Don’t Build a Content Ghost Town

When a reader lands on my blog, they’re going to run into a lot of people. 

First off, there’s me.  I am front and center when it comes to being in close proximity to what I write.  Not only is my e-mail address on my blog, but I even have a live Plugoo widget that you can type into and send me a message on AIM.  Sometimes I’m not there or I’m busy, but I’m generally pretty responsive, since I spend a disproportionate amount of my day in front of the computer with a chat client open.  There are links to where else you can find me, too—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

On top of that, there’s a thriving little community happening around my comments, powered by Disqus.  I’m certainly responsive there, but you’re also bound to run into a number of other people with different views and opinions, each of whom also have links to where they are elsewhere in the social web.

If that’s not enough for you, I have a TwitterRemote badge that shows you recent visitors—a small glimpse into the other kinds of people who visit my blog, each with links to their Twitter account. 

In a sense, reading a blog post on my site is almost like going to a session at a conference and hanging out in the hallway afterwards.  You’ve got the main panel, but you’ve got all these other little ways in which you can interact with the speaker and the audience afterwards.

Contrast that with a lot of mainstream media sites.  Authors are difficult to find—certainly not easily accessible on the page.  You definitely don’t have a good sense of who else is seeing that page or interacting with it and on top of that, the comments—still stuck in an old school CMS—don’t foster discussion.  And that’s if they have any comments at all.

It’s just as well.  There probably isn’t much community around these articles anyway.  When you don’t do a good job of generating loyalty to a writer or a beat, you’re not going to get many repeat visitors.  Without a stable base of readers, what you wind up with is just the randoms who come in through search—and they’re the most likely people to leave anonymous troll comments—the graffiti of social content.  Stable readership and a strong relationship between the author and the audience engender a sense of ownership or at least belonging around this column, beat, or blog.  When people feel loyalty and ownership, the quality of interaction goes up, because the regulars set the tone.  When all you get are search trolls, you watch the “Broken Windows” theory of content—where if it doesn’t appear like anyone really cares enough to hangout around this content, others will care less about making meaningful investments in it.

Back when MyBlogLog was looking for funding a few years back, I thought a lot about the prospect of dropping in a few lines of code to “make any site social”.  To a less obvious extent, Disqus is doing the same thing.  Content publishers need to realize what event organizers have known for years—that it’s not really about the content but it’s about the people.  You go to a conference to meet people—other people interested in the same content.  Content acts as an organizing structure to attract the right people and channel them into relevant conversations.  People are the reason why I went back to SXSW for the fourth year in a row this year.

This is part of the premise of First Round’s investment in LiveIntent.  They’re building tools that publishers can use to introduce their readers to the livestreams of writers, related personalities and other relevant folks that they want in front of their audience.  Content is just a gathering mechanism—what your audience really wants is connection and engagement to other people.

It works both ways, too.  People are curators of content.  Facebook understands this.  It drives a ton of outbound traffic from the millions of links flowing through newsfeeds and inbox shares.  It’s not just a static place to collect people, but a dynamic content reader with social filters.  Twitter, too, shows that when you combine content and people, you can get a very dynamic experience.  It’s something that more professional sites like the WSJ, LinkedIn, Tracked, and TheLadders should think about more.  People don’t want visit a rolodex or a job board nearly as much as they want to visit a place where I’m instantly told what’s buzzing around people with similar titles as me and what they’re reading.  That’s what happens at offline events—smart people tell you what you should be paying attention do and you get the chance to interact with them around that content—and potentially do business with them then or at some point in the future.  The experience at the Wall Street Journal shouldn’t really be any different.