Rethinking Content Curation

John Peel's grave, Great Finborough, Suffolk - geograph.org.uk - 1162596

At Content Marketing World last week, there was a lot of talk centered around content creation and curation, which are often presented as the two basic paths any content marketer can pursue. The mere fact that these are often positioned as mutually exclusive choices (Google "curation vs. creation" and see what I mean) highlights the fact that the prevailing wisdom amongst many content marketers is that these are two distinct "strategies" to achieve the same goals. 

You may or may not believe that curation and creation are competitive strategies. Certainly, my friend Nick Westergaard doesn't, and a lot of smart marketers agree--you need both. I concur. But here's what strikes me: I have often seen the relationship between the two expressed as a value judgment: e.g., "if you can't create content, then curate content." But what I have never seen is the inverse statement: "If you can't curate content, then create it." Have you?

I'd like to rethink that.

We are living in an era where content is, to be kind, not an economically scarce commodity. Whether your brand excels in content creation or not, somebody in your field does or soon will--that's just the state of content marketing today. Conventional wisdom may hold that curation is a valid alternative to creation, but in many ways, I think great curation is even harder--and rarer--than quality creative output. There's simply too much content, and frankly not all of it has value. In some fields, more content will be created this year than ever existed prior--heck, that might be true of the content created in the next week.

The "curation problem," as we know it, is now the focus of a number of tools, and I got to try a few of them out at Content Marketing World. They do an admirable job of helping would-be curators wrangle enormous amounts of content, package that content, and push it out for an audience. But let's never forget what machines are good at--assembling, packaging, and pushing. What they aren't good at (and I doubt the makers of these fine tools would disagree) is curating. Humans curate.

Curation, like creation, is not "pass/fail." There are varying levels of quality, and whether you see it as art or science, the ability to create value through curation is uncommon. The pedestrian content curator passes a link along with something pithy, like “this was interesting!” or “a very interesting take” or “I'll be thinking about this for a long time—Interesting!” In a sense, that type of content “curation” is little more than being treated to the would-be curator's internal monologue—it's as if, upon finishing a book, they do little more than slam the covers shut and loudly exclaim “I read a book!”

As a Webster, I don't take words lightly, and in that regard I'd like to reclaim--or at least reframe--what "curation" really is. Curators in the museum world are the storytellers of the museum. It isn't merely their goal to assemble great art, or quality exhibits—it's their goal to craft a narrative, find the exhibits that support that narrative, and tie the disparate parts together into one cohesive experience. I think there is a tendency amongst some to treat “curator” as secondary to “creator.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and that's why talented museum curators are a gift to their institution and the community it serves.

I think being an excellent content curator is every bit as creative and demanding as being an excellent content creator, and that's why there are comparatively few of either. Still, there is also value in being what I would call a content docent—not quite a curator in the sense of crafting a cohesive narrative, but they at least know the layout of the museum, and the provenance of the various artifacts.

 To be an effective content docent is to know the landscape of the content you are sharing—to understand what existing work a piece of content supercedes, or borrows from, and which works push the field forward. Increasingly, this will require the content docent to specialize more and more, as the tonnage of content grows. And the learned skill (through pattern recognition) that both the content curator and the content docent must share is the ability to discriminate. This is not a bad word, when it comes to content. The opposite is to be indiscriminate, and that's no service to your audience.

If you believe, as I do, that brands have to become media platforms in order to get their messages heard, then you have to build your content strategy the same way that media platforms do—by building an audience. The person tasked with building that audience in a TV or Radio setting is the Programming Executive, and it's their job not only to find quality content, but also to package it together into a cohesive story that transcends any one element of that story. And this is the job of tomorrow's content curator. A content creator not only has the burden of delivering quality content, but also the burden of delivering the right audience. And that is a solemn charge.

To me, curation and creation are both integral to the development of an audience. Again, to use the network TV analogy, creators provide those potential new hit shows, while curators select the right new shows and surround them with complementary syndicated programming—the Simpsons reruns that precede that hot new comedy. The key there is that creation has the potential to bring in a new audience, while a parallel curation strategy provides a means to retain and engage the audience that has formed around your content.

 It will be increasingly difficult, in this age of declining content arbitrage, to build an audience through curation—to get new people to gravitate to your content if you are just passing along other people's content. But if you build an audience first—if you are known for something—then your curation has meaning.

Two of the best examples I can think of here are John Gruber and Chris Penn. Gruber's Daring Fireball is generally a curation blog—in the best sense—as he passes along stories that fit a tightly-controlled narrative, and he provides the context for those stories and why his audience would care about them. But his ability to do that credibly is secured by what he creates—the occasional, long thought pieces he writes about the industry he covers. Those pieces are the “proof”, in a sense, that his curation has meaning.

And Chris Penn uses creation and curation just exactly like the network TV executive I referenced above. Chris draws people initially to his blog through his creative output, and saves his curation largely for his excellent newsletter--in other words, for the people who have already (by dint of signing up) shown that they do, in fact, respect his judgment. 

Ultimately, I expect as much from skilled curators as creators, because truly great curation comes only from either the practiced or the gifted eye (or both.)  I think it's a bit of a lost art in media, and largely undiscovered country in content marketing.

The photo at the top of this post is the gravestone of BBC Radio DJ John Peel, whom fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini once called "the most important man in music for about a dozen years." John Peel was not a musician--a creator--but he had an indelible impact upon music (and my taste in music) for nearly all of my life. The list of bands he hosted for the legendary Peel Sessions is the most formidable guest list in the history of music. If you were a band that mattered, you needed to be on The Peel Sessions. 

John Peel was a curator.