Ever since the blog started, I read close to an hour each day on my computer. Instead of writing notes (like I do with books), I would screenshot great passages. At the end of each day, I would delete all of them to prevent desktop clutter. I was like a machine before bed. Read. Internalize. Delete.
Then I read a few articles by Ben Thompson (here and here), taking a few screenshots in the process. I found I simply couldn’t delete the photos without immortalizing them in an email or blog post. So here are Ben’s findings that I “grok” with.
Four Stages of Online Publications
Ben hints at an interesting idea when he discusses “destination sites.” Basically, he argues that a site or application must become a destination that the end user goes to directly in order to make native advertising a viable business model.
//For those who don’t know, native advertising occurs when you populate ads that look exactly like regular content (e.g. Buzzfeed writes about certain content in exchange for cash)//
Ben goes to talk about subscription-based destination sites (think NYT or WSJ), and how their business model necessitates even higher quality and consistency standards for content. This made me think about a natural progression for online websites:
Where each number represents a challenge to a successful transition.
(1) Idea to Content
I’m currently advising an official U.C. Berkeley blog that’s in a gray area between idea and brandless blog. Why? Because they put all their content on a free name.wordpress.com site instead of forking out $20/year for complete autonomy. It is impossible to truly be an independent blog or application if a company can eradicate all your content on a whim.
Additionally, free hosting on WP means relinquishing personal control over ad content, creating situations that run counter to your values. For example, I’m leery (but curious) about cryptocurrency. After checking on my original, free blog, I discovered that it was populated with bitcoin ads! Although I could shut it down without backlash, the situation would be a lot worse for a customer-oriented product.
(2) Content to Waterhole
This is where best practices get hazy. Out of the ten destination sites I peruse regularly, they vary wildly on UI/UX design, post frequency, entity type (i.e. company vs. individual blogger), and number of interactive experiments (a few don’t even allow comments).
This is the stage my blog is currently in. Creating a destination site usually means starting with a more focused topic to write about (e.g. Tim Ferriss and the Four Hour Work Week) and then leaving room for growth in the brand (such as Tim’s expansion into exercise, body hacking, productivity tips, and podcasts).
For beginners though, I advise productivity over perfection. Ben recounts the following story from Art & Fear:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
In other words, trust that your passions will naturally coalesce around a niche theme and just keep writing about subjects that interest you. For what it’s worth, I’m experiencing a convergence of passions right now and it’s well worth the wait.
(3) Waterhole to Cash
As somebody who’s never successfully started a side hustle or monetized an online business, I don’t know how this transition works. Some interesting stories on content monetization include Ben Thompson on Stratechery, Evan Williams on Medium, and a Ben Franklin quote. Enjoy.
Keep in mind that with digital publication, people can access an individual story without visiting your homepage. Thus, link distribution channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are far more important when it comes to raising awareness of a story. The cost of sending one more story into the world is nil.
So internalize stringent quality standards and create a latticework of articles that can interact and stand alone on their literary merit. Understand that there’s a lot of junk information floating around on the internet; by building a trust-based digital community, you can leapfrog over whole teams of content generators.
I’ll give Ben the last word. The following quote simply makes my heart swell.
“The world needs great journalism, but great journalism needs a great business model.”