Friday, October 30, 2009

The power of distribution: why content is not king

This post is part of my series about what’s next for sports blogging. You can read my introduction here and my post about ESPN and Deadspin here.

 As a reminder, these are my personal opinions and not necessarily those of my employer Yardbarker.

An opinion I often hear among sports bloggers is that “content is king” or that “the best content floats to the top.” I don’t think this is quite right. It’s true that all things being equal, good content is usually more successful than bad content. But all things are not usually equal, and I think the importance of those “things” are often underestimated. I think the most important of those is distribution from powerful portals (like Yahoo, MSN, or AOL).

Consider a simplified 2x2 matrix: content is either good or bad and distribution is either good or bad. Bad content with bad distribution is going nowhere. Good content with good distribution is in the best position to succeed. But there’s a lot of sports content that lives in the other two quadrants. There are distribution resources being wasted on bad content, and there are plenty of small bloggers making good content with bad distribution. This last category of unseen content may be even better quality than some of the content with good distribution, but this content will not float to the top on its own.

It’s true that many sports bloggers take pride in linking to quality content they enjoy, and a small sports blog will get a significant boost (relative to its low traffic) from a shoutout from a Hot Clicks or Deadspin. But has that content truly floated to the top as compared to highly distributed content? Are advertisers pursuing this blog and are portals looking to syndicate it? Or is it just a new cult favorite among an incestuous blogger audience? To ask a similar question: how many successful sports bloggers are there today who have truly “floated” to the top because of quality content alone? Quality content is necessary but not sufficient for success. The most successful bloggers were early movers and got distribution deals or an early break from someone like Jamie Mottram at FanHouse, the SNL of the blogosphere (I include myself in that category).

The problem of quality versus distribution is not unique to the sports blogosphere. I guarantee you that there are plenty of females who are just as attractive and personable as Rihanna who sing a whole lot better than she does. But those people have not floated to the top like Rihanna has with her mass distribution (which she’s attained through a combination of lucky breaks, years of perseverance, and heavy investment).

So why should anyone (especially those who have “made it” already) care about this? First, I think it's important to understand the power of distribution so that we don't focus so exclusively on content quality, thinking that will automatically lead to success (I'll talk about that more in a future post). Second, I think if we can actually get good distribution for the best content, it will elevate all of us. Like it or not, sports blogs are often lumped together in the minds of those who know little about our space. And right now a lot of those people have the impression that sports blogs are bad. Collectively we can try to change that, and it will help all of us in the long run. Imagine if a brand advertiser planning its marketing budget is pitched a “sports blog” package and immediately thinks of high quality content. Imagine if a TV show producer or an athlete like Raul Ibanez hears “sports blog” and thinks of high quality content. We should want to be known as powerful influencers and reliable producers of high quality content – not just pantsless ranters who do nothing worthwhile.

Note that I’m making no categorical judgments as to what “high quality content” is. It might be content that follows traditional rules of journalism or doesn’t, that is serious or funny, long-form or short-form, photoshopped or not. There is high quality sports blog content in all of those forms.

If you haven't read my post about Deadspin's ESPN horndoggery series you might think I'd argue that what Deadspin did was bad for sports blogging. I actually think the horndoggery series was good quality content. But even if you think it was bad quality content, you can't blame Deadspin for publishing it. What you can do is refrain from reading it and promoting it, and try to influence distributors that it's bad content. I'm not suggesting that sports bloggers should all band together and "collude" on what kind of content is good or bad. I'm just pointing out that we need to recognize that content quality is not the only important factor at work in our business.

I'm not sure what small, independent bloggers can do to influence this distribution situation. Linking to good quality content from your fellow bloggers is a start, but it seems like there's a limit to the return you can get from the closed circle of bloggers who do that.

The most interesting development to me is the partnerships between large portals and blog networks. Those blog networks can make sure the content they’re offering is high quality. Editors and bloggers are in turn charged with ensuring that on the ground level. Sports Blog Nation (SBN) seems to be getting good distribution for its quality blog content in this way. In my next post, I’ll talk about my employer Yardbarker’s new partnership with and MSN, which I think will be another step forward for sports blogging. As always, I welcome your thoughts by email or in the comments.


Vic De Zen said...

Very nice read. Kinda makes me want to start blogging again.

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