At Mediabistro Circus, Data Is King but Design Is Differentiator

(Photo: Steve Bartel)

Brandishing a whip and clad in gold lame pants, founder Laurel Touby reprised her ringmistress role as she welcomed hundreds of media types to the second annual Mediabistro Circus, which kicked off today at the TimesCenter in New York City. The theme of this year’s media-meets-technology confab, explained Touby, is “Extraordinary Impact: Do More with Less.” The focus of the doing? Data, data, and more data, according to many of the day’s speakers. But don’t count out design.

“Data is king,” said self-promoter extraordinaire Timothy Ferriss, who lives to generate buzz and deduce ways to prolong visitors’ stays on his many websites. “The big idea, the one big bet favored by Madison Avenue, is not only irrational, it’s also expensive.” For Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek (now in its forty-first printing in the United States, he noted), technology and social media offer ways to constantly analyze, adjust, and re-analyze everything, from how to create a successful blog post (aim for evergreen content, omit dates, people enjoy watching short and ideally incomplete videos about how to peel hard-boiled eggs) to how to sell a book (try for the least crowded-channel: face-to-face communication). Thanks to Google analytics, crowdsourcing, and click patterns, life is one long beta-test.

Where does this leave publishing? In flux, according to “From Gutenberg to Movable Type,” a panel discussion ably moderated by Dan Costa, executive editor of Panelist Eileen Gittins, founder and CEO of Blurb, the self-publishing company, is a believer in the power of branding to best communicate with niche markets. “Gone are the days when you have to guess who your audience is,” she said of Blurb’s print-on-demand model, which eliminates warehousing and adds a new agility to publishing. “Books no longer need to be static things, where you print one—kerplunk—and then maybe come back later with a second edition. Books can now be the starting point of communication.”

Panelist Anil Dash lived up to his title—chief evangelist—at Six Apart, the company behind blogging tools such as TypePad. For him, the key is “empowering the people who are passionate to take something that didn’t exist and make it happen,” even if the media world is still playing catch-up. “You can do a book tour, but you can’t do a blog tour,” said Dash. “It’s only an artifact of the moment in history that that’s true. There’s no reason why a blog shouldn’t be something to promote like a movie or a book.”

When the discussion turned to the thorny issue of how to get paid for online content, Rob Samuels, director of mobile for The New York Times, said that his company continues to evaluate a range of models around user revenue, including premium models that would harken back to the now-defunct TimeSelect scheme. In addition to the Times’ iPhone and Kindle formats, Samuels noted that TimesReader, an Adobe Air-based application that allows users to view the paper online in a format akin to the printed version, has been developed with “a heavy emphasis on design, readibility, and navigation.”

The panelists focused on design late in the discussion in response to an audience question about where design fits into publishing’s next edition. “It’s more important than ever,” said Dash. “I am 100 percent bullish on design as a differentiator. Images are the best advertisement for content.” Samuels agreed, noting that the design process and information architecture are “extremely important.” Gittins, whose company has become a favorite of photographers who want to assemble sleek marketing books or DIY coffee table tomes, went a step further. “Blurb is all about design,” she said. “That’s what we do. That’s what we enable you to do.” She highlighted the company’s sponsorship of The Obama Time Capsule, a personalizable, infographic-laden book created by photojournalist Rick Smolan, in support of her closing point: “We’re becoming more of a visually driven society than a text-driven society.”