The idea that we live in a world driven by niche interest – particularly when it comes to the creation of new content – may not reflect the whole picture. True, the content landscape is broader and more multivariate than its ever been. Yet amid this niche content renascence, the pressure to monetize this content has never been greater, leading to the encroachment of corporate influence.
As part of an announcement related to its 2017 layoffs, Medium, the online publishing company started by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, described how ad-driven online media is a “broken system” and how this is undermining the company’s bottom line. Williams took to the company’s blog to defend the layoffs as a step away from the ad-driven business model and a means of renewing the company’s focus on content.
“The vast majority of articles, videos, and other ‘content’ we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals,” Williams wrote. “And it is measured, amplified and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get … well, what we get. And it’s getting worse. That’s a big part of why we are making this change today.”
A detriment to content … and society?
While Williams remains coy about how exactly Medium will be shifting its business model to rely less on ad dollars, he isn’t alone in his assessment that ad-driven material may have a negative impact on the quality of content. Speaking to Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog, Feng Zhu, assistant professor of Business Administration at Harvard had equally strong words about the impact of ad-driven content creation models.
“Ads may have a negative impact on the quality of content.”
“Many media scholars think this revenue model is detrimental to society because it provides incentive for the content provider to produce only popular content that can attract lots of eyeballs,” said Zhu. “Content providers are serving advertisers rather than the audience, and consumers with niche preferences will be out of luck because the content they’re seeking only caters to a small group of people.”
Zhu, alongside fellow researcher Monic Sun, sought to study the impact of ad-revenue-sharing programs on bloggers and content creators. Looking at a data set from a leading Chinese media website that offers a range of services, including blogging, Zhu and Sun were able to compare posts written by authors taking part in an ad-based profit model versus ones who did not.
Comparing the two populations, Zhu and Sun were able to determine that the posts supported by ad revenue showed a significant uptick in content focusing on “popular” topics, such as the stock market, salacious content and celebrities. Interestingly, while the topics became more culturally homogenous, the ad-supported blogs were typically longer, published more frequently and included more photos and video clips than those not ad-supported.
What can we take from this data, as well as the warnings issued by Williams? The lesson here may be that content backed by advertising facilitates a certain level of depth and innovation not easily achieved without some form of sponsorship – yet this comes at a price. The key for content creators and advertisers looking to work together and leverage a content strategy is identifying the niche they are writing for and determining the demand and – ideally – value of the content before bringing it to market.