Ten thousand miles (and nearly 19 hours' flight time) is a long way to travel to have an epiphany about the mercurial nature of digital media, but that 's exactly how it went down.
I was participating in an executive briefing at Fairfax Media's headquarters in Sydney when suddenly a hazy picture formed from dozens of similar interactions snapped together into a single, galvanizing insight.
"News you read is different than news you say you read," said Darren Burden, general manager-news and digital publishing for Fairfax, one of Australia's largest companies. The former is driven by what you want or need to know, and the latter by what you want your friends to think.
Just like that , Burden nailed the psychology that drives subconscious and routine behaviors in the digital age. The media get it. They know that as social networks become a primary pathway to content, news that 's crafted to find you must indeed be different from news that 's intended for you to find.
Few companies can execute both styles equally well, however, and the result is a stylistic continental divide as newsrooms tilt toward one or the other.
On one side are the social animals. Typically these are digital-media brands that understand how to blur online culture and journalism into an explosive mix that ensures their stuff seemingly always finds you.
BuzzFeed is one such brand. The site, which started as a hub for viral videos, is banking that we're entering what CEO Jonah Peretti told me is the third era of content discovery. He said that social is supplanting search, which topped portals. That means that content -- even news -- must have more of an emotional quality than an informational one.
News needs to "elevate your public self," Mr. Peretti said.
Though risky, the strategy seems to be working. BuzzFeed has gone on a recruiting spree for journalists in key, advertising-rich verticals who are not only experts in their beats but in digital culture. Their hilarious yet informative "listicles" and animated GIFs end up on Facebook, which Mr. Peretti said accounts for 35% of the site's traffic.
The Huffington Post (a division of AOL) is taking a similar approach with a different medium. At a preview for the forthcoming Huffington Post Streaming Network, which will stream live 12/7, the news was presented in a breezy, hip style that didn't seem primed for passive consumption. Rather, it begged to be engaged with live, or shared.
Then there's the other side of the divide, with a renaissance in long-form content -- partly because content (supply) is outstripping attention (demand). This is driving an appetite for a break from push notifications and toward analysis, particularly on the iPad and other tablets. Some call this "lean-back media."
One approach is to identify underserved niches and pursue them with gusto via long-form, visual storytelling. This was how the Los Angeles Times' Geoff Boucher has built the Hero Complex into a powerhouse franchise. Hero Complex started out as a blog in 2008, but now it's way more. Last month the L.A. Times announced it has extended the brand into an original program for the Nerdist Channel on YouTube.
The divide seems so wide that most media brands are banking on one style or the other rather than trying an ambidextrous approach.
Unfortunately, marketers don't have the same luxury.
As brands begin to jump deeper into content we should think hard about the psychology of content and how it's discovered in an environment of riches. That may mean we need to be adept in both styles to create the resonance required to stand out in an age with too much content and not enough time.