Is A Horizontal Or Vertical Content Strategy More Valuable?

The No. 1 criticism (and compliment) I get about my company's horizontal multi-category strategy is that it's a a mile wide but inches deep.  Truth be told, that may have been correct when we launched, but not anymore; some of our verticals have more depth than many vertical category-specific producers.

Nonetheless, people ask me if I had to do it all again, would I adopt a horizontal or vertical strategy?  That’s a great question.  Let’s dive in.

Pivoting into Content

Increasingly, tech firms and ad networks are pivoting and morphing into content creators.  Specific Media has begun the metamorphosis; Hulu, Netflix, YouTube are in transit; SAY Media is there, to name a few examples.

Paradox of Advertising

As they pivot into content, some underwrite a horizontal strategy, others go vertical and focus on the most engaged and passionate audiences, identifying the categories with the largest advertisers and the highest CPMs.  Unfortunately, those are usually not the same categories.  Ultimately what advertisers prefer is different from what from users like and distributors need. It’s important not to put the cart ahead of the horse since advertisers only care about a publisher once they’re huge.

The Challenge of Scale

I’m all for the principle of specialization; I wrote a book about it.  However, having worked a decade in the content business, I can tell you that while content isn’t a zero-sum game, unless you cover multiple categories, you end up writing about the same thing in five different ways.  As such, scale in content doesn’t actually come via producing more content, but rather, distributing your content in more places (but more on distribution in a bit.)

The Problem with Passionate Audiences

The reality, however, is that while video is a rich media, the most engaged audiences will always prefer articles over video, as text is ironically a deeper and richer experience, with words and metaphors leaving something to the imagination.  So if you want to produce articles, sure, go ahead and pick a vertical and go deep. 

But if you decide to produce videos with a vertical strategy, you run the risk of hitting a wall by running out of topics to produce.  After all, you can technically write an article on any topic, but you cannot produce a video on any topic; it boils down to the visuals.

More important, to scale in as a vertical video maker, you will need to take a step back and add articles in that vertical.  Once you do that, you may conclude that it’s cheaper to produce articles. Considering that text is better-indexed by search engines, you will start to ask yourself, “Why am I producing videos?”

Challenges of Video

You produce videos because there are thousands of existing great content businesses that publish articles, but very few that produce videos.  However, as evidenced by the declining proportion of video producers who maintain their own-and-operated website, video is all about distribution over destination.  As such, to maximize distribution, you need to have as many content pieces in as many categories because the largest aggregators of traffic are all horizontal plays (think YouTube, which eventually added Channels).

Distribution vs. IP

It’s paramount to understand that there’s a difference between “not owning your distribution” and “not owning your intellectual property.”  In other words, just because video producers rely on distribution doesn’t mean they don’t have defensible IP.  Moreover, horizontal libraries open up more distribution opportunities.

In the end, what matters is if you can build i) a profitable business that ii) produces quality content and iii) generates a positive return to investors when the company exits.

When it comes to liquidity events: while it’s easier to think of a buyer for vertical producers, in reality you may have fewer options.  By having more categories, you may not be the “must-buy” for a vertical competitor or larger text-based publisher that is looking at getting into video, but you can create more tension among wider cast of would-be buyers. 

Furthermore, a large text publisher, for example, may prefer to build its video strategy internally and not necessarily buy its way into videos, because the reality is that most (if not all) video content companies have underwhelming revenues relative to their reach and their funding.  Search engines were in the same boat pre-2002. 

Ultimately, you tend to get courted by suitors that like your strategy, so each strategy will garner interest.

So, what’s the Answer, Ash?

Both strategies have pros and cons.  It may ultimately boil down to your interests and strengths.  So if I had to pull a Mulligan, I would keep the horizontal approach, but I would launch new verticals progressively.

5 comments about "Is A Horizontal Or Vertical Content Strategy More Valuable?".
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  1. Ruth Barrett from, February 21, 2012 at 4:18 p.m.

    "The reality, however, is that while video is a rich media, the most engaged audiences will always prefer articles over video as text is ironically a deeper and richer experience, with words and metaphors leaving something to the imagination."

    Not my reality.

  2. Ashkan Karbasfrooshan from, February 21, 2012 at 4:25 p.m.

    Ruth Ann Barrett, not my preference, but if you are running a .tv site and I am running an online video producer, we're not necessarily reflective of the broader society.

    Online is huge, online video is growing; but sometimes it's good to think of those outside of the early adopter pool.

    Business for example is still dominated by text, not videos. Part of that is the timeliness nature of the subject matter...

  3. Mark Burrell from Tongal, February 21, 2012 at 4:44 p.m.

    Well said. Although I'm not sure if I agree that text is more engaging than video. If we're talking about a dancing cat vs NY Times maybe, but if it's the WIRE or a 30 second piece of compelling storytelling vs Uncle Harry's blog; may be different.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 21, 2012 at 6:50 p.m.

    It is quicker to read an article than to watch a video simply because it is faster to read a word than to pronounce it out loud. Do you want this article read to you or read it yourself ? How much time do you have ? But I love watching a few kitty videos, too. It depends upon the topic and how long the preroll is compared to the length of the video one can tolerate and watch.

  5. Troy Johnson from, LLC, April 4, 2012 at 8:29 a.m.

    Good article gives you a lot to think about.
    The richness of the experience for video or text really depends on the quality of the content. For smaller self financed businesses like mine a single vertical was the way to go. i started out in Books 15 years ago, but progressed into film 5 years ago, and am beginning to move into culture. The progression was natural, abd driven by demand.

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