How researchers get heard
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To Publish, or Build a Library?

Blogging is dead; everyone agrees. (Except for successful bloggers.)

And yet, the publication legacy of blogging remains the dominant content paradigm of our time — generating one-off content about a variety of topics rather than concentrating and going deep on a few. You see it in journalism; you see it in content marketing; you see it in research communications. It’s the way our CMSs are usually set up…for our publishing platforms, and for our brains.

Done mindlessly, though, publishing can easily be counterproductive — because research audiences are depth audiences, not variety audiences.

There’s a piece of content about this issue that’s become seminal for me: Animalz’s “Your Blog is Not a Publication.” (Ironically, it’s a blog post.) In it, Jimmy Daly of Animalz proposes a second way of approaching content strategy — the library approach (reduced publication cadence, high quality, great depth).

Daly is worth quoting at length about the differences and the advantages of a library approach:

It’s hard to overstate just how problematic this has become in content marketing. Here’s what a publication mindset looks like in practice:

  • Topics are horizontally integrated, meaning that content creators cover a broad range of topics rather than the full range of depth.
    • Posts are published on a strict schedule, so it’s hard to make time for content that requires additional time and energy.
    • Content serves an audience, therefore timeliness is prioritized.

And here’s why those things are problematic:

  • Depth is almost always more useful to readers than breadth.
    • Content efforts that require a lot of effort (think benchmark reports, data analysis, etc.) often deliver 10x the results of a post that requires less effort.
    • The huge majority of readers are not regular visitors to your site. Instead, they seek out specific articles to solve specific problems.

This last point is a key driver of bad content strategy. We took a look at a few very successful SaaS blogs and found that, on those sites, only about 17% of visitors were returning. That means that 83% of visitors were new. You may have a negative reaction to this, but it’s actually a good thing.

In other words, your top-of-funnel audience isn’t people who learn about you and return for more. Your top-of funnel audience is a constant stream of new people looking for answers to questions relevant to them. Your job is to provide those answers in ways that are eminently findable and shareable:

In the research space, the library approach means you will catch these “people who need help now” with more resource-centric content. Not with one-off publication content that masquerades as a resource.

Look, for instance, at Urban Institute recent blog post headlined “These Five Facts Reveal the Current Crisis in Black Homeownership.”

The five facts are shocking to me — such as #3: “Homeownership is lower for black college graduates than for white high school dropouts.”

The post also provides a single policy solution — improve access to credit for African Americans — with multiple options for how to accomplish that improvement.

The Urban content is clear and powerful.

But as with every blog post, it’s obscured on a blog with a bunch of unrelated content, and will be buried under the snowdrift of blog posts to come.

As with every blog post, it won’t be updated as new research comes to light.

As with every blog post, its search value will be allowed to decay.

When I Google “crisis black homeownership,” I’m shocked again — to discover that the entire first page — except for the Urban post — comes up news items, either on journalism or trade association sites.

Not a single piece of think tank or other research organization content.

That’s crazy.

Making the Urban blog post into its own page or section that retains the 5 facts approach with the single solution — but also prioritizes organic search and traffic and linking to relevant content, including curating relevant research to the 5 facts — is the beginning of a library approach to content strategy for research.

Continuing to write about the topic and not considering it dead simply because you’ve written about it is another facet of the library approach. Daly’s post is quite good on this:

Content marketers sometimes feel that readers won’t want to see the same topic on the blog week after week. But that’s a misinterpretation of how people consume content. Most people seek out content when they have a problem to solve and won’t even notice if the newest posts all cover similar things.

If you’re doing it right, the bulk of your traffic in a library approach should come well after you launch it, as the long tail of search and discovery kicks in.

Takeaway: Research acts as if it’s in the short-tail business when it’s really in the long-tail business. Adjust your content strategy accordingly.