Did you notice? When Huffington Post retired their unpaid contributor program last month, their announcement’s headline began with the word “Introducing . . .”
Most of us kept scanning. That’s not why we had come. A rumor was going around, and we had all flocked to see whether it was true.
The thing’s subtitle glibly brushed aside that other matter with an addendum: “And some news regarding our contributors platform,” it read.
Now, like me, many of the people reading the release reside in multiple categories of their readership. I’m a marketing consultant, a contributor (“writer”) to many digital publishing outlets, and then I’m also a heavily targeted consumer. So when I began to read the story, three distinct responses rose up immediately.
“We live in a cacophonous world,” starts the article.
“Now that’s some good positioning,” concluded the marketer in me. “I wonder how they began the email to the contributors breaking the news to them.”
“But that’s my work you’re talking about,” argued my inner freelance writer. “I put my blood, sweat, and tears into what you’re calling a cacophony.”
“Heck yes it’s cacophonous,” agreed the consumer. “Hopefully, this move will weed out some of the garbage.”
Clearly, there was a lot to unpack.
Let’s start with what this all means for today’s marketing team. Brands know that conventional publishers are in an awkward spot. Readers have seemingly changed overnight, baffling media traditionalists with their thirst for entertaining and informative stories on demand, all delivered with a more relatable, gutsy human voice.
The advertisers they used to call “clients” now crave much more than traffic: They want their own addressable audiences. It started with the short-term rental agreement they called “native advertising,” but even that did not satisfy enterprises anymore. They began launching their own internal content-creation hubs, establishing their own media properties, and successfully targeting super-niche groups—a skill most of the big publications have forgotten.
Major papers and magazines have what brands want: loyal, trusting, curious, vocally supportive audiences. Not to mention a ton of eager writers who consider it a privilege to contribute for free.
And brands have what big publications are desperate for: endless monetization strategies and the freedom to take a side on any and all issues without a crippling backlash.
The only thing they have in common is the plethora of distribution channels available.
In walks the Huffington Post with an idea. “Anyone can contribute and compete for the eyeballs we’ve earned,” they declared.
At this, fellow publications and brands settled in to watch how the decision would play out. Bloggers got busy, and readers congregated around their favorite contributors, engaging, sharing, and returning for more. The Huffington Post grew in both readership and revenue, but as for profit, only broke even in 2014, according to the New York Times.
It was a public experiment in quantity over quality. Posting a collective 1,900 articles per day, created mostly by the caliber of writers who gladly craft stories for unguaranteed exposure alone, something was bound to break.
Image attribution: Charlotte
For marketers fascinated by the concept of a brand newsroom, HuffPost is a great story to learn from. Setting up a command center and hiring journalists may be one of the best business moves a brand can make today. But in this case, that’s where the inspiration gleaning should stop.
Establish and communicate a specific documented strategy, hire high-quality freelancers and treat them like gold, and most importantly, target a single group of people with relevant stories as opposed to whatever your contributors have on their hearts that day. This way, you’ll never have to shut down your content hub and pretend the announcement is a launch for something else.
Licensed professional counselor and mental-health advocate Keli Gooch is a contributing writer who published her work on HuffPost’s site. “The Huffington Post was absolutely a positive and beneficial thing for me to reach more people, because I didn’t have that audience,” she told me. “At first, I was a beginning blogger, and I really wanted to get my message out there. I didn’t even concentrate on trying to get more customers; I was just trying to build my platform, get my story out there. And that’s what HuffPost did for me.”
Gooch says that the boost in confidence encouraged her to aim even higher, so she submitted a few pieces to TODAY Parenting Team. “The third one actually got featured on the Today Show. So what Huffington Post did for me is it gave me that platform, that extra boost to aim even higher.”
These days, Gooch doesn’t focus on building her audience on someone else’s property. She does, however, credit her jump start to the audience she found on HuffPost. “I have a big story to tell, and I really want to help people,” she says. “But you can’t help people if you don’t have an avenue, if no one can hear you. So your message can just get muddled down to a few Facebook friends. Once you get on HuffPost, though, you reach this community. From my exposure with HuffPost, I was able to reach more moms, reach more dads, reach more parents like me. Plus, they gave me a platform to talk about mental health, as well.”
A clear strategy is just as important for a solopreneur as it is for an enterprise company. So if a writer “finds himself” contributing to someone else’s uncompensated blogging platform regularly with no plan to exit the hamster wheel, well then, sure, he will become the subject of angry criticism from other creatives who claim he’s sabotaging the whole industry. Or worse, he’ll become a tired, bitter critic himself.
But if a writer sees unpaid digital publishing platforms as an opportunity to weave a measured, strategic play (or two) into their own clear road map, then “working for exposure” can be a tenable move.
The concept behind clickbait is over a hundred years old. The US State Department still holds that the Spanish–American War erupted in part because of sensationalist headlines. And yes, as a consumer, I’m saddened that at best, some outlets waste readers’ time, and at worst, unmoderated journalism can bully innocent people, fan the flames of discrimination, and even start wars. But when I check the headlines each day, I’m more confident in the ability to sniff out the truth today than I would have been in previous generations.
Things have gotten better for me as a reader. I have unlimited options. It’s a good time to be a consumer. The democratization of storytelling has shined a light on one-sided reporting, pseudo journalism, and the trail of funding that supports both. A glance around any blogging platform, a quick skim of the first few sentences, and I can usually tell whether I belong on a web page or not. I’m confident that those who target me can usually find me, and I them.
But wait, are all those good outcomes the result of a leveled digital publishing ground? Or do those benefits say something about me as a reader? You see, some audiences are valued differently than others. When I consume garbage, smart algorithms steer me toward more of the same. And when I read thought-provoking, well-researched cultural-analysis pieces, I notice more elevated content naturally finds me.
Image attribution: Ali Marel
My browsing and buying habits segment me, whether I like it or not. The fact begs a question: Did HuffPost decide they want to change their product? Or did they decide they want to change their audience?
As a consumer, I don’t care whether the good stuff comes from a brand, a publisher, or a brand publisher. As long as it’s available, I’ll be happy.
What about you? Are you a marketer, a content creator, or a consumer? Or are you (like me) all three? HuffPost’s pivot has lessons for all of us, and the many roles we play.
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Feature image attribution: Bruno Cervera