Zen and the Art of Content Maintenance

River Rocks


How do you define quality content?

  • Ask a movie studio or a television executive, and you may hear something like this: “Quality content is that which attracts the biggest audience.” In other words, the content itself matters less than the number of people who consume it. This attitude certainly accounts for much of reality television.
  • Ask a subject-matter expert, and you may find yourself on the receiving end of a fount of knowledge. These folks might say, “Quality content is in-depth, technical, and comprehensive.”
  • Ask a marketing practitioner, and the answer may sound more like “Quality content is that which moves people to take a desired action, like buy, subscribe, or share a link.”
  • Ask a technical writer, and the response might be “Quality content simplifies the complex, transferring knowledge to the audience.” These content creators want to teach something – popularity be damned.

When it comes to creating quality content in our businesses, many of us increasingly face tension between the romantic idea of popularity on the one hand – views, clicks, positive comments, shares, etc. – and, on the other, a depth of substance that some people in the audience may find inaccessible. In other words, if we define content quality in terms of its substance, won’t we have to settle for less popularity? Isn’t this the inherent tension between journalistic content and content produced by a brand?

If we define quality one way, we may find ourselves always chasing after blockbusters. If we define it another way, we may find ourselves always settling for creating the equivalent of critically acclaimed movies that few people see.

Where Is The Quality?

The tension between popularity and substance reminds me of one of the many great ideas in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book, among other things, highlights the folly of defining quality in terms of just one thing. What would it mean to talk about a quality motorcycle ride? It is not as simple as the romantic appeal of being in the moment, enjoying the wind in our hair as we fly along the highway. This romantic aspect of motorcycle riding may be what makes it popular, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The motorcycle must be kept in great shape—greased and oiled and other unromantic things that require deep knowledge and practical behind-the-scenes analysis and expertise. As the author, Robert Pirsig, says, “Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.”

You can’t have a quality ride on a motorcycle that hasn’t been properly maintained. At the same time, without understanding the joy of riding, there is no purpose to maintaining the motorcycle. A zen approach – nondualistic thinking – is called for. Quality isn’t either-or.

The choice between popularity and substance is a false choice.

Think about content quality in motorcycle terms. The content you create becomes part of the audience’s experience: the ride, let’s say. If you want people to have an outstanding ride – the kind that leaves bugs on their teeth – you have to care about clicks, views, comments, and shares (because that’s how you know they had a great experience and that’s how more people get to have it). At the same time, you have to care about delivering sufficient depth, breadth, and accuracy (because that’s what makes the experience outstanding in the first place).

Here’s another way to say it. If you aren’t interested in appealing to as wide an audience as is practical, you have no reason to pursue depth or substance. Conversely, if you aren’t willing to deliver appropriate depth and substance, your content won’t reach as wide an audience as you might like.

What kind of ride are you giving your audience? How do you know? Is your content due for a quality tune-up? If so, how will you define quality?

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