Facing the 'information overload' issues of today's Internet, today's digitally savvy audiences are actively seeking out curation to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. Sensing an opportunity in playing the role of curator and/or curation-helper, brands, platforms and other services are increasingly stepping up to feed this increasing hunger for social curation, and to leverage it.
If we look at it as a game, then the curator for each category who provides the most relevant value to the community it serves, in a timely manner, will emerge a winner in the audience's eyes. The audience is often willing to pay for this curation service, but not always with money, as today there is also the valuable currency of personal data. While this may be off-putting for some people of a certain age not having grown up 'oversharing' on social media, people of all ages and backgrounds are increasingly willing to provide data if the curation offered is useful enough and speaks to their specific needs- the more specific the better.
During the curation-themed keynotes and panels presented at the day-long Social Curation Summit, while topics ranged from curating music to images to style and others, this common theme of providing helpful and personalized value was repeated in different ways, from varying perspectives. The crowd was engaged and animated as discussions amongst attendees and panelists about social curation continued in between actual sessions, both online and offline, about the issues raised in each category.
One of the most buzzed-about topics in the hallways and seats amongst attendees during the conference breaks was the tech-enabled versus human-decision curation arguments. How much can we rely on algorithms/technology for curation and/or to help make curation decisions? For every advocate of the former, there was someone to counter with a cautionary tale about how a computer-curated recommendation proved to be without relevance and was off-putting. Most agreed that companies had very precious few chances to present off-topic or useless curated picks without risking turning off current and potential customers to the point of no return.
What is it then that the companies doing it right are doing? Is there a ‘secret sauce’? I had an opportunity to connect with two of the panelists after the program who shed some light on this.
Shane Rahmani, Vice President of Business Development and Media Strategy of Thrillist Media Group, which reaches an audience of “between 4 and 5 million subscribers per day”, gave a hat tip to his editorial team in his explanation of tastemaker Thrillist’s curation success story:
"Our curation method has been successful over the years because we deliver on our brand promise to bring our audience the very best of their city, every single day. We aren't curating content for an artificial demographic someone arbitrarily handed to us. Our editorial team authentically understands this real-world group of people because we are them and we research and understand their needs intimately."
Rahmani also addressed how Thrillist Media Group is using data analysis in a way that then helps the curation process:
"We are constantly crunching data to determine what content is working for our audience. If we recommend a massive food truck roundup, we look to see that our readers are sharing the content with their friends, making plans to go, and tapping social media to converge on our coverage. For every piece of content we produce, we expect a concrete result and if it’s not there, we drill in to figure out what went wrong either in our choice of subject matter, or its presentation. We then bring those insights to bear as we evolve and improve our editorial product."
In addition, Elias Roman, CEO and Co-Founder of Songza Media who spoke on the “Social Media Mixtape: Curating Music” panel also offered his view on why Songza curation gets high marks from its audience:
“Songza's curation has been so well received because it leverages the power of high-quality expert curation and a deep knowledge of your lifestyle to make the things you do every day better….”
Addressing the technology-versus-human curation question, Roman also commented on how the Songza curation aspires to be more meaningful in a way that goes beyond a simple data scrape:
“Human touch/insight is a big part of that, and so is making it really easy and fun for users to tell us exactly what they are doing or how they are feeling so we don't need to guess or scrape.”
If there was any consensus, it seemed to be that while data and algorithms can be enormously helpful to the social curation process, that we are not yet at the point in curation (nor may we ever be), where computerized recommendations will replace the need for human decision-making.
The need for more specific and thoughtful curation was raised in particular in one cautionary tale during the “Museum Quality: Collecting and Archiving Across Multiple Platforms” panel, as one of the panelists Steven Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation and CEO of Magnify.net, relayed a story of how he had finally decided to unsubscribe from an email list after receiving one too many conference reminders about multiple tracks of conferences in which he was not interested, as he was only interested in one track of that conference series. This was not the only tale of its kind, as similar stories were echoed by various panelists and attendees throughout the program.
So while social curation done right is welcomed with open arms, curation gone wrong is sometimes unforgiveable. With ill-received curation choices presenting the risk of losing customers or subscribers, it seems then that a blend and balance of human decision-making in combination with the technologies of today, is the key to social curation success.