(….while I simultaneously avoid claiming I want to Uber it. Because….just no.)
And for now, I’m talking about advice on how to develop our careers and be happier and more productive on the job….which, in turn, makes for a happier life.
What’s broken – or at least a little bent – about the content-as-advice market (blogs, content sharing sites) is a massive conundrum: there seems to be only a partial intersection between great content and content people want. Said another way, content with which massive amounts of people interact is not necessarily great content.
I know. That almost doesn’t make sense. In part because if people seem to like the content and is therefore wanted, then on some dimension it must be good stuff….right? Or no?
Let’s try to unravel this web of craziness.
I’ll start with a test case. This article/email on time management from a google employee in late 2015 was widely liked, shared and supported. What’s more, it was included in Fast Company’s ten best articles on leadership for 2015. Yay.
On first blush after reading the article I can see why it might earn a ‘thumbs up’. The premise is that we waste a lot of time in a day attending meetings and doing stuff for other people while generating comparatively less value in our own work day. The article encourages the audience to take more control of their day to focus on priorities by managing away some of the other stuff and blocking off their calendars for ‘me’ work time. Who doesn’t want that? Round of applause.
Well, I got two itches I need to scratch over this post being celebrated to such a degree. First, my reaction when I read the article was that I didn’t think it was particularly useful. I do understand that there are ways to diplomatically bypass meetings (I reference here in a post on meeting efficiency) or renegotiate deliverables for others. The key thing is you have to be selective about when you do this. If it becomes a habit there’s all kinds of fallout, starting with you becoming branded as anything but a team player. There will only so much reception to your desire to optimize your own work day at the perceived expense of others. You’ll quickly reach a tipping point where the company will organically find its way to herd you back into being more compliant.
The exception situation is where you work for a company that has a cultural sensitivity to time, something I find to be a rare case. That kind of culture and sensitivity to productivity expressed in time has got to come from the top. Otherwise, you’re left with only about 10-20% of your day over which you truly have control….and only that piece is the part you can re-engineer. So, the potential for you to boost productivity through your own devices is fairly low. As for the rest of the day, you’re swimming upstream in your pursuit of a more efficient day.
So that’s the first headscratcher over the google article – it’s almost impossible to implement without fallout. The other is a question I have about the impact the article has had on performance or at least office-wide practices. I have scoured twitter and article comments to get a sense of any adoption of the recommendations in the article. I saw some expressed intent to try but couldn’t see much clear impact. Stands to reason because people comment at the moment of reading the post so there wouldn’t be much time to make changes at that point.
I decided to then dig a little deeper by messaging about a dozen advocates on Twitter, months after they tweeted. I said I was writing a follow up piece and wanted to know if they had made any strides in their own productivity as a result of this article. Only one person replied but didn’t have much to say. Very unscientific, I know, so I can’t be conclusive. What I still have is a gaping question about what this post has caused beyond some robust applause in social media.
So, no, to me this is not great content…and in saying that, I feel like I just shot someone’s dog because the post got so much love. But it seems to be what people want….so ya, I seriously have my work cut out for me.
The Advice Market.
Thankfully, I’m not only a hard core marketing nerd but also a closet psychologist – the two pretty much go hand in hand. My journey thus begins to break down the market and identify the different types of users and how they interact with the content as a necessary first step to plan my shake up. I haven’t done any formal research, so I’m relying on way too much observation coupled with insight exchanges I’ve had with others. For now, as far as I can tell, there are roughly four consumer segments of audiences for career and work related advice:
- The champions. These guys have time and passion to read and consume content. They are generally ‘good vibe’ types who like and share to recognize the efforts of the poster and/or to refer to a contact who may find benefit. Posts may serve no other utility and that’s seen as OK as expectations of impact are low. Still, there may be occasions when an article inspires new thinking or action steps.
- The formula-seekers. This group is often disenfranchised and likely struggles to find happiness and success on a consistent basis. The number of personal tools to navigate careers (and maybe life!) is limited. They want low complexity answers to their deep and complicated questions. A directive tone is valued over posts that force them to be introspective. Will fall for false suggestions that if you, say, do these 5 things before 8 am every day you will be happy and hopefully rich. They’ll consider any options that look easier. Hope, inspiration and disaster avoidance are key themes.
