There are four basic ways to differentiate content:
- Solve information scarcity;
- Unique analysis;
- A unique tone or voice; or
Most information is no longer scarce. At any moment consumers have a dozen ways to check the weather, learn traffic, get national and local headlines and even check prices on products.
Similarly, because information delivery is so efficient today, truly scarce information does not stay scarce for long. And the more relevant the information may be to a larger group of people, the briefer the half-life of its scarcity (e.g. death of Michael Jackson crashing Twitter and Google News).
Information that is highly valuable to small groups of people can remain scarce for long periods of time, usually because its distribution is guarded either through paywalls, subscriptions or secrecy.
If you actually manage to solve for scarcity (really provide something nobody else is doing in any other channel), it is the surest way to obtain and retain an audience. The trickiest part, however, is to ensure the information you’re providing is relevant to somebody.
For instance, if I could tell all people of New Glarus, Wisconsin with some certainly, which days their bosses will yell at them so they can plan vacation for those days, most of New Glarans would be very interested in my reports. But outside of the town, the information would be worthless–hardly fodder for a national report. A simple concept but: When attempting to solve for scarcity, make sure the information you’ll provide will be relevant to a large enough audience to be profitable.
2. Perspective and Analysis
Consumers have an almost limitless variety of choices for obtaining information. With low switching costs, basic facts are no longer their guiding factor for choosing. How it is presented has become important. Today, consumers demand and receive:
- Content that reinforces their self-image and worldview. (e.g. Conservative talk radio)
- Presentation and channels that matches their lifestyle. (e.g. Video like Vice News vs. newspapers vs. web-based text reports )
- Content that presents information in a new perspective. (e.g. explainer websites, like Vox and 538.com)
It is tempting to believe that by choosing to present your news in a particular form of perspective or analysis you are limiting yourself to one segment of the general audience. Another frame of reference might be: What perspective or form of analysis are news consumers currently seeking? In other words: All news consumers already want a certain perspective and in today’s hyper-efficient marketplace someone is going to serve it. So which segment are you going to choose to serve?
3. Tone and Voice
A change in content tone can mean the difference between Mother Jones and The New York Times. Both may have investigated and gathered the same facts, but one is shrill and the other measured. Content tone and emphasis placed on voice when presenting information (i.e. MSNBC vs. Walter Cronkite) makes a significant difference in emotional impact for the consumer.
Consider the impact of voice:
- What if the TMZ TV show was presented like national evening news?
- What if DrudgeReport.com was presented like harpers.org?
- What if This American Life sounded like a morning shock jock?
Finding the right tone and voice is often “found” only after significant experimentation by even the best writers and producers.
4. Presentation: Channels and User Interface
Ultimately, channels are different user interfaces. You listen to the radio, you read a website, you watch television. You need physical or digital controls to manipulate those interfaces, and while they may all include duplicate flashy graphics or easy to use buttons, the manner in which the content is consumed: listening, watching, reading; directly affects how you perceive the content.
Unlike days of yore, where channels were strongly defended: radio was music, television was moving pictures and newsprint were words; channels are much less differentiated than they once were. For instance, DNAInfo Chicago includes text, video, pictures and even it’s own digital radio – all on the same website. Since anyone can access all of these through a phone or tablet, how does a news consumer figure out the difference between the channels?
The answer is: Consumers don’t care. When the same or similar content is offered through different channels, consumers will choose the channel and user interface that best fits their lifestyle–or is easiest to use.
As channels continue to merge and digital content ends up covering basically every kind of content, user interfaces become increasingly valuable. When every content source includes a combination of text, video, pictures and words, the amount of friction between getting the content you want and enjoying it becomes the main way consumers decide whether or not you choose a content source.