In Search of a Happy Medium Between Academic Papers and Shlocky Business Insider Top 10 Lists

Here’s the state of the art in home page design for an academic website:

And here’s the state of the art in home page design for a rapidly growing media site:

Suffice it to say that I don’t want to emulate either the blandness of the first interface or the tabloid feel of the second one.

Now that Numerate Choir is a year old, I’ve been thinking about these extremes of online content, and trying to figure out where sites like Numerate Choir fit.

Virality

In the world of virality, headline usually matters more than content: the headline is what people click on, and it strongly influences what people share.

In the world of virality, short, simple, and universally entertaining is key. How something is presented matters more than what is presented. That top 10 list can be utter crap, thrown together in five minutes, but hey, look at the pretty slides! And my friend is #8 on the list!

The world of virality is superficial, but it has one very valuable characteristic. It understands what normal people value, and it concerns itself with what they will respond to in the real world. It doesn’t concern itself with “could” or “should”; the key term is “actually does”.

Art and Academia

In the world of art and academia, depth and truth should matter above all else. Headline is superficial: what matters is who reads something, not how many people read it.

In the world of art and academia, entertainment is looked down upon. It’s far better to be profound — and full of jargon — than amusing or captivating.

The world of art and academia is also superficial, but in a different way: superficiality is manifested as the desire to prove one’s sophistication. Those in the academic and artistic sphere generally don’t understand how to create content for the masses, but they are far more likely to discover things that matter.

Numerate Choir and a Little of Each

As I wrote about in my post on the state of journalism, there’s a growing dichotomy between 1) pseudo-news that can be both popular and profitable, and 2) deeper content that often fits better into a non-profit model.

I have a love/hate relationship with both of these extremes. And my work on Numerate Choir has oscillated between the two.

Like an academic, I write blog posts that I — and anyone with editing experience — knows are way too long even for a geeky Silicon Valley audience. And then I float to the other side: how can I craft a headline that will maximize sharing on Twitter? And why can’t I easily a/b test the stupid thing?

Like most academics, I do a poor job marketing and selling my work. I naively hit the publish button and hope for the best: beyond a quick post on the major social networks, I do nothing to publicize my writings. But then like the growth-loving impatient exec I criticize, I keep a close eye on Twitter to see if any of the cool kids have shared my new post.

Like an academic, I hope that what I write will help people understand an issue and maybe think a little more deeply. Like a growth hacker, I do care about how many people read them (even if I recognize that they aren’t for everyone).

It’s amazing yet discouraging that my most read post — by a factor of two — was a relatively lightweight rant on not needing a real-time dashboard. That post was written in response to a friend’s emailed question; I wrote and published the whole thing in under two hours.

(Credit where it’s due: that distribution was helped in large part by Andrew Chen cross-publishing it on his blog — thanks, Andrew.)

I often write with a lofty goal: capture some of the truth and quality of academia done right, and reach a larger audience. Sometimes that’s worked: The Visionary and the Pivoter and A Founder’s Constant State of Rejection (also on founderdating.com) were both read by lots of people. Two other posts I was especially proud of, Why Big Data Trumps Small Data and In a Data-Driven World, Honesty is the Fundamental Virtue, were far less successful metrics-wise.

My blog posts have generally followed one of two patterns:

  • I post something, then link to it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. A few of my friends read it, and one or two of them might retweet the link. The post is seen by at most a couple thousand people.
  • I post something and link to it and a few people click through. That’s the “soft launch.” One or two of the clickers happens to be a friend who’s an order of magnitude better known than I am. When he tweets it out himself, we have a “real launch” (thanks Naval/Keith/Andrew/Eric/Jeremy/Dave). That tech celebrity share serves not just as a driver of traffic but as social proof to others: this is not a sleazy Business Insider post.

Hence Twitter is essentially an oligarchy: a handful of people have most of the power. While many could exercise it better, it winds up being an acceptable model to propagate this sort of semi-intellectual, semi-popular content.

Metrics for Success

What metrics define success for this blog?

The business model for most online media sites is pretty simple: visitors and page views translate directly into ad dollars. In most cases, the revenue per user is constant: it doesn’t matter if the viewer is President Obama or my one year old daughter banging on the keyboard.

For this blog, revenue is and will be zero, regardless of how many readers there are. I’m not sure what the most important metric is; I can think of at least five that matter to me.

Several times, I’ve written about topics I’ll almost surely never touch professionally. When I do this, it’s often with the hope that somehow it will reach someone far more influential than I, and affect a positive change on the world.

Other times, I’ll write to crystallize my own thoughts. If I get great feedback, that’s nice, but I’m writing more for myself.

Sometimes, my posts can be a good way to tell a bunch of my friends about my experiences; they then inspire deeper conversations about interesting topics.

A couple of times, I’ve been able to link people I know to a post I wrote explaining my thoughts on a particular issue. This means I don’t need to write it up again and again. As any engineer knows, re-usability is good.

Finally, I hope to share my personal learnings with others. I can think of only two places where a 35-year-old can be considered wise: a society where the life expectancy is 40, and Silicon Valley. I’ll drift off that sentiment if I can.

Mike Greenfield founded Bonafide, Circle of Moms, and Team Rankings, led LinkedIn's analytics team, and built much of PayPal's early fraud detection technology. Ping him at [first_name] at mikegreenfield.com.