Don't Suck: Why Digital Publishing Needs Quality

How Greatist built a healthy and sustainable brand


Digital publishing is difficult for all manner of reasons. With the wildly oversaturated market, the fragmented distribution network, the never-ending need for traffic growth, it's no wonder that many publications chase 'reach' above anything else. What this creates is a situation in which brands are shouting over each other for audience attention, and quality all too often gets lost. Quantity over quality seems to be the mantra for far too many digital publications.

At the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit this July, founder and CEO of Greatist, Derek Flanzraich, gave a presentation on how the publisher has grown an audience in the 'healthy' way. Through ensuring that the site's content is based in fact, verified, and of high quality, Derek and his team have built a huge user base with very healthy engagement figures.

One area in which Greatist excels is in how it sources its hits. Where many digital-only publishers are heavily reliant on social sharing for traffic, Greatist actually only sees 25% of its hits come from the likes of Pinterest and Facebook. 50% of the site's hits come from search, and the remaining 25% come from direct (email list, direct visits, etc.). These are the kind of numbers most digital publishers would kill for, particularly given that direct visitors are the most loyal group there is.

A publication that has taken a very different route to Greatist is Buzzfeed, the hugely successful site that (despite steadily moving into more 'serious' journalism') built its audience through highly shareable content and, let's be honest, clickbait. The result of this is that, even today, 80% of Buzzfeed's reach exist beyond their website - it is fragmented on social networks, messaging apps, distributed by partners, and pushed out through their own apps. 'The challenge of course is that this audience that you have is not necessarily your own,' Derek explains, 'and actually has never been less your own before. And so, when people tell you they have 100 million followers - followers means a very different thing today than something like an email subscriber, something like a unique visitor, they all mean profoundly different things. And when you cobble them all together it gives a very poor suggestion of how many people are actually following you.'

A lot of publications fall into the trap of going after reach above anything else. This is a problem because reach, often, has very little to do with quality. Another problem Derek highlights in his presentation is that content has become commoditized. 'Especially on topics like news and entertainment, everyone is writing this content, and so it doesn't matter if anybody is writing the content.' He explains that because a lot of popular content is so ubiquitous - pieces about Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian, for example - it doesn't actually matter to the audience who is providing it. This ties into the channels on which people are getting their information. Google and Facebook, for example, don't have any interest in which publication users are getting their news from, so long as the users are being presented with the content they want to see.

So how do you stick out in this difficult landscape? Derek separates publications into three different categories: scale - huge content hubs with little defined brand values, niche - easily definable publications with a particular perspective, and grande - somewhere between the two. Derek's presentation gives a strong argument for the power of niche publications, particularly in a world in which publications are losing their brand identity more completely than ever before. You can see major brands going for this niche identity - Vice, Time Inc., and Conde Nast all split their brand into different, smaller channels - while also aiming for immense scale.

'I believe in a distributed and commoditized world, quality over quantity wins,' Derek says. And this isn't just quality in terms of how well pieces are written or how beautifully the site is designed; it's quality in terms of focus, intention, and ethos. He follows the mentality that to try and be relevant to everyone is to be relevant to no one. The brand itself, Derek says, needs to have a profile and a personality that is very clearly defined, 'it needs to be somebody that, if you walked into a bar, you could describe and be like that's so our brand.' Then, when you write for that profile and provide things that profile would be genuinely interested in, you have a quality product.

Quality in this context also means knowing which elements of your brand to highlight on which platforms. It's no use putting product descriptions on Snapchat, this just won't resonate with the audience. Derek highlights National Geographic's use of Instagram. The magazine does a lot of varied, interesting work and produces great content for both its physical magazine and its online offering. What it realized, though, is that Instagram was a platform on which they could truly get the most out of their team of incredible photographers. They only post quality, high-resolution photographs of wildlife and locations, and the account is the brand's most 'followed' asset.

Ultimately, creating quality content is a multifaceted process. It needs to be suited to the platform it's being created on, it needs to do something different to the myriad other publications saying similar things and, most importantly, it needs to be for someone. Greatist has nothing like the reach of Buzzfeed or Huffington Post, but it has a clear, identifiable brand that its audience have genuine affection for. In a world dominated by likes and shares, this commitment to a genuine, worthwhile niche is as admirable as it has been successful. 


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