Content aggregators? Definitely foes!

I went to our Executive Forum keynote, where Dan Roth, head of LinkedIn’s content strategy, talked about the ways publishers can work with LinkedIn to grow their audiences and gain exposure among business professionals. His keynote was titled, “LinkedIn: Friend AND Foe?”

I was curious going into the session, hoping to hear what LinkedIn is planning next. I thought it was exciting to think that LinkedIn was branching out from networking and job hunting to content, especially since Roth’s background is as a great writer – Roth got his start reporting at Forbes and Wired, and then became managing editor at Fortune.com.

But the takeaways I got from his keynote evoked current trends that actually devalue the work he himself used to do. Here’s my take on what he said:

• As business media evolves, the conversations about the events of the day are as valuable as the primary reporting of the events. “The reader sees himself as equal in authority to the author of the article,” Roth said. LinkedIn is hoping to leverage more reader-generated content as LinkedIn users engage in conversations about, say, articles from content publishing companies. Note that LinkedIn members contribute this valuable content for free.

• LinkedIn is soliciting engaging essays from “influencers” and “thought leaders,” big names like Jack Welch, Richard Branson, Bill Gates and T. Boone Pickens. All of whom contribute their words for free. Oh, sorry, I mean for exposure and metrics around who is reading their insights. But these influencers see value in it.

• LinkedIn also loves it when publishers use their “InShare” buttons to send metrics about readers back to LinkedIn, and where LinkedIn users are having conversations … in LinkedIn groups and in their content feeds that they share with other users. Again, LinkedIn does not pay publishers for any of this.

• LinkedIn is launching a new feature, now in beta, where publishers can give LinkedIn their full RSS feed, as much content as they want, to run on publisher LinkedIn pages. Publishers can also accessorize these pages with photos, graphics, and other content. In exchange for letting publishers put their content on LinkedIn, publishers get detailed metrics on who is viewing, using, and talking about the publishers’ content. No money changes hands, of course. And due to privacy considerations, odds are LinkedIn will not share the actual profiles of readers. So no lead gen opportunities there.

So what are the great content initiatives at LinkedIn? Get important people to contribute content for free. Get users to comment and converse on this content for free. And get publishers to contribute content for free. Use this content to bring users to LinkedIn every day.

As my SIIA colleague Ron Levine wrote in September, “content is not king at LinkedIn; the content experience is.” LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is on record saying his job is to aggregate content, not create it. “If we were going to offer original content, I think it would be a very lightweight layer,” he says, adding a couple sentences later, “our job is to package up the most relevant content we can find for our members.”

This is the Huffington Post business model: link like mad with great SEO to other publishers’ content; get celebrities, bloggers and commenters to write for free; then cash in on the traffic. And content creators have no reason to complain, as a judge ruled last year.

Some people, such as Tim Kreider, writing in the New York Times, are raising a call to reject the growing devaluation of content. His manifesto – titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” – points out that paying creative people for their work used to be the norm. He writes, “I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.”

On the other hand, some content creators, such as author Cory Doctorow, argue that since technology allows anyone to steal or copy anything online, the best strategy is to give your work away for free – but not to let others profit from it, and to create online mechanisms that make it easier to pay than to download illegally. “The fact that people eschew the black market when there is a legitimate alternative tells you that they’re not thieves looking to steal,” Doctorow wrote in the Guardian last December. “Rather, like the notional customer who sneaks in her own fizzy drinks rather than paying for the cinema’s insane markups, they are potential customers whose purchases have been forfeited by a business that has violated rule number one: offer a product that people want to buy at the price they’re willing to pay.”

Andrew Sullivan, whose Dish blog switched to a subscription-only revenue model earlier this year, continues to grapple with the struggle to get readers to pay for content. “What interests me is finding a way to pay writers with money that comes from readers,” he wrote recently. His very popular blog is close to hitting its first year’s revenue goal with a PBS-style system of simply giving readers a way to pay for what they used to get for free.

Doctorow and Sullivan may be pointing toward new business models that emphasize user-paid content. In our own industry, publishers are still finding that bringing end-users and marketers together remains a viable business model for trade journalism. There are strong signs that the struggle is not lost, and that publishers are finding ways to increase their profits.

But what about LinkedIn, and other aggregators who seek free content? Is it worthwhile to participate in an online culture that appraises quality content at a price of zero? For some publishers, the eyeballs that LinkedIn deliver are valuable. And the metrics that LinkedIn currently chooses to share may also matter. Not to mention the residual traffic that comes back to publisher sites.

Nonetheless, I think these benefits are outweighed by the tragedy of the commons: it may benefit an individual publisher to join in, but when many do so, the environment degrades for all. A user base that is trained to pay nothing for words and pictures leads to a culture in which fewer pro writers and artists and photographers can make a living – and in which fewer media companies can remain viable. Ultimately, companies that aggregate content – such as LinkedIn and the Huffington Post – are the enemies of companies who create it. With its new content initiatives, LinkedIn is becoming a parasite on the body of professional journalism and the business information industry, draining away more than it gives back and contributing to the devaluation of the professional work we do.

By Michael Moran Alterio


What do your think? Would you put your content on LinkedIn for free? Is this an opportunity or a case of somebody else making money on your work? Please comment below.

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One comment

  1. Howard Rauch

    Apparently you applaud publishers who create content, and so do I. But studies I’ve done assessing B2B e-news delivery (past Media Pace issues have covered some of my analysis) continue to detect a drift towards curation, aggregation or outright reproduction of unedited PR announcements.

    To illustrate, here’s what I am seeing at the halfway point of my 4th annual study:

    *Of the 248 e-news articles collectively posted by 25 sites, 156 — 64.1% — reflect no evidence of enterprise.
    *As sites have raised frequencyy from weekly to daily (and sometimes twice daily), they have relied more on “outsourced” news from secondary sources to fill space.
    *In some industries, publishers have made the weekly to daily leap knowing full well that breaking news is a rare occasion. Their master plan is to fill space with standard new product announcements. This approach probably will work if competition is in the same boat. But what this also means is the audience these sites hope to attract looks elsewhere for more meaningful content.
    *Rising workloads continue to take their toll on quality. Articles with high Fog Index levels = 118 (47.6%). Time and time again, editors make no effort to defog endless parades of 30- and 40-word sentences. Particularly troublesome are long-winded quotes apparently pulled from PR releases sans any attempt at revision.

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