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Content curation is about moving from noise to context

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 23, 2017
Content curation is a lot more than just hitting the retweet button. Here's some answers to questions I've gotten about the value of curation, and some companies doing it right - or not.

Since my last piece on turbo-boosting content curation, I've fielded plenty of questions on my curation workflow. I've also seen more brand examples of content curation - some of which I like, some of which irritate me. I'll show you a few.

Curation can work well for brands, but it really starts with individuals. I define content curation as:

The systematic process of sharing content from our expertise with our online networks.

The "systematic" part is there for a reason - if we just compulsively retweet/share things we like, that's not curation. That's seat-of-pants.

Designing our curation system

The hard part is creating the system. As we design our curation system, considerations like these come to mind:

  • How can we minimize the amount of tools we use?
  • How do we protect ourselves from the downside of tools that may change or disappear?
  • Can we use tools that are compatible with that of our employers, or at least that we have permission to use on corporate devices?

Those are good questions, but not where we should start. We should really start upstream and ask: what are my greatest areas of interest? Where can I make the biggest contribution? What community or topic area should I become a contributor in?

Curation works best when it reinforces relationships and deepens expertise. In my turbo-boost piece, I wrote about how curation ties into content creation and "deep work" research, so I won't dwell on that here.

There's another challenge to our curation systems:

  • We need them to be broad enough to prod our thinking and make sure we don't fall into an insular filter bubble. Often the best work comes from connecting the dots between different fields.
  • We can maintain more than one interest. For example I am a Boston sports fan, but there's a limit to the time I want to spend consuming that content and let's face it, no one in my enterprise network wants to know what I think of the Celtics' decision to trade down in the NBA draft.

Getting a handle on the messiness of content discovery

That's why the first phase of content curation is the most unwieldy: that's the "discovery" phase, where we are casting a wide content net. That content net spans all of our interests. It also spans a range of input sources. As religious as I am about my Newsblur newsreader, I can't make all of my content discoveries there. Not everything can be moved to RSS. Sometimes you run into one-off pieces or reports, or a social share you can't subscribe to. And, of course, not everyone has the energy or desire to maintain a newsreader in the first place.

That means you are never going to boil discovery down to one tool. By definition, the discovery phase will be a bit chaotic - hopefully in a good, clash-of-ideas kind of way. However, I do advise subscribing to the content sources that serve up great stuff reliably. You'll take some edge off the chaos, and ensure you'll get that person(s) stuff every day. As I've said before, there is no content meritocracy on social networks, so counting on your friends as your only source of content referrals is problematic - especially given that networks assert their own algorithmic control over what you see. Thus the wide discovery net.

My experience is that most people do a pretty decent job on the discovery phase. Greater effort to systematize it would definitely help, but most folks with passionate interests find good things worth sharing. Where people fall down is in the tagging phase. Tagging is a pain, but if we don't tag as we go, we will lose track later. Slogging for stuff we neglected to tag is a bummer. Some of it we won't ever find again.

Tagging can be broken into two steps for sanity

I'm an advocate for exposing as many steps in the curation process as possible. Why not make our bookmarks public, for example? Tagging can be broken down into two steps:

1. Quickly placing content we should be paying attention to in a holding area.
2. Going back to that holding area when we have time, and formally tagging and/or sharing the content.

Sometimes we are moving too fast to worry about organizing content as we go. I've already written about why I find Instapaper such a great "holding area" for content in process, but there are plenty of options there, of the Evernote variety.

Ideally, you want your holding area to have good search, plus the ability to go in later and tag or sort. In my Instapaper use case, I use the main river for stories I have yet to share socially. That gives me an easy way to track what I haven't put out to my channels.

Dividing tagging into two steps works well. Then it's a matter of figuring out if you'll use the same tool for both steps, or branch out a bit. The right way is the way that keeps you productive, and ensures you have your research and social shares where you want them. I like the first holding area being private, especially if you have diverse interests (e.g. you are an avid political reader, but don't want to bombard your enterprise followers with it). That way, you can sort content in your holding area, and start organizing it for research or sharing it to specific audiences.

Pushing content to the public - considerations

As you move into the tagging phase, pushing content out publicly starts to make sense. I've detailed this before, but the select items I send to my jonerpnewsfeed are posted with excerpts to my jonerp pinboard bookmarking site. Yes, that means I am spreading out my content a bit, but my feed distribution requires a dedicated RSS anyhow, so it makes sense for the bookmarking of that content to be public as well.

You might not actually have a separate site for bookmarks. It all depends on your output. For example, if you run a LinkedIn group, and that's where your content ends up going, then your LinkedIn group might be your defacto bookmarking site for a particular subject. A standalone bookmarking site might offer you better backups, which could matter down the road. A bookmarking site you have to pay for is preferred - this way you know they have a business model that could keep them afloat.

From there, we move into the sharing part. That's where we make decisions about whether to automate sharing across channels, schedule link posts, and so on. That's a personal - or corporate - decision, and an article unto itself. In my recent post on LinkedIn shutting its groups API, we got into the pros and cons of automated posting versus community participation.

It comes down to what your community expects, and how important that community is to your readers. I have a JonERP Facebook page where some enjoy picking up my links, but it's not a focal point of my efforts - so there's no original content crafted there.

The wrap - some good and not-so-good curation examples

Companies can use curation to boost their content efforts. This gets tricky, because you are, in theory, directing traffic to other web sites. I've found that the rewards of sharing relevant links far outweigh the calculating refusal to link out.

I'm not a fan of using curated content to take link/search juice from the original source. BoingBoing walks this line a lot, and often crosses over it. Here's an example from the media industry I can't stand.

Publishing Executive puts out a lot of quality original content. But as this story about Reuters from Nieman Labs shows, Publishing Executive also links to other content. When they do it, they completely lift the title and several paragraphs of content, with a link to the original piece. It's a missed opportunity for Publishing Executive to add a couple paragraphs of their own commentary and reinforce their own topic authority. It comes off as lazy skimming.

By contrast, NRF (The National Retail Federation), partners with the SmartBrief service to put out a series of tailored weekly newsletters highlighting retail content. NRF could take it further by adding their own commentary on the links, but the curation style shares the value without linkbaiting.

Den Howlett turned me on to The Exponential View by Azeem Azhar, a weekly curated email collection of impactful stories across tech and the political economy. I wouldn't mind a bit more commentary from Azhar, but he always finds stories I wouldn't have seen, including terrific AI pieces - bingo.

I'm always looking out for stories on media disruption, given that diginomica is in the media business and we don't feel like being disrupted. In this case I am using a Scoop.It channel, enterprise media disruptions, with a story excerpt, and often a quick snarky comment from yours truly.

Now and again, when enough interesting new articles are gathered there, I'll put out a Digital media disruptions piece on diginomica which highlights chosen articles, why I selected them, and recommends actions for enterprises. Having the content repository ready to go makes all the difference. Final sidenote: every now and then, an article in that channel will have special relevance to diginomica. I'll tag that with a special keyword in Google Bookmarks. That joins a small collection for me to review before our next team meeting. That way I don't have to go back and head scratch.

Curation is fun, and a nice alternative to feeling constantly reactive and behind. You may still feel behind even if you curate, but the chances it adds up to something useful increase.

This piece is part of my occasional diginomica series on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise.

Updated, 8am ET June 24, with a series of minor tweaks for readability.

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