How to Think Like a Publisher, Part 3

(NOTE: This article is part 3 in a series. See Part 1, Part 2, and .)

In many ways, content quality is what drives online competition.

For most businesses or organizations, “the competition” is whoever offers the same products or services as you, or is pursuing the same target market or resource base.

Dealing with such traditional competitors can be daunting. In fact, for many organizations, “outdoing the competition” is one of the main forces driving them to establish a Web presence in the first place.

However, once your organization has become a Web publisher, it enters an entirely different realm of competition: the battle for attention….

In this particular battle, you’re not only up against your traditional competitors. Rather, you’re competing against virtually every Web site that exists to achieve two goals:

  • To be found.
  • To be explored for more than a couple of seconds.

Sure, there are other common Web goals related to competition, such as increasing online sales. However, these invariably depend on first accomplishing the two goals listed above.

THE AUDIENCE IS IN CONTROL

I admit, the battle for attention is not exactly new. Indeed, it’s been around since publishing began. That’s why we have advertising, and that’s why ads tend to get flashier, more outrageous, more intrusive… and more expensive.

On the Web, the battle for attention is more fierce than it ever was in print and broadcast media. This is mainly because the Web shifts the balance of power away from publishers and advertisers, to individual online audience members. The Web is a totally user-directed medium: the user must choose which site to view, and which “path of clicks” to follow.

Furthermore, the Web dilutes the power of individual publishers and advertisers because it is so easy and inexpensive for virtually any individual or organization to publish online.

All of this means that Web users have more options – and more control – than any other media audience that has existed before.

With few exceptions, the content of most print and broadcast media is structured and toned primarily to suit advertisers or funders. For instance, advertisers who can pay more receive bigger ads and better “play.” Although not many media companies will admit it, the wants and needs of the audience often are only a secondary consideration in developing the content portion of print and broadcast media.

By and large, Web users aren’t willing to put up with that model. In fact, many turned to the Web specifically to escape that sort of second-class treatment by the media. They like being in control, and they expect Web publishers – any Web publisher – to work hard to please them.

CONTENT: THE NEW BASIS OF COMPETITION

What do Web users want? When you boil it all down, they basically want content – in one form or another. Specifically, they want high-quality information, services, entertainment, or interaction that is meaningful and relevant.

Regardless of what your organization does (the products, services, or mission on which it is based), your online audience will judge your site’s value almost entirely by its content. Often, by association, this judgement will carry over from your site to your organization.

In other words, if your Web site offers mediocre or mundane content, visitors might well form a negative opinion of your organization. Even if they don’t leave your site with a specifically negative impression, they probably will easily forget you.

Remember – unless your organization already is a household name or industry leader, it’s likely that (in the long run) far more people will first encounter you through your Web site than through conventional means such as advertising. So stop thinking about your site as a frill, gimmick, or brochure, and start viewing it as a key strategic tool for achieving your organization’s core goals.

GREAT CONTENT YIELDS REFERRALS

Great content is one of the most effective ways to achieve the first goal of a Web site: to be found. Without traffic, a Web site is useless.

Sure, registering in search engines, getting listed in online directories, and paying for online and conventional advertising all can help draw visitors – and these strategies have little to do with the quality of content on a site. However, in the big picture these strategies are not the most effective ways to draw traffic.

Referrals are the true currency of the online “attention economy.” Although all Web users use search engines and occasionally glance at ads, in general they vastly prefer to find new sites referred by trusted sources.

When it comes to Web sites, there are three kinds of referrals that count. In order of importance, they are:

  • User-to-user recommendations (“buzz”). This can be done through private e-mail, public discussion lists or chat rooms, or even in casual conversation. Weblogs are especially important in this regard.

  • Links from other sites (which are not simply paid listings)

  • Media coverage (articles or reviews, not ads or advertorials)

If your site is first encountered through any of these “filters,” chances are that visitors will arrive at your site intending to stay and explore for a while. Therein lies your competitive advantage.

Offering consistently great content is perhaps the most reliable and effective way to attract all three kinds of referrals. Other methods (such as special promotions, PR campaigns, or sensationalization) may yield some referrals – but these are more likely to be “a flash in the pan.”

BEYOND COMMERCIAL SITES

Throughout this column, I’ve used the language of business and commerce. However, commercial and corporate sites are only a fraction of all sites that comprise the Web.

Do the principles I’ve described here also apply to non-commercial or even personal sites? Absolutely!

Bear in mind that even a nonprofit charity has something to “sell.” For example, a charity often has to “sell” its mission – that is, it tries to convince potential volunteers, funders, and other key groups that its mission is positive and worthwhile. Such a “sale” is necessary before members of the target audience will agree to hand over their time, efforts, money, or personal goodwill to the charity.

Similarly, nonprofit groups also have “competitors.” Unlike in the business world, nonprofit groups that offer similar services usually view each other as partners, rather than competitors. However, on another level charities and other nonprofits do compete – for funding, volunteers, and other resources.

Advocacy groups often “compete” against perspectives (or groups) that attempt to discredit, contradict, or devalue their mission. For instance, “pro-choice” groups compete against “right-to-life” groups in the marketplace of personal values and ideas – and both types of groups are likely to present reproduction-related resources on their Web sites.

With slight variations, these competitive principles also apply (to varying degrees) to educational sites, research-related sites, community-focused sites, entertainment sites, and even many personal Web projects.

BOTTOM LINE

It all comes down to this: Regardless of who you are or what you’re trying to accomplish by publishing on the Web, remember that you’re not alone out there! You’ve got lots of competition.

What you have to say online, and how clearly and uniquely you communicate, could turn out to be your secret weapon. Don’t waste this opportunity.

And the good news is that talk, generally, is cheap. Communicating well online can not only be your most effective competitive edge – it could also be your least expensive one.