The challenge of data-driven publishing

The recent $50 million funding of BuzzFeed has shone a spotlight on the new wave of publishing, which is sometimes hard to distinguish from content marketing. Here’s a pretty good summation from The Telegraph: “compellingly clickable headlines combined with a relentless, data-driven honing of what works.”

If you work online, have you seen this evolve? First, we just checked traffic logs. Then we started paying attention to SEO. In more recent years, some companies have increasingly relied on so-called A/B testing to make decisions about site design, and even substantive editorial issues. Can you hear that train whistle? It’s Big Data, coming right now!

BuzzFeed has cashed in on this. Again, from The Telegraph:

Some 200 editorial staff are matched by around 100 technologists, which led Chris Dixon, of investors Andreessen Horowitz, to observe that it is one of the few media businesses where “Engineers are first class citizens.” It’s just one reason, he said, why the startup will become a “preeminent media company” in the future.

Anyone who works online generally thinks that more engineers are a good thing. Developers are the people who turn ideas into reality online. Can never have enough of them! But whose ideas are they turning into reality?

Back to my first quote: “data-driven honing of what works.” What works for whom? And in what way? Working for a web publisher, these are always questions you must ask. “Hits” in Google are anonymous. Are they your readers? A day trader looking for bits about a potential investment? A college student doing a report? For, those are all equally good answers — hits is hits.

Likely, you already know that “Lady Gaga not using latest agricultural widgets” will get many more page views than “Farmer Joe using all the latest agricultural widgets.” But if you’re, you want every Farmer Joe you can get. If they also happen to like Lady Gaga, no worries. I don’t know how many farmers like Lady Gaga, but I’m pretty sure most Lady Gaga fans are not tilling the soil on a daily basis.

Your publisher may also be confused about this, since  he or she may not have developed a business model that goes beyond raw traffic. But that’s a subject for another day.

Regardless of traffic, most of us would flunk BuzzFeed on many journalistic counts — depth, accuracy, usefulness, among others — that matter a lot in B2B. Listicles, celebrity gossip, advertorials everywhere — this is thin gruel for professionals of any sort.

Still, money talks. The trend represented by BuzzFeed is not trivial, and there will be more funding for similar sites. Your executives may say “we want some of that action.” If you suddenly have a lot of advisers telling you what stories to run, don’t be surprised.

The second-day lead on data-driven publishing is that numbers can be made to serve many masters. In my experience, ditching the genius model of publishing for pseudo-scientific interpretations of complex data by people largely disconnected from both the topic and the audience is not much of a step forward.

But putting the knowledge, experience and judgment of an editorial team to make sense of the data? Now you’re cooking.

Data is not your enemy. Shallow, self-serving interpretation of it is. Editors are still the voice of the reader, and often the closest thing to subject-matter experts, in most media enterprises. At the start of the SEO wave, some editors said “Phooey!” and boycotted the whole idea. Bad strategy. Get involved, get a seat at the table. Understand how data proves the value of most of what we call “good” editorial (it does). Learn the talk, learn the walk — your reader is counting on you.

UPDATE: Clair Cain Miller at the NY Times says in her August 12 column that BuzzFeed itself is trying to move toward more solid content. Hooray for them! She also explains that its listicle strategy was largely designed to get people to tweet or like on Facebook. My experience has been that those outlets can occasionally deliver B2B traffic, but as a rule they are going to be pretty minor. However, everything changes online, and with increasing mobile use, you really can’t rule that out. IMO, it doesn’t mean you have to get as silly as BuzzFeed has often been.


Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.