Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Tiered Content Model for Academic Writing and Publishing

I offer a tiered content model for academic writing and publishing (based on a concept I've piloted with my online writing and literature courses). It consists of three levels:
  1. Teaser Content (micro-content for a sounding phase)
  2. Trailer Content (mini-presentation for a development phase)
  3. Formal Content (macro-content for a publication phase) 
These should not be understood as three different ways of disseminating the same completed content (as though the teaser and the trailer were merely advertisements for the "real," more formal content). The tiers are a sequential process -- like the drafting process in writing, but absent the isolation of traditional writing.

The essence of this is that content is circulated through social media at each phase; one relies upon feedback from prospective audiences and obtains social proof before moving to more advanced research or formal publishing. In other words, one does not commit to researching or developing ideas for which there is not manifest interest by others, and one cultivates an audience as one cultivates one's ideas.

Here is the model in greater detail:

  1. Teaser Content
    Test your idea by circulating it in highly concise form (one sentence to one short paragraph) within high traffic social media streams (such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) or within appropriate social networks or forums (such as a Ning community). I sometimes call this the "tweethis" phase (crafting and sharing a thesis statement through a tweet). If you don't get any traction on an idea in 140 characters, why spend any more?
  2. Trailer Content
    Having received social proof with one's teaser content, it's worth developing it further in length and complexity (while still keeping the content provisional). Trailer content is like a preview of things to come (not an ad for content already finished), it's a prospectus, a draft. It is knowledge in beta mode -- substantial enough to get people the general idea but not pretending to be finalized or formalized. This could include responding to researched sources of any type, but does not include a complete, coherent laying out of ideas as in traditional, formal publishing. Trailer content may be published on a blog where one may continue to seek feedback and to interact with stakeholders on one's topic.  Trailer content can use teaser content to bring people to these developing ideas (for example, sharing a link to one's blog post on Google+, Facebook, or Twitter).
  3. Formal ContentAfter achieving a critical mass of documented research and meaningful feedback, the writer/researcher pulls his or her thoughts together into a coherent and finished product (such as a formal presentation or publication). This can be "published" either in traditional outlets or as a white paper, etc. Of course, one should notify others about formally published content through less formal means (even though developmental feedback is not being sought).
A Sales Funnel for Ideas
Another way of understanding this tiered content model is in terms of marketing. Traditionally, products have been produced and then, separately, marketed. This commercial aspect has never been part of academic research and writing. But we can learn lessons from online marketing, since in the digital age the "marketplace of ideas" isn't as metaphorical as it used to be. In other words, information about academic ideas flows today in the same way that information about marketed products for sale.

A typical landing page (courtesy
An ad or search takes one to this landing page
which offers more info and a call to action
(providing one's contact info to get more details)
Online marketing follows a tiered content model (though perhaps more properly termed a tiered attention model) that is often referred to as a sales funnel. Each phase or stage prepares the potential customer to a higher level of engagement and invites them to commit to that next level through a call to action:
  1. Advertisement (microcontent that teases the interest of the prospective customer. The call to action is to click on the ad for more info.)
  2. Landing page (mini-content tailored to those who have clicked on online ads, often consisting of short videos or other mini-presentations to get prospective customers to follow the next call to action.
  3. Sale
While academic writers do not seek sales, they do seek to "sell" their ideas, and so if they mean to get broader exposure than is available through the highly limited marketing of a traditional journal or publisher, they would do well to prepare their content for how attention flows online today. Hence, they must learn to create and circulate micro content (a "teaser") to test their ideas; they must learn to make interim presentations of their in-process work (a "trailer," like a movie trailer); and they must use each of these two initial tiers to lead potential audiences toward their more complete and finished knowledge products. It's a funnel, too, if not as formal as a sales funnel.

Will it work?
I don't think that academic traditionalists will bite on this new model. To them it seems backward to publish before you finish making your finalized content, but they are working from an isolation model of knowledge that is out of sync with today's networked knowledge environment. And sadly, too many remain trapped within the concept that quality control happens only once and through a limited system of special gatekeepers (editors, peer reviewers). Traditional academics do not think it is not their job to appeal directly to or to interact directly with potential stakeholders in their ideas. But I have argued elsewhere that it is more fitting for academics to be public intellectuals. I think this tiered content model would help make that a reality for those that catch the vision.

I have more faith that my students will intuitively grasp and seriously attempt this model. They are already sharing ideas regularly online -- maybe not academic ones, but they understand the rhythm of quickly sharing and responding to informal ideas. From there, it's a matter of more consciously moving things from the chatty and casual level of the status update conversation to more developed kinds of content.

I also think that this tiered content model could help rescue people from being stuck in the shallows of ideas. A great deal of online conversation lacks coherence and is fragmented and inconsistently valuable. The trick is to recognize different levels and audiences of conversation and to advance to more developed and formal research and writing. I hope this model gives students a sense of the value of each tier of content.

My questions
My tiered content model is a tentative idea -- I'm following phase two of this model, having circulated this idea in a briefer, less formal way, and now I'm spelling it out in greater length in order to gain another round of feedback. As I've been writing, I've generated questions for myself:

  • Can't "teaser content" be offline, in-person discussions?
  • How much social proof is needed at each stage? When do you sense an adequate level of investment or importance to one's ideas (How do I know I'm not flattering myself that many others will find my idea worthwhile if only two or three have so far)?
  • What about other media? Can't ideas be tested by circulating as a sketch on a napkin, a chart or picture? Could a trailer actually be a one-minute video, for example?
  • What constitutes "formal" content? Only traditional genres of publication (books, articles)? Does this mean returning to a gate-keeping model of knowledge production?
What do you think of the tiered content model for academic knowledge?

1 comment:

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    their “other motives” subtly frame their writing. (When they join, contributors are required to disclose to Forbes, in writing, any
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