Panacea Green

The summer I turned 18, I dreamed green. No, I don't mean about green things; I mean a moving canvas of hues spanning the limited spectrum of pea to asparagus. That was the summer I worked desperately to earn money for college, yet the shade was never currency green. My subconscious wasn't crying out for cash. No, I was simply so overwhelmed with my summer job at D&K Frozen Foods (picking bad peas out of billions of good ones racing by on a conveyor belt or putting asparagus into cutters over and over all night long) that it flowed right into my dreams. It was well worth it, though. The job paid almost $4 an hour above minimum wage and, being the go-getter that I am, I eventually got promoted to asparagus weigher so I could slog up and down the line randomly weighing the rectangular white boxes to be sure no one filled them with too many stalks. I quit before carrot season or this could have been a column of a different color… That summer was about money and going away to college. It was the germination of my knowledge that realizing even seemingly obvious ideas requires careful planning and hard work. Despite what Nike might suggest, you can't always just do it. Sometimes you have to earn the money to buy the shoes before you hit the road.

My inbox brims each day with press releases about products that will magically transform content into revenue. Yet despite such alchemistic assertions, they never let you put content in one end and get green out the other. A business model simply must be in place; companies need to understand how something will help them make money, and I don't mean simply promising ROI. I'm talking about real live strategies that show companies how to choose tools, do the work required, and actually experience success measurable in dollars and cents. Common sense? Maybe, but certainly not something I read all that often in press releases and Web site marketing hype.

Occasionally I sit down with a vendor and get them to actually talk about the kind of hard work it will take for their products to perform as advertised. And don't get me started on free or open-source tools: it's funny how often "something for nothing" looks suspiciously like "nothing for nothing." It seems like if you toss in some tricky acronyms (hey, the letter X is cool) then everyone gets blinded to the fact that nothing works "out of the box"—especially not things that don't have a box to start with. There is something to be said for a help desk.

Maybe desperate times call for desperate sales tactics, but EContent recently received a sales pitch in the form of an outright dis: A vendor sent a charming offer to help us with our lack of RSS feeds by pointing out that it was appalling that we didn't have RSS. He thoughtfully showed us how easy it was to scrape our site and create a rough feed. Scraping is about as elegant as it sounds; it isn't anyone's first choice of content delivery or acquisition but it does provide a way to collect the data publishers produce digitally and force-fit it into RSS delivery mechanisms. Okay, the content is already on the Web so it isn't like it is being stolen or anything, and content gets cut and pasted and passed along out of context any number of ways. But as someone who devotes a great deal of time to content creation and presentation, I would prefer that it be delivered in ways I deem appropriate.

Of course, that's really just aesthetics. Contrary to what this vendor (and some of his blog pals) may think, RSS is just beginning to come into its own as a viable business tool. Yes, it has been around for a while and does hold promise in its ability to allow people to customize and personalize content they view from a vast array of sources. It also gives content providers a digital delivery mechanism that can circumvent email inbox glut. But unlike the growing masses of internet self-published, we old-school publishers, who made content before it was econtent, actually have to come up with viable business models to embrace new delivery mechanisms, especially those that can easily undermine our existing ones.

Those strategies include building our site hits by delivering enticing headlines via RSS to generate increased clickthrough. But as with all delivery mechanisms, one hand must know what the other is doing to avoid snatching the income out of it. If we deliver a feed that competes with our sponsored enewsletters, for example, clicks may drop and sponsors may drop out. And of course there's always the question of delivering our paid-subscription-based magazine content for free via these feeds. Yes, we draw attention to the magazine; yes, we better serve the predilections of our digital-savvy audience; yes, we increase site traffic, which may positively impact banner ads and the like. But ultimately, we must carefully watch our econtent in order continue to generate enough revenue to produce it…at a profit. It ain't easy dreaming green.