Let’s Get Hired! The Age of Consultative Content

New communication technologies interact with cultures and economies in many subtle, unforeseen ways. Publishing used to be a fairly top-down affair; seasoned and expert editors enlightening readers about what was new, hip, and necessary to know. Publications served a kind of authoritative role. A few snail mail letters to the editor trickled in, and every so often the marketing department would run a poll to find out—in the most general terms—what readers wanted in their magazine. But the Internet and email have permanently transformed that familiar relationship between readers and editors, creating a two-way feedback loop that works persistently and in real time. As a result, readers become more demanding; they expect their content to be more responsive, perhaps even to serve them in more specific, personal ways than any editor would have imagined a decade ago. The Internet has changed the terms of the reader/editor relationship, and at the outer edge of this trend are content providers that are starting to profit from recasting themselves as consultants rather than authorities.

To wit: Conde Nast's new shopping magazine for men, Cargo, which includes buyer's guides, reviews, and shopping tips and strategies. While Cargo and its Web complement Cargomag.com were launched by savvy Web veterans who wanted the site to be an integral piece in the editorial mix, even editor-in-chief Ariel Foxman was surprised at the level and kind of involvement readers sought. "We get an incredible volume of emails," he says, "and they are very specific, asking for story topics and following up stories with questions." Readers want to know where they can buy that nose hair trimmer or find an obscure designer cologne. And the editors rise to the occasion by hunting down answers and either responding directly or incorporating the info into a section of the magazine called, appropriately, Search Engine. "It's turned into something much larger than a service magazine," says Foxman, "It's turned into a really vibrant interactive community."

"For a magazine like Cargo, which bills itself as a buying guide, it is great to have these specific questions," says Melissa O'Neil, online editor of Cargomag.com. "We can react to what they are looking for." I would go further. This is a content provider morphing into a consultative service for readers, a highly responsive, on-demand system in which editors satisfy readers' tastes and needs in near-real time. In some cases, it involves using this voluminous feedback to determine article topics, but it could also mean hunting down information and resources for individual requests. In this consultative model, editors regard readers as the experts—experts about their own information needs, which editors must satisfy.

While many traditional editors might resist the idea of serving at the pleasure of readers, I would say that consultative content is an important opportunity to embrace the full implications of digital interactivity, provide value, and ultimately get revenue in return. In a task-oriented environment like the Web, information is a service, the right content at the right time, fulfilling a specific need, delivered in a convenient way. To do this, you must get users to tell you what information they need and how they use it and then shape your content so that readers perceive your site as a service.

Business publisher 101communications (www.101com.com) plays around the edges of consultative content. In addition to a profitable line of sites complementing print, 101 started the Data Warehousing Institute (www.tdwi.com). Unlike a standard trade pub, this is a repository of resources, directories, white papers, and best practices for the data warehousing industry. Users pay to join as members whom 101communications then poll about their business information needs. "The idea is to gather information and find out more about the community," says Marlin Mowatt, director of Web operations. "As people register we gather the type of information they are interested in." This user-submitted data helps determine what content is needed next in the institute repository.

This is not just using the Web for market research. This shapes a publication around the information users' needs and how they use it—making the content look and feel highly responsive to its audience. In its recent report on fee-based content, research and advisory firm Outsell reviewed 100 content providers that have succeeded in charging partners, consumers, or businesses; a common thread was that most of these publishers first determined what was of value to the user and then constructed content products to provide that value. I would say they were acting like consultants, not editors. "Providing content that increases efficiency or effectiveness creates value for them and a basis for you to be paid," says Outsell analyst Chuck Richard.

As much as anything else, this is a shift in mindset. Maybe, instead of thinking about how to get users to pay for our content, we need to figure out how to get them to hire our content…and us.