The Dilemma Of Content Curation

On June 24, 2015, Circa News announced it was shutting down since it didn’t have enough capital to continue publishing high-quality news summaries. Circa was the pioneering company in terms of atomizing news and it really did work well. It kept users updated across a variety of topics, with brief summaries and links to full-length news articles for those interested. Circa was this tiny capsule that kept me updated about all the news events throughout the day. But it never spammed me, ever. There were set times when I would receive the news digest and that was it.

However, producing high quality content is not cheap. Circa had a dedicated team to scan the news, collect stories from various publications and then push the snippet into the app. You need an editorial team that can absorb the news and then push it out as a summary. After Circa shut down, only a couple of apps have moved into Circa’s space. BuzzFeed launched its News app, with summaries of major events and links to articles and videos, with a bit of emoji thrown in, because, let’s admit it, emoji are cool. An Indian startup, Inshorts, has since launched, with an aim of keeping users updated with the latest news in 60 words or less. According to the website, the editorial team scours the Internet for news across major sections and atomizes it for their users.

But is such a model sustainable? It sure is scalable, since the major sections or news categories remain the same. However, new challenges present themselves, with regions. Each country has its own languages and news sources of choice. It sure won’t be easy to have an editorial team for each country. Certain other apps have solved this issue by having editions for major countries, like the UK, France, Japan and India. Circa, even with its great editorial team couldn’t find a way to keep the ship afloat. So how will new startups in this field manage to keep themselves going and grow?

One possible solution might be to partner up with existing publications. Most publications online are struggling with the decline of print and flat-lining of traffic; not all of them are big enough or influential enough to get a paywall working like The New York Times. Any attempt to increase traffic and get more views on ads will be welcomed by them. A company like Inshorts, could charge a news website to have its article provided as the full length story for users to read. There is a bit of a bottleneck, however, in this method. Since users are getting everything they might need from those 60 word summaries, why would they click through to the full length articles? To spark interest in the reader, in just those 60 words or less, the editorial team needs to be top notch.

Now all this is just conjecture on my part, and startups like Inshorts may or may not adopt these measures to monetize. But let’s look at BuzzFeed for a second. A recent profile of BuzzFeed by Fast Company revealed just how nimble BuzzFeed is internally. They are constantly experimenting, tracking results and evolving, shuffling teams and trying out every possible avenue of spreading their content, be it on their own website or on third-party platforms like Facebook. With all the funding and revenues BuzzFeed has, they do not need to be aggressive with trying to monetize their News app. If anything, the News app will be another data point they will measure and track to see what kind of content and news goes viral. What I think they’d do, is play the long game. See how the app is received and slowly try out a dozen different ways of monetizing it. BuzzFeed already has different teams spread out around the world, so again, assembling an editorial team for different news editions would be pretty easy for them.

As for the need of such apps and services, you only need to look online. Newsletters like theSkimm and NextDraft are wildly popular. In this era of fractured attention and fidgety Internet users, atomizing content is becoming more of a utility than a novelty. But for such startups to be able to curate and atomize and still survive, they need to crack another problem.

Unsplash_Anna_Demianenko
Courtesy: Anna Demianenko via Unsplash.

If your curation/reading app drives users outside, to the publisher’s website, you’re basically a gateway to content. It’s also hard to make money this way, because, unless you’re an Internet giant à la Google or Apple, no publisher is going to pay you to deliver traffic to their website, when they can get better results by promoting their content on Facebook or Twitter. As a startup in the curation business, it will be insanely difficult to strike a good deal with publishers. So, if a curation app drives users outside to the publisher, it is no different from the Web portals of the 90s.

On the other hand, if you try to keep your users inside the app or platform, when delivering stories to them, you will need the advantages of a large scale, to survive. You’ll need to spend money to keep users glued to your platform and then eventually figure out a way to monetize, whether through ads or sponsored content. Keeping users within the app requires a lot of seed capital to burn in the beginning, since there is no revenue until the users are metaphorically glued to the app. An example of this is Facebook; ads and sponsored/promoted posts only started showing up when enough users were using the service daily or even hourly.

Using algorithms to track interests and recommend content to users is a method that has been tried too often, but has never really taken off. It just might make a comeback now, with all the advances being made in machine learning. However, a lot of users are disillusioned with the concept of algorithms curating and recommending content for them, based on their reading history.

What we need are more human-curated news services. But even this method has two branches that could be taken.

You could have a team of editors poring over all the news, picking certain articles up and creating summaries or pushing them out to subsets of users, with the help of algorithms. Again, you need a lot of employees and as in the case of Circa, it may not always work. You’ll always need more capital to keep it running.

Once a curation startup has attracted enough users, the next problem for them is to figure out a way to make money and keep the lights on. Do they show ads? Do they charge for a subscription? What will be the extra features in the subscription tier, if any? Will users come back after the introduction of a subscription model, when they can find the same content for free online?

The other path to take with manual curation is that of creating a “network of curators“. Create a platform where users can create networks to curate the best articles/videos they’ve read or seen, and possibly collaborate. Once a network like this takes form, the members would take a greater interest in it, since they are part of the network and its functioning. This.cm, a new platform where users can share only one link a day, is an example of such a network. You can follow people and publishers on This, and get only one link from each account every day. It’s sort of like Twitter, but really slow and with none of the noise. Apart from noise reduction, it also helps the best content to rise to the top. Think about it, if you could only share one link every day and you wanted your friends to read the best possible article out of the hundreds you’d read, you would definitely share the best with them. That is what This.cm does, the best content is surfaced by the thousands of users every day. This is exactly why current social media services are broken, as the CEO of This.cm explains. In this age of fast moving streams of updates and content, and information overload, sites like This might seem like an anachronism. But the service just wants you to slow down and read stuff that matters.

The biggest problem, by far, with respect to curation is this: no one wants to pay for it. This was pointed out by Om Malik in his post, which inspired me to write this post. Sure, Inshorts or BuzzFeed might finally figure out how to amass thousands or millions of users and grow their apps, or This.cm might figure out how to surface and recommend the absolute best content on the Web to users, but all of these players still need to figure out a way to monetize their offerings. No matter how ground-breaking the technology, how effective the methods used or how good something is, unless a suitable revenue source exists, it’s always in danger of being shut down. Let’s hope the next big player in curation cracks this last problem.

What are your thoughts on content curation? Have something to add or discuss? Let me know in the comments. Also, I’ve been experimenting with a reviews widget at the bottom, just to get a sense of what you think about my content. Please rate this post, so I have some reader feedback to work with. 🙂

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