Battle Headline-by-Headline


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Want to give yourself a rude wake-up call about the harsh reality of brand value on the modern web? Try this: Make a personalized web page at Google or MyYahoo! composed of all the major RSS feeds from your site along with the feeds from content brands you consider competition.

I did this recently for a client presentation in the entertainment media space. The page displayed the client's brand's headlines on the last weekend's movie grosses, Paris Hilton's latest fashion atrocity, and Mel Gibson's DUI. But in this context they were just another block of headlines among seven or eight other sources, all covering the same ground but with somewhat different headline wording. How many ways can you be snarky about Paris Hilton in a headline, after all? Well, actually there are a lot of ways, but it turns out that they pretty much all have the same catty sneer to them.

Generally, PowerPoint presentations bore people to the point of suicidal thoughts, but you should have heard the gasps from this room when that slide went up. Talk about a brand manager's nightmare. When that website you labor over, spend millions to maintain, and sell to advertisers as a wonderful haven for "engaged" users gets boiled down to three headlines in a mosh pit of others, prepare to be humbled. Ah, the wonderful pain of the web's democratizing force.

In the context of a personalized home page of feeds, where users really pull to themselves the information they want, the field of battle radically shrinks. It isn't a war of fancy sites, great marketing, and retention tools; it is a tactical, hour-by-hour contest of headlines. Whose take on this item sounds more inviting, complete, or relevant to my perspective within five or so words? At least one major news provider told me that the provider now specifically writes headlines with aggregation in mind: They have to stand out and sell the specific value of your brand, in seven words or less.

On an RSS feed page, whether a dedicated reader or the increasingly important personalized portal pages, all brands become equal. A clever blog really does look every bit the peer of a major TV or print brand. In fact, some forward-thinking upstarts prove to be more equal than others. For instance, in the entertainment and gossip category I was covering in this presentation, one waggish site had managed to slip into the mix some code that made its area of my personal page a graphical, interactive listing. Unlike the other major brands, which were all text, this unit let me mouse over a headline to get a pop-up of the lead graph.

"What the…?!" cried my audience from their boardroom chairs. Some ne'er-do-well blog from who-knows-what-flyoverzone just made a decade-old brand look frowsy and common! Arguably, this situation is not entirely new. Newspapers still battle it out with headers, and magazines vie for us at checkout stands with provocative tags and celebrity images. Yet online this battle happens on a minute-by-minute basis. I advised this publisher to have an editorial staffer maintain a page just like the one I demonstrated and consult it several times per day.

Arguably, this situation is not entirely new. Newspapers still battle it out with headers, and magazines vie for us at checkout stands with provocative tags and celebrity images. Yet online this battle happens on a minute-by-minute basis. I advised this publisher to have an editorial staffer maintain a page just like the one I demonstrated and consult it several times per day.

"But isn't RSS still just a geek thing?" you may ask. Not at all. In fact, in just the last few months, a number of consumer brands have joined the tech business brands in telling me that substantial amounts of traffic now come to their sites via feeds. The big shift occurred only this year, when both Yahoo! and Google made RSS invisible. The personal home pages at both engines let you simply subscribe to feeds with a click of a button. In its customization page, Google even lets you run a specific search for the feeds you want, and you can subscribe to feeds from the list with one click. That is how I made my page of celebrity news for this client; it took all of three minutes.

But general users of all experience levels aren't the only ones moving quickly into the on-demand model RSS offers. These feeds are also the way many bloggers see your content; they use these tools to troll for news to link to. And again, business and consumer brands increasingly report that the blogosphere is becoming an important source of traffic and new users.

I don't know how brands should try to prove their value to users in a context where media consumers are so savvy that they are comparing each brand to its competitors at every moment of every day. I just know that it will in the end come down to content— who has the best, the latest, the most exclusive. Perhaps this is a purer form of competition after all.