- The masters of complexity. This group craves tons of content and ideas. They often know what they are looking for but they are also receptive to browsing through their feed for whatever comes up. They are OK with opinions being conflicting as long as they are substantiated; overall they believe more is more. They have confidence in their ability to filter and collate masses of content to decide what’s best for them.
- The gap-seekers. Tend to be both teachers and learners. Self-directed, they have many things already figured out and as a result will mostly just seek content that fills gaps in knowledge and insight. Has some appetite for free-flowing content but sees most of it as simply an interesting FYI or otherwise empty calories / extended memes.
Now these aren’t distinct segments as they can also be thought of as usage occasions; any given person can cross between segments depending on the motivation at that moment. Each is likely to gravitate toward one group in terms of default habits.
What separates these groups is the type of content each favors in terms of length, complexity and perceptions of quality, which could have any number of criteria. Groups 1 and 2 like easy-breezy content that can take the form of prolonged daily inspirations to listicles, as they are nowadays referred. Dramatic headlines. High promise. Exceptionally good vibes. Deep but passing thoughts. At the other end of the spectrum is Group 4 which is more demanding than the others, and thus searches for high quality stuff that is relatable and has utility. Group 3 might be interested in a sampling of all types, but is otherwise receptive to a number of reasonable opinions on a wide range of topics.
One part I definitely cannot comment on is the size of each group in terms of % user occasions. My guess is that the first two groups combined are well over half the market, which is not surprising since anything that smells like lowest-common-denominator (I don’t mean for that to sound so judgmental…sorry!) is typically of mass appeal. So yeah, the top groups represent fewer numbers, but could still net out to substantial value. That’s what I plan to set out to find.
One of the biggest challenges with content sharing platforms is that unless they set out to be specifically nerdy on a particular topic they tend to not target any one of the four groups more than the others. And what happens as a result is typical and organic. Larger communities become targets for those who seek engagement metrics. And those who seek engagement metrics are more likely to get them from Groups 1 and 2. What we all experience as a result is a feed resplendent with content designed to attract and engage primarily those cohorts. That’s a problem for Group 3/4 types such as myself.
I won’t link to the advice of these content creators because I don’t want to call them out unnecessarily. But you can easily find them if you google something like how to gain followers on (Medium). What comes back is advice on headlines, content type and complexity and of course the mandate to publish constantly. That last part is particularly unappealing to me because almost no one has a sufficient catalogue of wisdom that warrants 200 or more posts in a year that I might find legitimately helpful (I have begun to unfollow such posters in favor of checking their pages a few times a year when I think of it). The net effect is something that feels like a modern day version of blasting out direct mailers, thinking that it’s purely an intense numbers game that’s required to get a meaningful level of response metrics that you can in turn leverage for personal or professional gain.
Now I need to be fair. Not all rapid-fire posting is crap. There is definitely some good stuff. Here is a story on Medium from a former copywriter who worked through his creative block by writing every day for a year. He ended up being successful in fixing his problem, gaining followers and receiving notes back about how he affected others. I think that’s a great story and I’m truly stoked it worked out for him. But here’s what worries me:
- Serving an audience was not his motivation; he clogged up our feeds for the purpose of working through his own problem. The fact that he gained an audience turned out to be a bonus
- He has inspired others to write every day (note, he is a professional (copy)writer, so probably already pretty good at it; others can’t say the same)
Net net he presented his experience of writing every day and helping people. I’m concerned he is inspiring a small universe of people to do the same. That’s good for them, but bad for people like me. Not all will have the same success unless they have talent and unique insight; I may be forced to live through a growing number of people trying to hone their craft in record-breaking volumes. I pray to God the filters and algorithms keep up.
