“Curation” is a buzzword (even if it isn’t technically a word…unless you count the 14th century French definition meaning “to cure”) that’s smokin’ up the interwebs these days. Launching into the blogosphere virtually from nowhere in 2009, it’s now one of those terms that’s essential to any digital marketer on the cutting edge (or for anyone who wants to sound like one).
Curation has now come to mean the act of sorting through the vast amounts of content on the web and presenting it in a coherent way, organized around a specific topic(s). However, unlike automated services (such as Google News), the essential difference of curation is that there’s a human being doing the sifting, sorting, arranging, and publishing. Just as a museum curator must decide which artifacts to display during an exhibition, an online curator decides what information available online is appropriate and relevant to her audience.
If you’re a web veteran, you’re probably wondering how this is any different than what people have been doing online for years. After all, even the earliest “home pages” usually included lists of favorite links, sometimes “curated” daily. The “portal” craze of the 90’s was basically the same thing blown up to epic proportions, with billions (yes…billions) invested in “portal” sites that aggregated content from across the web. Remember: content is king! And while blogs started out as personal “weblogs,” they didn’t find success until they moved away from musings about cat behavior and toward serving up nifty links to a hungry audience. Check out the 15 most highly trafficked blogs today and every one of them is primarily about directing us to other stuff.
So what’s the big deal about curation? The cynic in me wants to say that it’s just about reinvigorating the concept of bloggers as “editors” of the web. And that is a big part of it. But there’s one thing that we have now that we didn’t have in the 90’s…the mass adoption of social media. And that’s where the difference comes in.
NYU Professor Clay Shirky provides one of the best explanations of the role of curation in today’s web in a Fast Company article from a year ago: “Curation comes up when search stops working…[and] when people realize that it isn’t just about information seeking, it’s also about synchronizing a community.”
It’s the “community” part that’s at the heart of the whole curation movement and the most powerful element when it comes to curating content as a way of drawing traffic and attention in your marketing efforts. Just as a carefully-curated museum exhibit is sure to draw like-minded people together, carefully-curated content on the web has the potential to attract (and/or build) an online community of people who are into the same stuff.
Making curation work for your brand is a lot easier said than done. As countless would-be content curation kings (and queens) have found out, just gathering a lot of links together doesn’t guarantee anything except that you’ll spend a lot of time curating links. You need to commit resources to both curation and promotion if you’re going to be successful. And that’s just the first step. To truly succeed as a curator, you need to think like a curator (not just an aggregator) and keep the following in mind:
- People matter. Your goal should be to build a community, and communities are made up of people. You need to know your audience intimately and have an innate sense for what they’re interested in. And like any good social media effort, you also need to nurture that community through your actions.
- It’s a commitment. Just like any social media effort, unless you clearly state from the beginning that you’re doing this for a limited time for a specific reason (such as curating content around a particular event or conference), the expectation is that you’re going to be an ongoing resource for your readers. Bailing out unexpectedly is damaging to your brand and your reputation.
- What you leave out is as important as what you leave in. Obviously, you can’t include everything online in your curation efforts. And you definitely don’t want to. The content you include (and exclude) speaks to your point of view about a particular topic…think of it as “writing with links.” Choose your content carefully and make sure it’s consistent with your overall messaging and brand strategy.
- Exhibitions vs. permanent collections. How often you refresh your content is your choice. There will always be a continuous firehose of content spewing out on the web, but you might want to think about the “classics” that should stay in your collection and what should be rotated out. You may even want to collect content around a particular sub-topic and archive it if it’s worthy of being saved.
- Think “niche.” There are plenty of sites out there now that cover broad topic areas and have large, embedded audiences. Drawing readers away to a collection that covers a similar broad topic can be tough…if not impossible. If you want to curate a collection and draw attention, you’ll probably have better luck focusing on a niche topic specific to your (or your client’s) industry. Heck…if my little city of Baltimore can support a Visionary Art Museum, the Great Blacks in Wax museum, a Tattoo Museum, and The National Museum of Dentistry (yes, Baltimore is kind of a weird place), then you can find a niche that’ll attract people from around the globe.
- Commerce can follow content. Don’t limit yourself to just “content.” Think about how to weave commerce into the mix. As sites like Regretsy have demonstrated, creative curation of items for sale can be a big draw.
- It’s not just the objects in the collection…it’s making sense of those objects. If you’ve ever been to an old-style museum that contains cases of objects with little exposition (The International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago is a good example of this), you may have found that while it’s cool to look at odd stuff, you don’t come away with much new knowledge. Interpreting the collection is one of a curator’s essential tasks and one that’s accomplished by explaining to visitors why an object is important in the context of the larger exhibit. You can add a lot of value to your online “collection” by providing context.
- Focus on becoming a “resource,” not just an “event.” If you want to keep drawing visitors, you need to establish your collection as the go-to place for what they’re looking for. Knowing your audience and understanding their needs are essential for curating a collection that’s going to provide ongoing value over time.
- Design matters. As usability guru Don Norman stated so well, “attractive things work better.” Throwing up a collection to try to cash in on the “curation” bandwagon isn’t enough. You need to focus on designing a user experience that’s not only attractive but usable. Ideally the design should contribute to the overall experience, highlighting the most important content, guiding users to what they’re looking for, and fostering community.