Empowering content: an introduction
By David Walker (Google profile)
Web sites that concentrate on delivering original information and entertainment have come under tough scrutiny in the past two months. The reason: few of them have a business model that will deliver profits any time soon. Web video sites Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) and Pseudo.com and crime news specialist APB.com have all closed, while Salon, Atomic Pop, Reel.com, Shockwave.com, iVillage, CMS New Media, LATimes.com and NBCi have all cut staff.
Why is Web content proving so hard to support? In part because Web start-ups are working so hard to duplicate existing media. Salon, APB.com and the LA Times site have all aped a traditional print publication. DEN, Pseudo.com and Reel.com have modelled themselves on TV entertainment. Most of these sites aim to survive largely on ad revenue - and there simply isn't enough ad revenue to go round.
But the Web is currently neither a perfect medium for casual reading nor much of a medium at all for entertainment. On the other hand - as I've argued before in this column - it is a medium for doing things, a utility medium, useful for everything from buying climbing equipment to looking up phone numbers to finding out how to build a scale model of the planet Saturn for a school project.
So if you're building Web content, you may want to consider whether your content is going to help people get something done. Whether, for want of a better term, it is going to empower them.
Empowering content has a commercial history that stretches back long before the Web, at least to the nineteenth-century US Sears & Roebuck catalogue. The Sears & Roebuck catalogue opened up a world of information - especially pricing information - previously hidden from the US consumer. But empowering content looks more and more important as economic shifts continue to transfer commercial power from the producer to the consumer. Consumers increasingly resist being spun a pitch. But they also need more help than ever before to complete transactions and tasks of all sorts.
To take the most obvious example, content can allow Web users to purchase services and goods. People only buy when they know what they're buying. So many sites provide information about products they have for sale. Amazon and eBay are two classic examples - and two of the elite group of Web sites whose business model looks solid.
And some sites have gone even further, providing information about the entire "transaction domain", the context in which the product will be used. They aim to attract customers before they are ready to buy. Draw users back again and again, these sites reason, and those users will be much more likely to buy at some point in the future. They'll also build the site's reputation as a source of help. Since Forrester Research rates product research as the third most popular use of the Internet (behind only email and search engine use), this strategy has immediate appeal.
A case in point is REI, the US adventure-sports retailer that pioneered offline experience marketing with features such as in-store rock-climbing walls. That offline heritage left REI perfectly positioned to publish task-empowering online content. REI.com claims a looker-to-buyer conversion rate of around 10 per cent , rather than the industry standard 1 to 2 per cent, in part as a result of carefully-crafted content to help visitors make high-stakes decisions like choosing the right climbing rope. Business consultancy Booz Allen & Hamilton calls REI.com "a hands-on primer on the future of retail".
Empowering content won't solve every site's ills. But it does align itself to Internet users' actual behaviour. And that is the way that "new media" always evolve.