In defense of your fancy new homepage: Why packaging content is still valuable even in the era of the great unbundling

Ok, I’ll admit that I felt a bit out of place cruising around their campus on a periwinkle blue, step-in bike while the sun baked my dark blue blazer. To me, it felt more like a theme park from the 1950s than a workplace for the new millennium. Take me to the big rides.

I eventually made my way to the roof deck of Mark Zuckerberg’s new Frank Gehry designed headquarters overlooking the bay. The roof has been transformed into a sprawling park with trees and benches—even a small field, or maybe two. It’s here where I sat soaking in the sun and thinking about Facebook as it relates to traditional media like the Harvard Business Review (HBR). 

Clearly, Facebook has discovered that relationships drive media usage. But the question in my mind was whether people are more interested in what their friends are doing and saying than visiting any one particular publication every day? Or put another way, do relationships trump readership? 

This idea seems to be echoed everywhere lately. Wired magazine took a different tack to the same theme when it recently said:

A long time ago, institutions lent authority to the people who worked there. Think of The New York Times or Harper’s or The Atlantic or any number of other outlets. But as stories have become unbundled from their source, that equation has flipped. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, it’s much easier for a writer or video personality to bring along an audience anywhere they go. Audience portability is as easy as tweeting a link. Which means that today, it’s often the star writer or video personality who lends cachet to an institution and attracts an audience. 

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When the news broke recently that the New York Times would be giving more stories for Facebook to run within its virtual walls, it seemed to trigger a collective WTF from traditional media. Just like the early days of Google, those of us connected with long-running media brands had to ask ourselves whether Facebook wasn’t another behemoth here to reap all the advertising dollars and customer data on the backs of our content. In the Google version, search was the primary driver; this time around its relationships and cat photos. Same principle, different dotcom bubble.

To many, Facebook appears to be continuing the path of creative destruction that has already torched so much of the old media landscape. This is Joseph Schumpeter’s idea at work: Creative destruction levels one market so that another one can thrive. Certainly, in my own experience I can see that more and more of HBR’s traffic is coming to pages other than our homepage; and millions consume our content from a vast array of social media players from Facebook to Reddit.

But all might not be lost. None of this ongoing fragmentation negates the value of the original bundle – unless we let it. Here’s what I mean…

For starters, a publication attempts to build a relationship with its reader. The selection of stories, art, video, etc. and the way it’s put together reflect the personality of the publication. In the publishing world, it’s common to ask humanising questions, such as “If your magazine were at a dinner party what kind of guest would it be?” The “bundle” isn’t just a random assortment of articles; rather, it’s a composition. 

In fact, some of our new web rituals are actually creating demand for bundled content. Think about a television series that was once consumed as single episode, but now viewers binge on the series in one evening. Even the New York Times, which shocked us all with their Facebook announcement, has nearly 1 million digital subscribers. HBR, too, is finding that our website is a top source of new subscribers. 

We’re also seeing a resurgence of email newsletters and podcasts—both of which have become destination programming for publishers with huge audiences. The explosion of “morning briefings” from Business Insider, Quartz, The Economist and others is yet more proof that the curated package, which follows a daily, weekly, or monthly rhythm, still lives on in digital form. 

Interestingly, HBR is even seeing that there’s a split in our own audience. Paying subscribers, on the one hand, are much more likely to visit our homepage regularly versus the casual browser—showing us that our newly designed homepage plays an important role in what we think of as the customer’s journey.

Facebook isn’t a threat to a publication that has a unique and compelling point of view about the world and can attract a substantial audience. The real pressure on traditional media is to figure out how to represent a publication’s full personality to readers who are constantly bombarded with so many messages. We’re no longer at a dinner-party. Now it’s more like speed dating. So how does one build a rapport with the reader when attention is so fleeting? That’s our real challenge.

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To be sure, Facebook and others have enabled a new breed of publication to take hold. The Buzzfeeds of the world cleverly learned to exploit sharing not just to proliferate their stories, but also to get the word out on behalf of advertisers. Overnight, Buzzfeed exploded with a new model, and soon a swarm of competitors followed. This is what Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, call the Red Ocean effect, or a bloody battle for market-share and resources. 

More recently, Mauborgne and Kim described what they call “Red Ocean Traps.” In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, the authors explain six different traps that we fall into when thinking about competitive markets. One of them is the trap of believing that creative destruction is always at play when a new market grows rapidly.

Many market-creating moves are nondestructive, because they offer solutions where none previously existed. We’ve also seen this happen with the social networking and crowdfunding industries. And even when a certain amount of destruction is involved in market creation, nondestructive creation is often a larger element than you might think. Nintendo’s Wii game player, for example, complemented more than replaced existing game systems, because it attracted younger children and older adults who hadn’t previously played video games.

For sure, Buzzfeed or one of its competitors could grow into the next Time Warner as many are predicting, but it could just as easily drown in the red ocean. And meanwhile it may just be complementing traditional publishers by expanding the audience of younger sets who are now hungry for news.

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As I was finishing up my Facebook visit, I realised that somehow I had begun to feel more comfortable in their palatial Frank Gehry space. Sure, it had taken me a while to relax among the army of twenty-something engineers, but by the end of my short stay it was enjoyable—almost soothing. We’ll soon see if traditional media players can find a way to feel the same way.

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