How 5 B2B Tech Brands Built Valuable Audiences Through Scarce Content

By Danny Wong December 14th, 2015

Clive Thompson was the first person to introduce me to the idea of scarce publishing. The author of Smarter Than You Think and a contributing writer to Wired and The New York Times Magazine, he built his career by telling the right stories. Unlike most bloggers, journalists, and writers these days, Thompson publishes two to three dozen stories every year. By comparison, former tech reporter Bekah Grant penned more than 1,740 posts for VentureBeat during her 20-month tenure there.

Thompson and I first met in early 2011. At the time, rapid, frequent publishing was a cash cow. Businesses such as Demand Media learned what Google’s machine algorithm loved, and produced fast, cheap, and disposable content that would rank favorably in Google search results. By 2009, Demand Media, a content farm, was already pumping out “4,000 videoclips and articles a day,” according to Wired. It was the rat race of more, and it felt like you had no choice but to get into the maze.

Thompson had a different idea. He believed there was more content than people could possibly consume; the challenge for readers was choosing the right stories to spend time with. So instead of competing with publishers on the basis of volume or speed, Thompson wanted to author a blog that maintained a sparse publishing schedule and featured the best and most in-depth content on a specific topic.

“When something is scarce, we suspect—and are usually correct—that it’s going to be more valuable,” he told me recently. “[Our reaction is], ‘Wow, these people don’t speak up unless they’ve got something to say.'”

A week after I met Thompson, Demand Media IPO’d. Shares jumped 33 percent the same day, valuing the company at $1.5 billion, a higher market capitalization than The New York Times.

Shortly afterward, though, Google made significant changes to how it indexed content, condemning sites it believed produced low-quality content. Demand Media’s revenue and stock price plummeted. Now, more than four years later, the lasting impact of Google’s algorithm changes has begun to help reward quality publishing once again.

Thompson’s commitment to quality was exactly the right decision to make. His heavily trafficked longform science and culture blog, Collision Detection, led to a critically acclaimed book, Smarter Than You Think, and a thriving career as one of the most prominent technology writers of our day.

In a short-attention world where 55 percent of visitors spend less than 15 seconds actively on a page, content pioneers in the B2B tech industry, such as Microsoft, Intel, and Asana, have followed Thompson’s lead with great success. As others are quickly finding out, one great story beats 10 mediocre stories every time.

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Image by Kyle Fewell