The “Secret” to Successful Content

In an Atlantic article on the most popular New York Times stories of 2013, the author makes much of the fact that the top story was an app (and rightly points out a missed app opportunity in one of the other stories).

I would hardly argue against the importance of interactive apps for businesses that make their living off of content. There is a danger, however, in focusing so much on this one delivery mechanism that is currently at the top of its hype cycle and missing what I suspect may be the more important point: the diversity of story types on the list. In addition to the app, there are “four breaking news articles, one of which was a map; three health stories; a long narrative about poverty in New York; and two celebrity op-eds.”

There are a couple fairly obvious types here: dramatic breaking stories, news-you-can-use. Others are less clear to me. The Putin op-ed was interesting, but I’m surprised it’s in the top 10. And why do we suddenly care about poor children? Perhaps serendipity plays a part, or perhaps a closer look at these and all the other stories that didn’t make it will reveal some common themes.

What I’m sure of, though, is that it doesn’t reduce down to whether the content is delivered via an app or a map or anything else that’s divorced from the content itself. What the delivery mechanisms have to do is allow users to engage with the story naturally and that natural engagement and interaction may be very different for different stories.

That would be my tentative formulation of a principle for news content, but I think there’s a lesson here that goes beyond any particular business.  It’s great to look at what other companies and people do and to try to learn from their success. But the question is almost never what they did, what their “secret” is. The question is why was what they did the right thing, why did it lead to success? What is the principle that we can use to figure out our own right thing to do?

New York Times 2013 most visited stories

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