Platforms are starting to catch on by giving you more tools to customize your experience (as a mostly Group 4 guy, I’d engage in Facebook more if I could filter out inspirational memes…or at least introduce a rule that you can’t post it until you yourself have implemented it!). This is in recognition of the plethora of content combined with what I feel is the leading edge of a societal shift; a growing number of us are becoming fed up with the effects of ‘feed fatigue’ – and I say that in both a literal and figurative sense. Too much stuff going on….everywhere, in short. On social media and content sharing platforms the undercurrent of dissatisfaction is becoming palpable; certain types of low-value posts are gaining negative labels (e.g. listicles, as already mentioned). Other are just starting to openly ask where they can go to read ‘quality’ stuff as they define it.
As I look to the future, I see opportunity born out of feed fatigue and content skewed toward groups 1 and 2. I’m interested in finding ways to serve the opposite end of the market better, while we collectively do a better job of matching available content to the right audience to optimize the experience for all.
I currently envision the market for quality content to be lesser in size, but growing. What’s more, this cohort will be a passionate bunch, motivated to solve problems and effect outcomes. That suggests to me pound for pound a more lucrative user base in a best case scenario
Still workin’ on it, but I got ideas. What I will share for now is what it will need to be, if I want to focus on serving groups 3 and 4 and do better at content matching. I think many platforms are starting to adopt some of my thinking as it is, because the level of free-flowing content is becoming a bit much. The content market is in desperate need of tools and services:
Quality content will have impact. Likes and shares may be one set of metrics we never get rid of, but users will engage by dimensionalizing how the advice has been applied and the results that have ensued. Contributors will, in turn, evolve from simply sharing thoughts and experiences, to thinking more critically about how these learnings can be applied by the intended audience. The ‘why’ will become more than the ‘what’ because that’s where insight lives. Under what conditions would some advice work would be an example of an area that will be probed more deeply
Community verified. Since few posts are likely to be perfect, the community will weigh in to help optimize what has been shared. Certain topics may appear wiki-style so that we evolve from the current state of a post with a series of comments of divergent opinions to more of a collaboration to get at the truth. This may require moderation of the delicate process of having your opinions challenged. I personally love to debate but I have come to realize that many posters dislike having their opinions even diplomatically challenged. I even phrase my feedback as a question…like…have you thought of it this way? Doesn’t work. Goes back to my comment earlier about the motivation for many articles is likes and shares. Problematic, if we’re trying to drive to real outcomes.
New ways to engage. To have the most impact, a great platform will provide tools to migrate seamlessly into live engagement under certain circumstances. No singular article has precise and universal relevance; so to get to the right answer for some would require some give-and-take in 1:1 or small group live/digital settings. As I have referenced above, the concept of a ‘feed’ is going to evolve substantially and/or simply become obsolete as we know it.
Personalization and customization. Going forward every piece of content that is irrelevant to the user may be at risk of becoming one more reason to disengage fully. The major social networks are now adapting, recognizing that frequency and intensity of contact matter much less than timeliness and relevancy. That’s the new challenge. And we’re not just talking about filters; we’re looking at <gulp> algorithms…and coding. The bar is being raised on utility, which will in turn raise the cost of entry into the space for founders – well, that is, if you hope to build a thriving, lucrative community!
These are a few. There are others, but not as critical.
When all is said and done there will be two types of content creators: those who want an audience and even just basic engagement for the sake of some personal objectives and those who are inspired to help by prioritizing outcomes more for their followers. These types aren’t mutually exclusive but over time we’ll start to see more distinction between them. Both can lead to professional outcomes if that is the goal, but they will be achieved through different methods – and different consumers. I pass no judgment against either approach, although I consistently advocate the notion of acquisition for show, satisfaction for dough!
As stated, I think you build your audience more quickly by appealing to Groups 1 and 2. For this reason I’m convinced the other two are under-served. There’s nothing saying that communities need to be completely separated because, as noted, they aren’t entirely distinct. But in this crowded marketplace of content buyers and sellers, if we shake things up in the way I hope, we’ll all be able to find each other – and with more confidence to reap the benefits we each as individuals seek.
This company is thinking even bigger than I am. With too much info whizzing by us than we can possibly consume, Microsoft has invested in an AI tool/company called Agolo that synthesizes and summarizes mass volumes of data. It used Twitter feeds for proof of concept. Sign me up!