Commentary

Audience Engagement, Not Income, Is Mark Of Quality

Earlier this week, Google Finance launched to little more than polite clapping among industry observers. Most noted incremental improvements over existing services, but no step changes. The product is no category killer.

One innovation Google has made, however, is to aggregate blog posts about a company on the very page where the company's stock chart, financials and news is displayed. It may be, one day, that these citizen journalists will influence a stock in the same way as news from Reuters or Bloomberg or MarketWatch. Surely all of this exposure through Google can only increase their authority and amplify their voices. By putting them on the same page as established financial news, Google is not only saying bloggers are influential; Google is making them influential.

And that's what is noteworthy about this initiative--the inclusion of consumer voices into conversations where they had been, previously, a mere audience. Publishers of all genres have been doing this for some time: allowing readers to chime in on a restaurant review at Washingtonpost.com; posting reader reviews praising (or panning) a digital camera on Amazon.com; having tech support forums on Apple's Web site maintained almost exclusively by helpful Apple evangelists instead of paid staff; publishing letters to the editor in The New York Times as early as the Civil War. But the way Google has done it is different. They don't cordon off consumer voices into a separate section. Google is starting to integrate them.

I don't think what Google Finance is doing itself represents an inflection point in consumer-generated content, but I do think it signals an ongoing shift in the perception of the influence consumers should--and do--wield. And as consumer voices gain more credibility, the publishers who best initiate and integrate conversations with their readers will gain a competitive advantage.

Yes, quantity will always be important. But increasingly the quality of a publication's audience, as determined by their refusal to remain solely "audience" and insist instead on joining conversations everywhere, will influence advertisers and their budgets. This means that a publisher's job is not just to publish content and start conversations, but to house, nurture, promote and sanction those conversations.

This isn't, by the way, about a publisher starting an official blog or folding other blogs (wholly or in part) into the frame somewhere. Publishers should stop thinking about blogs as separate sites, and consider them instead as a publishing tool that encourages social interaction. Instead of working hard to silo off conversations, publishers ought to devise ways to integrate them into every touchpoint.

Because the definition of "audience quality" for publishers is about to change. Publishers are quick to tout demographic factors like income or zip code or lifestyle as representative of "quality."

But 100,00 readers in the market for a minivan don't, by their very presence, improve the quality of the content they're consuming. Active, participatory, vocal--in a word, "engaged"--consumers who are quick to contribute to conversations and share their own perspectives can enrich a publisher's content. Very soon, the quality of an audience will be tantamount to the quality of the publication itself, and advertisers seeking "engagement" won't look in the media kit. They'll focus instead on the richness of the conversations, and look for ways to join them.

Advertisers are actively working on understanding and measuring engagement. They don't yet know what it is, but they know they're not getting it through TV. They also know that if they're trying to sell minivans, it's no longer enough to put their message in front of a group of people whose demographic/psychographic/behavioral indicators suggest they may be in the market for a minivan. Nor is it enough to simply be surrounded by editorial content about minivans. The best place to engage consumers about a minivan is where they are already engaged. Engage your readers, and you, as a publisher, will engage advertisers as well.

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