Becoming a Content Provider

By Nov 01, 2006

We’re content providers,” Richard D. Beckman, president of Condé Nast Media Group, told The New York Times in August.

Mr. Beckman essentially was saying that Condé Nast is no longer just a magazine publisher confined to traditional media, but a company that provides entertainment through every possible channel.

Content has become the word in communications. An increasingly popular (and risky) form is user-generated content. What exactly is UGC? If you think about what’s on TV these days, be it news events or “reality” happenings, more and more of what you’re watching has been shot by an everyday person with a handheld camera. Wikipedia, the free-content encyclopedia that allows definitions to be changed by users, is yet another kind of UGC.

YouTube.com, bought early last month by Google, is the hottest mostly-UGC site around. It grew 297% between January and August of this year and serves up more than 100 million downloads a day. The appeal? Bizarre content: everything from professional, commercial-type videos, amateur UGC efforts, the Korean Carrot Song (including “I’m too lazy to translate” lyrics) to Paris Hilton introducing her much-talked-about first video. Obviously, consumers — especially the young ones we’re hoping will learn to love our products — are dying for entertainment, whether it’s generated by users or professionals.

Fred Langbecker, president of ISA Advertising, a New York agency probably best known for its experience in direct response media buying, says ISA’s new media focus has moved to online video “because there’s been an explosion in content and corresponding video advertising. The tremendous growth in residential broadband penetration coupled with the decreased bandwidth cost to online publishers has created unprecedented opportunity. It’s like a new advertising channel has opened up.” In fact, research firm eMarketer predicts that video ads, which now account for 2.3% of all Internet ad spending, will hold down an 8% share by 2010.

After talking to Fred, I envisioned yesteryear’s slice-and-dice infomercials for Ginsu knives suddenly appearing on cell phones. Perhaps we’re not ready to go that far, but without giving up on our main goal — selling merchandise — through content we can tap into a fresh way of thinking that adds depth, customer enticement and holding power to our print and online catalogs.

Financial Times addresses the thinking behind the stats: “Viral marketing no longer evokes fears of something horribly contagious that could either disable your systems or plague your staff.” Getting into viral marketing itself isn’t cheap. The same publication reports that one of any company’s biggest mistakes is thinking it can get into viral marketing for less than $20,000. The second biggest mistake is trying to use the same creative techniques for both viral and print. In viral, creativity must be sky-high or it won’t get passed along (hence YouTube’s success).

There’s a lot to investigate before launching a viral campaign, so hone your creative thinking now. First, avoid wasting space with outdated editorial that makes such obvious and less-than-enthralling statements as “We believe decorating should be easy,” a line one cataloger used recently. Today’s consumers are way too savvy to give even the slightest attention to anything so mundane. Editorial must have real pass-along value or it’s a total loss.

Getting started with entertainment content can be as basic as a product rating system. Many sites do this; you might as well add that feature to your own and have the added advantage of getting direct customer input. Check out computer retailer Newegg.com to see how it sensibly organizes user reviews. For showcasing worthwhile content while still selling product, see MusiciansFriend.com, which adds a bar below its main site-navigation buttons that offers such goodies as “Fun Zone,” “Articles” and “Hands-on Reviews.” The rest of the home page is jammed with relatively well-presented product promos and editorial.

Print catalogs don’t have to look as if they’re dead in the water, either. Williams-Sonoma has long made catalogs worthwhile by adding recipes to its pages. When I worked in retail, we displayed recipes along with the products needed to make them. The result: dramatically increased sales and customers begging for more recipes.

At the very least, make a real effort to use the print catalog to get folks to your Web site where, hopefully, you have or will be adding pass-along-style content. Smith+Noble’s site directs customers to an easy-to-read window-treatment overview grid that compares base price, privacy, light control, energy efficiency, and the time required to manufacture the item. The inside front cover of L.L. Bean’s fall women’s catalog directed readers to llbean.com/fit and llbean.com/outfits. The first link took “the guesswork out of how your items will fit”; the other allowed you to “shop by outfit.”

If you choose to accept and offer user-generated content, be aware that what you receive from users can’t always be trusted. Electronic media are easily manipulated. There’s been more than one scandal brought about by inaccurate depictions. To avoid running altered images accidentally, the Chicago Tribune prints out all photos in an 8-inch by 10-inch format and posts them for staff review for at least one day before actually running them (something that, frankly, sounds impossible for a news daily, but would be very acceptable for catalogers). Come up with your own system…but have a system.

As you add more content, keep the basic quality criteria for Web sites in mind. At Worldbestwebsites.com you’ll find its Quality Criteria for Web Site Excellence, complete with examples. Areas of importance include accessibility, speed and bandwidth sensitivity, distinctiveness, focus and much, much more. It’s an excellent source for guidance.

KATIE MULDOON (kmuldoon@muldoonandbaer.com) is president of DM/catalog consulting firm Muldoon & Baer Inc., Palm Beach Gardens, FL.