The recent shuttering of Tumblr’s Storyboard highlighted the discrepancy between online communities and companies’ efforts to produce valuable original content for them. The problem isn’t that “Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are sharing networks, not publishing companies,” as one writer suggested. The problem instead lies in substance and delivery.
Community-inspired initiatives, much like journalism, need a sense of purpose, passion and objective urgency – the ability to look unflinchingly at a subject and capture it in a way that’s surprising and insightful. With that in mind, here’s how some of the most popular communities and social networks are experimenting with original content — and what works and doesn’t.
Storyboard sought to surface and report on interesting stories and users within the Tumblr community, applying a kind of branded journalism and marketing mix that’s becoming increasingly commonplace.
The failure of Storyboard was in its inability to find an editorial voice that resonated in the community. Tumblr users communicate with a pidgin lexicon of reaction GIFs, memes, and blog entries, but Storyboard took a more print-oriented approach. The content (and layout) was reminiscent of an in-flight magazine, as if trying to sell the reader on a particular destination.
Of course, Storyboard did produce a variety of laudable content in partnership with esteemed publishers, most notably its Letters from Newtown project with Mother Jones and WNYC’s look inside the New York Times morgue (and the Daily Dot syndicated a significant number of Storyboard articles). But the numbers don’t lie and Storyboard’s most popular posts hover around just 6,000 notes – surely a factor in the decision to shutter it.
Like Storyboard, Facebook Stories is a branded editorial effort that relies on publishing partners and user submissions. Last month, former managing editor Dan Fletcher proclaimed the social network “doesn’t need reporters,” because there’s “no more engaging content Facebook could produce than you talking to your family and friends.” To be blunt, it’s almost as if Fletcher hasn’t seen a typical Facebook post. The most talked about pages on the social network are dominated by image spam and mindless posts about “teen swag.”
The greater problem with Facebook Stories has been one of approach. It publishes monthly, a bizarre strategy that utterly defies the very best characteristics of the site and is obviously in direct conflict with the online ethos. Content on Facebook is instantaneous and reactionary; it’s about celebrating small moments not just milestones, and any editorial effort should mirror that.
Facebook Stories needs to take a cue from Upworthy – a comparable editorial effort centered on inspiring content – and focus less on presentation and more on how content should be packaged and shared.
YouTube made headlines when it invested $ 200 million in original channels and programming last January. Then, after cutting its losses on 70 percent of those recipients, it promptly dropped another $ 100 million in November. The few shows that actually succeeded – most notably, Philip DeFranco’s SourceFed, Felicia Day’s Geek and Sundry channel, and the VlogBrothers’ Crash Course – were the ones that understood how to connect specifically with a YouTube audience and what makes content succeed on the platform. Notably, none of them are TV veterans.
The quick lesson is you can’t fake authenticity on YouTube, and celebrity status often doesn’t translate to subscriber counts. The content has to be immediate and impactful. As Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers (SciShow, CrashCourse) noted in a recent Tumblr post: ”Online video isn’t about how good it looks, it’s about how good it is.”
The career-oriented network is oddly the rare success story of implementing original content. Even before LinkedIn’s $ 90 million acquisition of popular news-reader Pulse, the professional network was making all the right moves in terms of content creation and curation with a leadership board in the form of LinkedIn Influencers and a daily news feed that distributes third-party content selected by users.
Where the company has invested in original content, it’s done so by popular demand, tapping proven influencers like Virgin CEO Richard Branson and ex-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski for exclusive articles that cater specifically to the network’s business-savvy audience. As Jennifer Van Grove noted for CNET, “content is quickly becoming the new connection on LinkedIn.”
The web is becoming one big imageboard, where the emphasis is placed on viral sharing. That can be seen in everything from Facebook’s redesign to LinkedIn’s revamp. A recent study of Reddit found that 86 percent of the posts on the social news site were easily disposable: image macros, photos, and videos.
The challenge facing that site, not to mention communities like Pinterest and Instagram – whose content strategies thus far have been comprised mostly of curated tags – is to create something of permanent value for the community, to offer more than a temporary spotlight.
Simply put, you have to add value. Social networks need to support the native content efforts of their users and accentuate it where they can. But if they are going to provide editorial content themselves, it must be in the spirit of the community, not forced from outside of it.
Austin Powell is assistant managing editor of The Daily Dot, which calls itself the hometown newspaper of the World Wide Web.
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