AOL taking its lead from Demand Media

Business Insider hit the news with LEAKED: AOL’s Master Plan. The master plan sounds eerily like what’s going on at Demand Media. They leaked the entire master plan. Details of the plan leaked by Business Insider include:

AOL is using this document to train editors right now. It is an illuminating look into how AOL, a company with hundreds of millions in dollars in annual funding, is trying to turn itself into a 21st century media giant on the fly.

Some tidbits:

As a result of AOL’s new policy, Paul Miller decided to leave Engadget after five years as an editor there. He explained his last day at Engadget in Leaving AOL. I wrote about my almost-relationship with Demand Media in Changes at Google will Reduce Spammy Search Engine Results. AOL seems to be following in Demand Media’s footsteps in their attempts to rake in financial gain with volumes and volumes of content. Notice I didn’t say quality content.

Content Farms vs. Content Strategy

Compare that with the goings on at A List Apart, that bastion of web quality, where they are preparing to publish their third book: The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane. I suspect that Erin’s approach to what good content is and what a content strategy that will sustain a business should look like doesn’t sound exactly like AOL’s master plan. In fact, I contacted Erin and asked her what she thought about this move by AOL. Here’s her response.

AOL’s current editorial strategy seems related to their old marketing tactics from the early 90s, when they indiscriminately flooded the mail with all those install CDs. They’re competing with content factories like Demand Media and, to some extent, the Huffington Post, and they’re trying to win by cranking out reams of SEO-ed up content with no real substance.

Contrast that with the notion of giving readers and viewers content that they genuinely want and need that drives publications ranging from web pubs like A List Apart or The Awl to international print brands like The Economist. Those publications are successful because they’re producing things people can use, rather than useless fluff that will only make it harder to find content of substance.

Where this touches content strategy as it’s practiced in a UX context is the decision to publish a limited amount of useful, well written content vs. a huge volume of search-engine bait or content designed to “feed the beast” of blogging and social media. Unless you really want to join the content mills as they race toward complete crap, it’s pretty clear that focusing on user needs and editorial quality produces much better results.

Crap Overload

Part of the overload we are faced with today is an abundance of cheap crap. But the problem is, people willingly consume cheap crap. That’s why there are so many more reality shows than quality scripted dramas like Mad Men or The Good Wife. It’s cheap to produce, and people are willing to consume it. The problem isn’t just that there are content farms churning out cheap crap. There’s also the willingness of the search engines to reward sites that produce it and willingness from readers to consume that sort of content. Like reality shows, content farms make money. As long as the cheap crap brings in a profitable bottom line, we’ll see more and more of it produced.

The New York Times talked about teens leaving long form writing behind and moving to Twitter. The reason? It’s too much work to write something long. Extrapolate that into it’s too much work to read something long, or something deep, or something meaningful.

Is that it? Is it just too much effort to do quality work, or to invest quality thinking into what you’re consuming? If that’s it, I think we’re doomed.

Are you old enough to remember the days when we scoffed at anything “Made in China” as being worthless junk? Well, China has since surpassed us in many ways, including education. Is “Content Produced in the USA” going to be a joke before long?