Why you don’t have the stomach to be number one

I’ve been light on publishing here lately because I’ve been working on a larger writing project. But here’s part of a piece I’ve been working on that’s worth sharing now. And if you’ve really been missing my voice, you can actually listen to my voice at the Smaller Business Podcast and NPO Cast.

There was a time in my career when everyone wanted to juice search engine rankings in their favor. I couldn’t talk to a used car salesman, a cake baker, or a musician without them asking, “How do I get to the first result on Google?” I’d also sometimes get asked, “How can I get some major attention?” The short answer was always, “You can’t.” Other people might be able to, but you can’t.

I think I was wrong about that. I think, in retrospect, they could have. In fact, it’s just like anyone can be incredibly fit or eat a clean diet or learn another language. You want to, but you don’t want to.

At the time 10 or more years ago it was hard to see quite where blogs, websites, and the Internet in general fit into media. In hindsight it’s a little more apparent how it’s all worked out. Our media, as defined by small blogs, large blogs, local newspapers and TV stations, and national cable and broadcast networks, are run like an inverted funnel. They have diametrically opposite desires at each end.

On the large, low, end you have small blogs. Think of a local blogger covering a niche subject like politics or food or business. This person is almost certainly driven entirely by money.

As you move up the funnel you get to larger blogs. Think Huffington Post or Drudge. These operations are still driven entirely by money through ads and views. Because the ads don’t differentiate between a human or a bot, as a click is a click and a view is a view, they require an immense amount of traffic. They don’t have the resources to compile a bunch of original reporting in the field, either, so they collect things from the small blogs. Footage of a disaster, a photo of a crime, a report of explicit activity all bubble up to these blogs.

These large blogs add a bit more reputation to a story, but not much else. They don’t have a stringent editorial process. This is also where a news story can go from local to regional or national coverage by way of local TV news stations or papers like the Des Moines Register or Indianapolis Star.

This transition area between large blogs and large newspapers and news outlets, the motivations shift. Larger regional papers and TV stations are motivated less by money and more by protecting their reputations, but not by much. So they have sub-brand sites that exist in this space. Think Bloomberg News and Business Insider. Business Insider can run quickly and say random things. NBC can’t. As large blogs have become the litmus test of fact and controversy, ever larger media outlets use their sub-brand sites to dip their toe into this muddy story water.

If something can stick there and hold attention in the large blogs and sub-brand sites, it bubbles up to the national media outlets like the New York Times, AP, broadcast networks, etc. It’s assumed that in most cases if a story has filtered all the way up to this end of the funnel, there’s something to it.

In the last few years I’d add a new layer to the bottom of this funnel below even the small blogs, though: social media and Reddit. A single tweet can catch the eye of a local blogger and move up the funnel. But interestingly enough, a single tweet can also catch the eye of a Katie Couric and suddenly skip the whole funnel to get right to the end.

What does this mean for business?

When a client wants to be the top of something or get some good “guerilla marketing”, this is what they want. They want their bit of news to bubble into CNN. This is almost always impossible because of two things:

  1. You can’t do that because you’re selling bedroom furniture or whatever
  2. You don’t have the stomach for it

The second point is crucial. There are four things that build a brand and make a story filter up this funnel:

  1. Controversy
  2. Scoops
  3. Generating comments
  4. Publishing constantly

Most small businesses and certainly small nonprofits don’t have the stomach for any of that except maybe constant publishing.

Controversy is easiest when talking about politics or religion. Trump’s birther comments from years ago worked in this realm and included both. If your business is building a blog or news site, then this is also ripe for brand building. It doesn’t work well for the furniture store or a plumber, though, unless you delivered an armoire to a house and it had a dead body in it.

Likewise, getting scoops is a great way to move up the chain. Mark Gurman is a good example of this. He has sources inside Apple that feed him information to publish what the next iPhone or Mac hardware would be like before anyone else knew. It was published to an obscure blog and now he works for Bloomberg News and gets to appear on CNBC. Scoops are the currency of a site’s early brand efforts in media.

To give you an example of what this might look for something relatively ordinary, take a car mechanic. How many scoops can you have when you’re a mechanic? You’d have to know when a car is going to experience a recall before just about anyone else. Or you could manufacture some bit of controversy, like saying you think the Toyota Corolla, one of the most reliable cars ever built, has a critical flaw that causes them to lose power at high speeds. You know this because you’ve seen it happen twice in your shop where someone lost control on the highway and were seriously injured. Of course, they really just laid down on the accelerator, but we’re after controversy here.

This sort of story gets published to your site and suddenly you’re generating all kinds of comments on your site and on Facebook and Twitter. But the shelf life of most stories is a day or two. A story like this might filter up to the local newspaper in your small town and extend out another week. But maybe it fizzles from there. That’s why you need to publish constantly. Eventually something will stick assuming it’s at least a little bit right.

When I say “constantly” I mean constantly. You have to be publishing daily at a minimum. Maybe you can take a day off here and there on slow periods or holidays if you don’t require the money from the traffic and ad revenue. To do it with any results you’re going to need multiple postings a day for people to find things to hook them.

Most every client and organization I can think of won’t do this, though, because it’s dishonest and manipulative. For all the talk of the state of our media, I’ll know journalism is truly dead when small lot car salesman or people with literally zero name recognition figure this out and make it work for them. For now, it just works in two ways. One is for people with some name recognition. Like a first-time actor in a small budget film that can generate controversy around the film itself. Or report a scoop about another, more popular, celebrity.

This dishonesty can be taken to new heights the second way if you’re willing to manipulate people even further. Say you have the email address of some regional TV or newspaper reporters. You can make a story move a little faster if you create some fake email addresses that look like real people and email those reporters over a few days with the link to your website. “Hey, have you seen this story on the Corollas? Is anyone reporting this?” Newspaper reporters don’t often get these kinds of tips from general people, so it’s going to catch their eye if three “people” in a span of a week hears about something.

In some ways, Google has driven the Internet to this point and Facebook jumped in the passenger seat along the way. Google’s search ranking is so valuable to so many businesses that people tried gaming their algorithm for years. Today’s algorithm is so good and intelligent that it’s hard to game anymore. Now you have to write things that Google calls “quality, authoritative content”. The quality part includes grammar, formatting, and prose. The authoritative part is the weaker point because it’s possible to give something authority when it shouldn’t have it. To add to it, Facebook now demands things be short and cute and with a fussy image. Facebook wants things to be pretty dim.

That’s why quality journalism still matters. Without it and people holding the line on actually important stuff, the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times is going to look like the front page of a Google search for “low interest mortgages”.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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