Writing & Publishing Online Content: Evergreen vs Churn vs Viral

As an extension of my previous post about online business models I have been thinking a great deal about different kinds of online content in the context of how journalism students are taught to write. This post is a continuation of my work developing some rough notes for a book on writing for the enthusiast media based on my professional experience and my PhD research. I hope to finish a complete draft by the end of the year.

Journalism students are taught to write in two primary modes ‘news’ writing and ‘feature’ writing. There are different ways to define the two modes of writing, but the most relevant way to define them in an online publishing context is temporal. ‘News’ writing is timely and is normally concerned with covering events as they are happening. Feature writing takes a longer or more in depth perspective.

When it comes to writing for an online publishing environment for enthusiast publications the question of timeliness becomes even more important. In the markets pertaining to the car enthusiast magazines I work for there are a couple of good examples of what I regard as the three main forms of content: evergreen, churn and viral. These three forms of content are not entirely distinct and the terms I’ve used are somewhat arbitrary. There are two main ways to define the types of content in terms of their structural relation to the media ecology within which they appear. The first way is in relation to the scene and enthusiasm, i.e. a consumer side definition. The second way to define the three main forms of content is in relation to different revenue streams that can be combined in different ways depending on the business model.

Evergreen Content

Evergreen content does not have an expiration date. In the context of enthusiast media, evergreen content is always about critically representing how to engage with challenges that pertain to a given enthusiasm. These are more often than not ‘how to’ articles. Within modified-car culture, the challenges are mostly technical and pertain to automotive mechanical design, repair and modification. Other enthusiasms organised around other challenges will have slightly different kinds of evergreen content. A recipe is a classic example, while a how to article on setting up port forwarding on your home router for correct torrent connection is a contemporary example.

Evergreen content is written not so much for the immediate number of readers that are interested in it. Rather evergreen content is written for the searchable database. Challenges that pertain to a given enthusiasm very rarely expire, they simply transform depending on the cultural shifts that are occuring more broadly in the scene. A good example in modified-car culture is the centrality of the Ford flathead V8. Powering the iconic 1932 ‘Deuce’ coupe, the flathead was the engine of choice for the generation of young hot rodders during hot rodding’s initial wave of popularity in the immediate post World War 2 period. The ‘hot rod’ as a particular configuration of automotive technologies has coalesced into a coherent cultural form that now mostly transcends short term trends within the scene, which means that a flathead V8 is often used as the motor of choice even though there are more advanced engines easily and more cheaply available. The flathead is a culturally appropriate engine choice. Due to the shifting cultural significance of the flathead V8 it will be written about in different ways now compared to the way it was written about in the 1950s, but because the basic technical design of the engine has not changed in almost 80 years there will be some commonality across all articles.

A good example of evergreen content is the now near-defunct site, Autospeed. Autospeed was started in 1998 by Julian Edgar and went live in 1999. The site has gone through a cycle of free, paid and free content and advertisement, subscription and then advertisement-based business models. There was a great deal of critical discussion when the site shifted from a free content and advertisement based model to a paid content subscription model. In some ways it is similar to the US-based Ford Muscle online magazine. Co-founder of the site, Jon Mikelonis, commented on my previous post about content to say:

I believe you’ve touched on something critical by making the distinction between “evergreen” content and “news”. With respect to the automotive enthusiast niche, where a technical barrier exists in most cases, I do agree you are best to focus on tech content for online publishing.
We shut down feature stories and do very little news for the sake of allocating more time to creating and incentivizing technical and investigative content, “evergreen” content as you said. Yes, there is more mileage there. We still monetize from content produced more than 7 years ago.

Ford Muscle seems to have an advertising-based model, but another way to produce content that is relevant for a given scene is to produce sponsored content. Sponsored content is not the same as advertorial in the traditional journalistic publishing model, particularly when it comes to enthusiast publishing, if it is produced in a relatively sophisticated way. Advertorial is basically PR content dressed up as editorial and often appears in print and online as buyers guides or similar. Sponsored content if produced correctly taps into the expertise of an advertiser and represents the advertiser’s ‘know how’ in producing a ‘how to’ article. The advertiser will offer their ‘know how’ as a commercial service, which is why they will pay for the content, but the sponsored content represents technical information for the audience from someone with professional expertise in a given endeavour. The skill in producing sponsored content from the editorial side is in isolating what exactly is worthy of representing and valorising in the advertiser’s practice or ‘know how’ by having a very good understanding of your audience’s interests.

