unified UI for multiple platforms is the most efficient way to work.  A good CMS is a huge differentiator.  But many are resigned to the fact that it will be years until a truly good CMS will be cheap and freely available. 



Crowd sourcing original content


Record labels are now making more money off unofficial YouTube videos than they are from their official music videos. Licensing music for films or TV is usually very complicated. But YouTube's policy with the DMCA gives content owners three simple options when someone makes unauthorized use of their copyrighted works. 1. Take it down.  2. Leave it up and receive detailed analytics on it. 3. Monetize the content. These crowd-sourced content creators are basically the new free labor.


Spoken Reasons is a comedian that organically built up a following on YouTube of over 1,000,000 subscribers. To Hollywood this is just a niche, but it's enough of a niche to make one person famous and earn a good living.  The exposure lead to him getting a role in a Hollywood movie named The Heat. There is a lot of opportunities with all the free tools and online services available now.  They allow content creators to get a sustainable amount of revenue without needing anyone's help.




Sponsored content and monetization

Making money off content creation directly is not an easy thing to do.  Even sites like A List Apart have troubles monetizing their 1M+ unique monthly visitors.  Sponsored content with banner ads is a classic way to bring in some revenue. And subscriptions for content placed behind paywalls has been an increasingly common tactic used by media companies. Donations are another way to go, but are only viable for certain types of companies like NPR.

Many writers and editors need side jobs like waiting tables to make ends meet. Musicians are now taking control of their business and one of the most important resources is their mailing lists.  These lists are a way to directly reach out to fans, and are valued more now than master tapes used to be back in the day.


People writing articles for A list Apart don't write 2,000 word articles for the $200 they get paid. They do it to further their career by getting more exposure.  There has been continued downward pressure on the fees paid to writers. But there are more new revenue streams to choose from now.   Dave mentioned Brian McTear's theory that people are more willing to pay for community than content.


Writers can't resell their work like musicians and visual artists, so it's tough to make a good living. Rosenfeld is a niche publishing company that cares more about authors. They let the writers keep more of the rights. Most big publishers won't even have a conversation about adjusting the terms of their contract. But niche publishing houses are more like artist friendly indie record labels. These types of resources give more opportunities to a new middle class of artists. 


Artists have to balance the business side with the creative part.  Someone has to manage the business part, so you either have to do it yourself or hire someone. And networking is one of the most important ways to get ahead. 


What are trends for IP and rights for content creators? Content marketing is basically like copy writing. Employees have to sign away the rights to this work.  You can say no to these contracts, but then you probably won't get the job. It's hard to tell when starting out whether the terms of a contract are reasonable or not. You can try to strike out certain items and negotiate sometimes, especially if you offer alternatives. 



Future generations of content?


The current cost of education has had a huge impact on future content creators.  Less and less people are willing to take on large amounts of debt for a humanities degree.  It's possible that more companies will pay people not to go to college in the future. There's been a huge cost to our economy and it's going to have a lasting effect on our culture. 



Teenagers are being bombarded with more and more sophisticated types of content marketing.  Selling out no longer seems to have as much of a negative connotation.  Documentaries like Generation Like and  Merchants of Cool show what's currently going on in this space.  Young people can have their own platform and corporations are happy to pay them to increase sales. 


It's up to content publishers to decide what's crossing the line.  There's plenty of incentives to sacrifice long term sustainability for short term growth.  You should constantly seek to push the boundaries, but be aware of the effects and repercussions.  Google's AI is constantly striving to develop new ways to promote the content people actually want, and penalizing the rest.


What do you think is the future?



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