Leave Business Insider Alone!
“If you don’t like what I have to write go start a blog that no one will read”
While I agree with him that a business journalist should know who Peter Drucker is, or at the very least spend five minutes on Wikipedia researching him, his other complaints are nothing new.
Between the slideshows, ridiculous stories, and outrageous headlines, it’s easy to poke fun at Business Insider. Whenever I hear a lot of haters come out on a new company or new product, I tend to get interested in what they’re doing, because it means they’re being disruptive. There are many posts,tweets, and (now) videos laying out the anti-Business Insider Case, but many of these complaints are the side effect of disruption (and a good deal come from some of the people who are being disrupted).
Let’s look at some of these complaints through the lens of disruption and look at some of the things Business Insider is doing right.
They’re Hacking a Broken System…and That’s Good
It’s no secret that Business Insider is on ruthless quest for page views though their use of slideshows and ridiculous stories. This transparency and “no-shame” approach causes many to attack the company itself, rather than the industry at larger. Many are hating the player, instead of the game.
Like it or not, the online media business is a market for page vies. Content companies must go out mine as many page views as possible, and sell them to advertisers. While one can opine about the CPM model until the cows come home (and I for one am not a fan), that is the system, and Business Insider is simply hacking it.
Many times a hacker in a system exposes its weaknesses and helps improve it. Those who chide Business Insider for doing this are missing the point – Business Insider could be responsible for the downfall of the CPM model. As advertisers wise up to the fact that the system is broken and other sites begin to mimic Business Insider’s behavior (slidehows are starting to spread!), the system will have to change, and this is a good thing. By shamelessly exposing the stupidity of the CPM model, Business Insider unfortunately becomes the poster child for this model, but in reality they could potentially be a major force in disrupting it.
“Scraping” Benefits the Consumer of News
A common complaint about Business Insider, and other aggregators, is that they are “scraping the web”, but from the POV of the consumer is that really a bad thing?
Would you say that the person who has to buy his groceries at 10 different specialized stores or at one supermarket is better off? Those that argue against “scraping” are basically saying that the consumer benefits from having to run around and buy at 10 different locations. The centralized marketplace definitely hurts the margins of the individual food distributors but transfers benefits to the consumer. The Business Insider model, (and many aggregator/curator models) is as a centralized marketplace for news.
At this marketplace I find a ton of lesser known stories that I wouldn’t find on my own. Increasingly , the blogosphere is the tail that wags the dog for the mainstream media and they are making that information available to the mass markets. Two or three years ago, unless you were a geek with a Google Reader account and a ton of curiosity, you wouldn’t access some of these writers, sites, and ideas. While some news producers many not like this, I can’t see how this is a bad thing for the news consumer.
Plus this is nothing new. It was the major media outlets that first started “scraping” each others stories. In a great podcast on the state of media, Dan Carlin points out that the major media outlets stopped “owning the story” years ago. Whats the difference between Brian Williams on the evening news saying “According to ABC News…” and then reporting the exact story that ABC broke and what Business Insider does? Where is the Brian Williams outrage? He doesn’t even link to their broadcast! At least Business Insider does that! The reality is that nobody owns the story anymore, and as long as that cat is out of the bag you can’t single out Business Insider as some sort of rogue rule-breaker.
They Understand Twitter and the Social Web More than Anyone Else in the Media
Most of the Business Insider staff are in their 20’s or 30’s. The company is really one of the first media outlets composed entirely of a generation of people who grew up on the web. Because of this they have a deep understanding of the new distribution channels the it creates.
Many people’s social media strategies fail because they don’t communicate on the web the same way they would at a party or social gathering. Older people whose physical life was interrupted by the digital revolution see a more difference between physical communities and digital ones than their younger counterparts. Those that have grown up on the web see very little difference at all because they don’t really know a physical world without a digital world. On the social web, people share the same type of information that they share in real life. Those that understand this natural tendency can transform their readers to a major distribution outlet. Business Insiders young workforce understands this by nature.
In the physical world when you are hanging out with your friends you usually share interesting, sometimes absurd news. For whatever reason socially, it is a great conversation starter. When meeting with friends in the physical world its not uncommon for someone to say, “Did you hear about the guy who runs through Grand Central station naked every day?”. Why would this be any different on the web? Business Insider publishes some outrageous content, but in doing so they give you something to talk about, and in doing so turn you into distribution for their content. They know what people like to share online, because online sharing is in their DNA.
Business Insider = Paperboys 2.0
Remember the iconic picture of the paperboy on the street yelling “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”? Paperboys were news salesmen. They would shout out interesting articles or stories in the paper, many times adding hyperbole to the actually story. By writing enticing headlines, parsing a story to find interesting tidbits, and getting the word out on Twitter first, Business Insider is the paperboy of online content.
As I mentioned earlier, they are a centralized marketplace for news and they are selling content better than most content creators themselves. The competition for eyeballs is fierce online and I don’t see how having a sales force like them working for you is a bad thing. Sure they take a “commission” in the form of page views, but in a time when content producers are having a hard time selling news why not do business with the marketplace with the strongest marketing arm?
This whole experiment could certainly fail and the Business Insider approach has some negative qualities, such as perhaps perpetuating what I like to call the “disease of the absurd” afflicting media, but Business Insider is doing a ton of innovative and interesting things some of which could positively benefit the news industry as a whole. They are hacking the system and in doing so they will change it – I think mostly for the better.