Friday, November 6, 2009

Sports bloggers need to work with the incentives of distributors

This is part of my continuing series about what’s next for sports blogging. You can read my introduction here, as well as posts about the tension between ESPN and blogs like Deadspin and the power of distribution in relation to content quality. As a reminder, these are my own personal opinions – although in this post I’ll talk about my employer Yardbarker.

As I’ve discussed, merely producing high quality blog content is not enough to ensure success. Mass distribution from large portals like Yahoo or AOL is essential to helping content “float to the top.” (There are some early-mover indie blogs that are notable exceptions.)

Yardbarker just announced a partnership with Fox Sports on MSN that I hope will give our high quality blog content the distribution it needs to be very successful. Part of the partnership involves collaboration on sales, which gives Fox Sports an incentive to promote our blog content (Ben Koo has a great discussion of this). Even so, the partnership is not going to mean automatic success for blogs – I’ll be working on the editorial end of things and I realize that it’s partly my job to show Fox Sports how valuable our blog content is.

Many portals (such as the two where I’ve worked, AOL and Yahoo) have teams that are responsible for the homepage only. These teams often judge success by the click-through rates of headlines they place on the homepage. This creates incentives for the homepage team that don’t necessarily line up with those of the entire company or those of sports bloggers in the system.

Consider two stories you might find on AOL: one is a thoughtful FanHouse blog post about the end of the baseball season, and one is a short wire story about Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom being pregnant. The Khlodom headline will likely click through at a higher rate. As a result, a homepage team may be inclined to showcase that story instead of the baseball one.

However, the Khlodom story is not necessarily more valuable to AOL than the baseball one. If a large number of people click on the Khlodom headline just to gawk for a moment and then close the window, that might not be as valuable as a smaller number of people clicking on the baseball story, enjoying the writing, and then clicking to read more FanHouse stories or more posts by that blogger. Even if the time-on-site or total page views are equal for the two, the baseball story still might be more valuable because it promotes the brand of FanHouse and that blogger’s name. Promoting brand helps to build repeat and organic traffic (which is especially important to a property like FanHouse that might not always be able to rely on the AOL homepage firehose). An empty calorie story like the Khlodom one might not have that same effect.

In addition to competing with “gossipy” stories for homepage attention, the thoughtful baseball blog post might compete with an article by a well-known columnist. For instance, Fox Sports gets heavy traffic on Jason Whitlock’s columns. Part of that popularity has to do with his actual content, and part of it has to do with his name brand that he’s built up with years of mass distribution. Whitlock has proven that his content guarantees eyeballs. A talented but unknown blogger doesn’t have that same pull -- but if given steady distribution, that blogger could develop that pull over time.

I’m not suggesting that portal editors aren’t sophisticated enough to be looking at long-term value or metrics beyond the first click – surely they are. But it’s harder to quantify those other kinds of value, and short-term wins in click-throughs are often rewarded. This creates the incentive to promote the fluffy Khlodom piece or the Whitlock sure thing.

So what can we do, given that those with distribution power have incentives that may not favor a long-term investment in budding sports bloggers?

1) We can push them to have a longer view and try to show value with whatever metrics we can.

2) More practically, we can sometimes give them the piece of mass-appeal candy that they want. The blogger who wrote the thoughtful baseball post may not want to “stoop” to writing a fluff piece because that kind of writing could hurt that blogger’s budding name brand. But another blogger could write a Khlodom piece and promote other content from there. Or the baseball blogger could compromise and write a somewhat fluffy piece about Alyssa Milano. Snobby artists may turn their nose up at the idea of playing to the masses – but that’s why most snobby artists aren’t commercially successful.

3) We can highlight the places where blogs can replace standard content. If the star linebacker for an NFL team is out for the season with an injury, that's a headline the homepage editors know they want. So instead of linking to the AP wire version of the story, we can show that a blog post can communicate that same information (which incidentally would create value for the blogger).

In the coming weeks, as I continue working with Fox Sports on MSN, I hope to show them the long-term value of the sports bloggers in our Yardbarker Network. One thing that’s going to require is an organized, proactive, business-oriented attitude from our bloggers. I will be talking about that in my next post.

Thank you for reading, and as always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments or by email.

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