There are other ways to produce sponsored content based around a hybrid business model that incorporates event management, where seminars or courses are run to connect the professional expertise of journalists or advertisers with one’s audience. If such events are filmed or reported on then they can be tapped for more than one revenue stream. In fact there are some online publishers that use their online reporting simply to bolster their image so they can run profit making events.

There are other forms of evergreen content not directly tied to editorial for an online publishing environment, such as branded wallpapers.

Churn content has an expiration date and includes event coverage (before, after and during an event), ‘soft news’ based on media releases and ‘hard news’ based on investigative reporting. Churn is best defined in terms of who has the best coverage quickest will get the most readers. Within modified-car culture, blog-based sites are almost entirely driven by churn editorial content. A good example is the Speedhunters site created by EA Games for the Need for Speed game franchise and launched May 2008. Speedhunters delivers ‘up to the minute’ coverage of global car culture relevant to the audience of their video game franchise. Car culture here is not based around an active enthusiasm full of challenges, but something more ephemeral. The site serves as a space for fans to voice their opinions about cars, styles, drivers or events.

It is possible to produce content for more active enthusiasts that is churn-based. Rather than drawing on fans’ taste cultures, churn-based content for active enthusiasts is mostly a narrative organised around the challenges faced by other enthusiasts. For example, race coverage is not a superficial account of an event with nice looking images, but a blow by blow of the problems overcome by certain race teams. Churn-based content for fans, rather than enthusiasts, can be produced by interested amateurs, but to get an insider’s point of view of an event requires access to insiders which is normally only afforded to professionals actually working in the media.

There is a bigger issue here to do with one of the primary functions of the enthusiast media to select and valorise certain elements of the scene. Within a fragmented media ecology where a given scene is not serviced by a single dominant enthusiast media brand (an example of dominating single media brand is Street Commodores), and is fragmented across a number of forums, blogs, websites and traditional print magazines, the question of valorisation becomes a tricky one. I may write more about this in the future.

Traditional journalistic skills are required for producing churn content. The who, what, where, when, why and how, and the rest that journalism students are taught at university. There is a real problem that I have encountered when teaching new writers in on the job training. Part of what I need to teach is the ability to search beyond Google and Facebook for answers and the slightly more complicated problem of new writers being able to ask questions that do not have answers that are Googlable. This is a real problem, particularly when working in an industry that traditionally hires from enthusiast ranks and not the university-educated. Teaching writers about the different values of newsworthiness and more often than not all a story needs is to ring up a few key figures in an event to get a quote or two. This is less of a problem for those new hires that have gone through a traditional journalism course. If an answer can be Googled then whatever churn content is being written is already out of date. If a story has broke through another outlet and even on an enthusiast forum somewhere, then follow up with further research for fresh content.

Churn is an exhausting way to produce content. New content has to be published at least two or three times a day. If a day is missed then numbers will drop immediately. If on the other hand, evergreen content is also produced then the numbers for a site will be driven by the ‘long tail’ of enthusiasts trying to figure out ways to engage with a challenge.
Churn content is excellent for branding purposes as it demonstrates that a media outlet is contemporaneous with the happening (or broader inclusive event) of a given scene, i.e. the media outlet has its collective finger on the pulse.

Churn-based content is good for informing an audience about developments in the market from advertisers in the form of new products, new services, changes of address and achievements. It is a way to keep advertisers happy, by being mentioned, even though evergreen content may be a far better investment in the long term. Churn helps exposure, but evergreen content helps reputation. In an era of online forums and user-generated content or user-led discussion reputation management is an absolute priority for advertisers.

Viral content is designed to be shared through various social media platforms. Online media professionals will talk about ‘a viral’ as if it is a specific genre of media content. I am not convinced it is. Every form of media content is potentially viral if it is written for an appropriate audience. What is transmitted by a viral is not so much the actual media content, although it may be if it is a single image or a video, but the excitement about the piece of media. Viral media is primarily affective in character. The question then that needs to be asked is: What will make my target audience excited enough to share their excitement with others?

It gets a bit tricky when social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are used as media channels for the dissemination of content. Speedhunters uses Twitter relatively effectively and Twitter suits the churn-based model of media content. Evergreen content almost by definition will not be viral, that is unless it ‘solves’ some long standing problem or another within a given community of a scene.

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