Nua sez: Content is invaluable!

We’re tittering at the double entendre already. Gerry McGovern of Nua, name-dropped in these electrons a few weeks ago, is on the content huskings again. “Internet Content is Invaluable” goes the title of his weekly ClickZ column.

Invaluable! We get it. (Is content “inflammable,” too?)

En tout cas, McGovern advises:

Today, however, people are not in the mood to pay upfront. Therefore, the way content achieves value is by becoming a context for commerce. ...[W]ith E-commerce you sell with content. Basically, on the Web, content helps you sell stuff.

This is all well and good, but quality content is very expensive to create and may simply not result in enough purchases to cover its cost. Keeping this in mind, the organization should seek to avoid, where possible, having to create too much original content.

Oh, dear. Here we go again. Executives are happy to blow millions on advertising and are willing to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars down the gullets of vendors of content-management systems (Vignette, anyone?), and will pay top dollar for sexy JavaScript programming and customized database back ends, but the idea of hiring five editors and writers at $60K each just kills them.

In E-commerce sites that cost millions of dollars, just how can you dismiss content as “very expensive”? Even on smaller sites, one- or two-person operations are imaginable. Heck, hiring a part-timer beats the daylights out of syndication.

Anyone ever consider paying the CEO less and maybe losing the foosball table to pay for something more important? (Oh, all right, we’ll stop. We don’t want to sound bitter.)

There are a number of alternative content strategies. You can add to your content offering by re-organizing and/or summarizing content that already exists on the Web. In this way, you are creating new value out of already existing content with the minimum of cost. You can barter with other Web sites, giving them content that’s useful to their customers, while you get content that’s useful to yours. Another strategy is to use syndicated content.

Except that online-content wife-swapping offers no differentiation whatsoever. We’ve proven it already: In an article for A List Apart, we explored the content available at CD retailers worldwide, which boiled down to:

  1. None
  2. User reviews (“Alanis sucks!”/“Alanis rules!”)
  3. One-paragraph in-house reviews, uniformly positive
  4. Syndicated snippetettes from sources deployed for their respectability, like the New York Times

No site, not even the biggies, offered anything unique. What reason – what content-related reason – does a customer have to choose one site over another? None. (In case you’re wondering, Amazon wins out purely through inertia and the Zipf effect. Everybody uses them, so everybody continues to use them.)

This isn’t mere theory: The American outdoor-gear maker REI has learned that added content is necessary in order to sell. It boils down to the perennial issue of making up for the inability to paw the merchandise.

In their strategies, Web sites should focus on a manageable niche and deliver the best possible information to serve that market’s interests, [a source] argues. It’s a lesson that learned early on, according to Matt Hyde, REI’s vice president for online sales. REI... launched its first Web site in September 1996. The 140-person online division employs 20 full-time writers. Since launch, this team has churned out more than 45,000 individual pages of original editorial on three separate Web sites, including and, says Hyde.

Included in that figure are product description pages, as well as pages of outdoor tips, feature articles, and tutorials. What has been most effective at is seasonal lifestyle articles combined with collections of relevant products and detailed product information.... Thanks in large part to this substantial store of outdoor information and products, the three Web sites now get 1.5 million visitors monthly, and the sites posted a profit in 1999 with more than $41 million in online product sales. REI’s online conversion rate – the percentage of visitors who actually make a purchase – hovers at around 10%, in contrast to the E-commerce industry average of 2%. “Content is clearly one of our competitive advantages,” says Hyde. The payoff for editorial investments is measurable: increased customer loyalty, repeat visits, and a “sticky” Web site – i.e., one that gets people to stick around and, with luck, buy things.

(Or, as we put it in the A List Apart article, good writing gives customers a reason to visit your site when they aren’t planning on buying something.)

Back to McGovern:

Whatever the approach, the difficult reality today is that while consumers demand quality content on the Web, they are only willing to pay indirectly. This demands an inventive response from all those whose business rests on a Web of content.


Aren’t consumers already paying indirectly for content? Isn’t that why we have advertising and sponsorship?

No one, let alone us, has solved the how-to-pay-for-it riddle yet, in part because there are many possible solutions, a multifactorial approach that TV and print advertising managers just cannot fathom.

But the Internet is not as novel a content marketplace as McGovern thinks. It isn’t a platypus or the Basque language, inexplicably situated in an environment that is otherwise fully understood.

But enough with the metaphors. We’re a bit shitfaced on chocolate at the moment, so we’ll change the subject before we mangle anything else.

Posted on 2000-10-01