Lowered Expectations: Web Redefines 'Quality'

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Did the internet kill quality? Or just redefine it?

The answer is yes and yes, particularly if you define “quality” by the standards of professionals in content industries that produce the long-form TV, film, journalism and literature once considered the highest forms of information and entertainment — the kind that brands once paid handsomely to associate themselves with through advertising.

TIM ARMSTRONG: 'We are in the first stages of defining what quality is for the internet.'

The question used to be how to transfer the economics that supported the offline-media definition of “quality” to the web. But after years of failed efforts, the economics for content have gotten worse, not better. Instead, the web is rewiring the entire concept of quality, or at least the perception of it among consumers and the brands that support content.

Publishers from The New York Times to Condé Nast to NBC have been arguing for years that, ultimately, demand for quality would give them advantages over online upstarts: Users would demand it and advertisers would always covet the environment that quality can confer.

But they’re facing two trends that appear to be inexorable. Audiences that do not intently seek out quality are increasingly inured to traditional media brands on the web. At the same time, agencies and advertisers are adopting technologies that allow them to target individuals independent of whatever media they may be absorbing, making the media brand itself less important, perhaps even irrelevant.

Increasingly, the content industries are retooling and fashioning their product to meet real-time demand (however it is expressed by the surges and currents of the web) in pursuit of a trickle of ad dollars. Some, like Demand Media and Associated Content, have made a science to responding to that demand with sophisticated technology to predict what a piece of content will be worth over time.

Bottom-line pressure
It’s a new frontier for the content industries, which grew up with a much less direct notion of supply and demand. Money-losing TV newscasts were supported by profits made in prime time; Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper coverage was financed by profitable sections such as automotive and real estate.

But now each piece of content — text and video — is judged on its own, separate from the newscast, newspaper or even prime-time schedule. What’s more, viewers don’t often choose what might have been judged “quality” offline.

Charlie bit my finger — again! Sure, “Charlie bit my finger — again!” is a funny baby video, but would it shock you to know it’s YouTube’s most-viewed of all time with 160 million views, passing Justin Laipply’s “Evolution of Dance” at some point in the last few years? In the publish-first-ask-questions-later blog world, inaccuracy is intrinsic to the product, and many blogs, such as Gawker, rely on a crowd of commenters to call it into account.

“Today there seems to be a bigger premium on popularity — substantiated or not — than there is on authority,” said Group M CEO Rob Norman.

Old media faces some confusing competition in this new world. Is an expert essay on breastfeeding on iVillage more valuable to someone seeking out that information than a mum of three writing from Des Moines? Or what about a reader review on Amazon compared to a review in The New York Times?

As consumers become more and more comfortable judging content separate from brands, a new perception of value is emerging. “People have a greater degree of comfort with information from sources they aren’t familiar with,” said Patrick Keane, CEO of Associated Content, which has published nearly 2 million pieces of content optimised for search. “To me, quality is moving toward a centre of usefulness as opposed to that arbitered by a group of professionals.”

Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Twitter. Sure, 99.9% of the bursts of text are of little to no value to anyone but the writer. But that one tweet with a key fact, properly timed and targeted can, at a given moment, be the most-valuable piece of content to a given person at a given time.

Big, established brands are the ones that least need the authority of media, and indeed many are adapting to a diminished world of old media by producing their own content. Where it starts to hurt are smaller brands that don’t have those advantages. Mr. Norman said it tends to be smaller brands that rely on the “the conferred quality, authority and scale of more traditional media forms to deliver brand messaging or persuade audiences.”

It’s no surprise that the most successful media company of this emerging era — Google — doesn’t produce media in the strictest sense, but does enable a splintered media economy by directing people to the right information at the right time, and reaping a tithe on the transaction.

Best of both worlds?
Will a publisher be able to produce original content at scale profitably on the web? AOL, repositioned as a content company, is trying to figure that out. “I think we are in the first stages of defining what quality is for the internet,” said AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. “Today, on the internet, you make a choice of speed over quality, but in the future you won’t have to make that choice — you will get quality at speed.”

AOL now has thousands of employees writing, editing and shooting video for myriad sites, some with known brands such as Engadget and Moviefone, as well as lesser-known brands such as PawNation and Patch. Because Mr. Armstrong is an investor in Associated, AOL gets lumped in with content mills. AOL does mine data to decide what content to create and when, and farms some of that out to low-paid freelancers through its content-generation platform SEED.

But where AOL differs is it is trying to build a media brand on the web, and won’t just produce content that is profitable. “We build non-commercial and commercial content and we will always do that because there are certain things that may not have economic advantage that serve our community well,” Mr. Armstrong said. “If you serve your community best you should be able to run a business that is profitable.”

Yet a lot of the content the new AOL plays in is online journalism, in many ways a de-professionalized version of offline with greatly diminished economics and expectations. Veteran media reporter Jeff Bercovici, now a writer for AOL’s business-news site Daily Finance, laid it all out in a post called “Why the Web Makes for So Much Bum Reporting,” in which he cited recent errors at The Business Insider, Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.

Then later that day, Daily Finance withdrew a story claiming Mexican financier Carlos Slim had increased his stake in The New York Times, itself a pickup from Editor & Publisher and an error that many blogs amplified on the web.

Quality of readers
Whether AOL can build lasting media brands — ones that are trusted and sought-out by consumers — without being tethered to the economics of old media is an open question. The truth is, marketers are learning to live without them. At a summit with executives from Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Mediabrands held late last year, one ad executive asked how they should be expected to bring unknown brands such as Lemondrop to marketers. Bant Breen, president of digital for Initiative Worldwide, interjected, saying that agencies are buying audiences now, making the quality of the readers more important than the media brand itself.

As a new generation of media companies starts to take shape, content is looking a lot like the first decade or so of online advertising. That is, lots of investment and energy are being spent figuring out how to monetise the product, and very little is spent on the product itself, which is the passionate creation of media of all types.

“Creating content for the web is an art and a science. There has been a lot of talk now about the science,” said Break.com CEO Keith Richman. “Those guys studying the science of it will be forced eventually to focus on the art of it.”

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