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Demanding Quality in a Flood of Fast-Food Content

Posted by Laurel Miltner on March 25, 2010

Ever since returning from South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) last week, my head has been spinning with new ideas. The conference offered an incredible venue to meet and connect with some of the brightest minds in business today, and to be among that crowd was both humbling and inspiring.

Somehow, amidst such high-level information, it was a very simply idea that stuck with me more than any other — one that I want to elaborate on and share. In a session entitled “The Revenge of Editorials,” led by Tim Meaney and Richard Ziade of Arc90, Meaney shared a concept that really hit home for me. To put it simply: Content on the Web is like the food industry.

Now, I admit that as someone who is passionate about both quality content and the slow food movement, this clearly struck a chord with me. However, I feel that this is a very important concept, and one that should not be taken lightly. The quality of content (and food) affects every single person in the world, whether you are creating and preparing it, or consuming and sharing it.

 Lady-eating-burger

Creation & Preparation

Have you seen Food, Inc.? Read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation? Even if you haven’t, you likely have at least a basic understand of how much the creation and production of food has changed over the course of our existence. What was once a labor of love (and to be fair, necessity) has become an industrialized process, creating products of low quality as cheaply as possible. (Interesting fact: only 100 years ago, 38% of the American labor force was farmers, in the 1950s that number was 12.2%, and in the 1990s it dwindled to 2.6%. More people, larger labor force, more consumption, yet significantly less farmers.)

Such is the story of Web content. Though more and more people now have the ability to create content and make it available to the masses via the production capabilities offered by the Internet, those that take the time to carefully develop each piece with thought, insight, research and passion are few and far between.

With professional newsroom staff dwindling, even trained copywriters appear to be stretched too thin to compose the quality of news that average Americans used to sit down and take the time to appreciate over coffee at the breakfast table.

(Meany and Ziade touched on this point specifically in their session, through the example of the New York Times. With a 24-hour news cycle, the NYTimes staff thoroughly considered each and every story, where it would be placed in the paper and how everything would be laid out to create one perfect guide of the day’s most important information. Now, new stories are posted in real-time, which certainly brings us the latest, hottest news right now and serves our desire for immediacy, but there is a bit of a lost art there as well. It is a loss, at the core, of composition.)

Clearly, there is a serious difference between a burger from a fast food joint and one from a high-end restaurant. Obviously the quality of ingredients comes into play, but so does the process of preparation and care from the cook/chef. This is why you pay $1 for a burger off the value menu and $26 for “the best burger in America.” You pay for quality.

The same is true when developing content, whether you are paying for its preparation by an outsider or with your own time investment.

Sure, you could be a content farmer and develop off-the-cuff information at-need without much care, but the result is low-quality content that may get found and read (lots of people eat at fast food restaurants, and those restaurants make a lot of money), but likely isn’t anything that anyone will rave about. This kind of content will not make you stand out.

Or, you could use others’ quality information, summarize it and give your own twist to it through simple blog posts that won’t take you but an hour to create. This is content that I’d equate to a national, casual chain restaurant… people may visit, but half the time they’ll leave thinking “that sounded like it would be much better than it was.”

Or, you can challenge yourself to prepare the great stuff, the real deal. This type of content pulls together all of the quality information you’ve gleaned from others (the best quality ingredients), and adds in your own personality, insight and care to develop something new, exciting and worth people’s time. This is the stuff that people will want to read, and talk about — the stuff that will keep people coming back and bringing friends. This is my Greenhouse Tavern. (My favorite restaurant: focused on simple, farm-to-table food, locally owned and operated by a talented and passionate chef.)

Consumption & Sharing

On the flip side, with the vast amount of content available on the Web, how do readers know what information is trustworthy, valuable and worth their investment of time? I’d argue that inasmuch as it is the job of content creators to invest in developing quality content, it is also the responsibility of consumers to give such content the respect it deserves.

I feel the same about food, BTW — I try to shop at local farmers’ markets rather than larger chain grocery stores, buy whole foods instead of packaged goods, etc. You vote with your wallet, as the inspired idealist-businessman Gary Hirshberg likes to say. And on the Web, you vote with your time, your actions and most importantly, your links.

I firmly believe that those of us that are the most active on the social Web are the ones that are shaping the future of business. Not only because of our online business savvy, but also because we are the ones whose behavior is most easily tracked and accounted for by any organization we interact with online. These actions can have a great impact on how businesses operate in the future, because this data will be used to optimize ongoing operations. (Sorry non-marketers, maybe it’s a bit “Big Brother,” but it’s true.) Our actions will impact others, whether they are active on the Web or not.

That being said, I think it is our responsibility to devote the time to reading and sharing the highest quality content. When was the last time you read an eight-page editorial online (or in print), or spent more than five minutes reading a lengthier, thought-provoking blog post? Why not devote your valuable time to a piece that someone clearly put a great deal of thought into, rather than constantly scanning through your news feed and skimming a dozen mediocre articles?

Don’t fill your Twitter stream or Facebook profile with links to any article you read just to get something up. Instead, sift through the clutter and share only the best information with your followers. Become a source for quality content. Be a content curator.

Accountability

I challenge you (and myself) to from this day forward focus on quality over quantity, both when creating and developing content, and when consuming and sharing it with others. I bet that your network will thank you for it.

 

Laurel Miltner is a consultant at PR 20/20, a Cleveland-based inbound marketing agency and PR firm. Follow Laurel on Twitter @laurelmackenzie.

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