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Battling Click-Bait and Sustaining the "Hill of Wow"

Revulsion of click-bait content has recently boiled over again, accompanied by some fascinating analysis about how higher quality, more meaningful content is so much better at engaging readers for longer amounts of time and the tantalizing thought that ““you’d probably do better sitting on the right hand hill”... people who are focussed on building around this second hill are going to end up with stronger businesses." (See chart)


This discussion, sparked by Betaworks CEO John Borthwick, has attracted a healthy amount of attention and discussion. I suspect a big part of why this grabs us is it fans our hopes that (1) we’re not as shallow as we think and (2) there’s a way out of this swamp of click-bait and the prevailing business models that reward them, towards quality content and new ways to compensate/sustain engaging story-tellers.


I, for one, desperately hope so because I am so sick of the tidal wave of “You won’t believe the shocking photo we found!” and “29 adorable kittens dancing salsa” and “The heartbreaking actions this mother took to save her kids” and…


But even initial efforts to promote meaningful content show the difficulties inherent in the concept. The Meaningful Content Fund is an interesting initiative that puts $1 million of advertising media behind trying to promote a hand-selected group of worthwhile content. What’s its definition of meaningful content?

  • Connection with the subject matter
  • Original thought
  • Advancing an idea
  • Depth of engagement

But according to Fast Company, Sharethrough, the advertising company behind the Meaningful Content Fund, “is hoping this fund will further blur the line between ads and content -- and get readers to accept that branded or sponsored content can be as meaningful as the stories its fund curates.”


This creeps me out a little and highlights a glaring omission from the fund’s definition of meaningful content: “Trust: The content creator’s agenda should be transparent to users.” This is that oft-misused word “authenticity” -- don’t try and trick users into thinking a piece of content is more authentic than it actually is. Knowing that a video clip is intended to sell breakfast cereal makes me assess its meaning in a very different way. Realizing it’s an ad doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the content, I just don’t want to feel manipulated by an agenda that’s not initially transparent. Isn’t that what click-bait often does?


Does TL;DR Reflect a Basic Digital Trait?


I do believe that there’s a big hunger for quality (and longer-form) content -- look at Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Downton Abbey, the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock, Breaking Bad. The challenge is how to structure a digital business model that sustains it, rather than interfering with it (the Nascar model of web advertising, even some forms of native advertising). John Borthwick’s push for selling ads against blocks of Engaged Time and measuring a consumer’s engagement with a brand over the extended relationship is in the right direction: "If it's more engaging, it's worth more," he explains. "If you can change that, change the fundamental economics of how we value content, that's when you have meaningful content that captures people's attention."

Let’s hope that the fundamental economics of how we value content right now will change soon to make high-quality, meaningful content worth much more. If it doesn’t, does it reflect a big and dominating quality of our digital personalities -- that we’re fundamentally shallow after all?

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Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 13, 2014 at 4:49pm

Interesting questions. I can't believe how rapidly once reputable news sites like CNN have lowered themselves to headlines like "Ebola is Here!" (real example). Luckily, there is a solution.


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